When I was a teenager, my parents became Amway distributors. This was an interesting turn of events, especially for my father who was a dedicated college professor on the weekdays and a pro-worthy golfer on the weekends. I’m not entirely sure what inspired this shift, but they were good at it. Dad put his exceptional teaching talents to work training new distributors, and mom’s characteristic hospitality found a new outlet. The energy was good. People were excited to be a part of this enterprise my folks were building.

In no time, our quiet household changed. We went from eating dinner in front of the television set every evening to hosting product demonstrations in our family room two or three nights a week. My first job was stocking inventory and delivering products to a growing list of customers. And the travel! We attended conferences and training seminars in exciting places like San Diego, Palm Springs and Honolulu. Of course, teenage girl that I was, I spent most of my time lounging at the pool while my parents attended meetings.

After all this time, you’ll still find Amway products in my laundry room cupboards. Old habits die hard. But after more than four decades, it’s the tapes that have stuck with me most—the inspirational tapes. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. You name it, if it encouraged, stirred, or boosted confidence, dad had it on tape.

Instead of listening to FM radio in the car like normal families, we listened to tapes. While washing the dinner dishes or weeding the backyard, we listened to tapes. We listened to motivational tapes on the way to meetings where motivational speakers were taping motivational tapes. What had once been an impressive vinyl collection of mid-century recording artists gave way to a hall-of-fame tape library featuring the likes of Zig Ziglar, Og Mandino, W. Clement Stone, and Robert Schuller. In my tender formative years, I was saturated with positive thinking.

Which is to say, for more than 40 years, I have been driven by the tape in my head that whispers aphorisms like, “With enough effort, you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to,” or “It’s always too early to quit,” and a personal favorite, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” These tidbits from my youth still ring true, but over time, I’ve come to understand there’s more to the story. Even positive thinking has its limits, which surprisingly opens new and deeper possibilities.

About the time my parents started selling soap, Madison Avenue was tapping into the self-absorbed “Me” generation with catchy slogans for everything from life insurance to cat chow. The McDonald’s jingle, “You deserve a break today,” for example. It absolved a growing number of dual-income families—burned out but with cash to burn—of any potential guilt attached to a fast-food dinner of burgers and fries. And when “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” became the anthem of a generation unfettered by limits, Alka Seltzer had the solution.

But it was a perfume ad with a provocative message that captivated me and most of my impressionable girlfriends at the time. The “I’m a Woman” commercial featured an attractive, successful working woman singing, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never let you forget you’re a man. Cause I’m a woman.” There it was, proof that you could have it all. With the right attitude (and cologne), you could be successful at everything! A career girl, attentive mother, alluring wife—a package deal. What a time to be alive.

Except, that stunning archetype was more myth than truth. The physical world has limits after all, no matter how finely polished our positive attitude or well-ordered our career and family ambitions. Burning the midnight oil works for a while, but in the end, we need sleep, food and water to function. Time and finances are governed by the principles of scarcity, so choices must be made. And with each passing year, our bodies diminish incrementally along with our best laid plans. Some things get left undone. This ought not shock or amaze us; we are human, after all. Yet, we long to believe the myth, even as it distracts us from claiming the good gifts God has in mind within his providential boundaries.

The psalmist writes, “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:5–6 NIV)

So why do we resist these boundary lines? Why don’t we recognize our delightful inheritance? And why instead are we compelled to strive for something more, for greener grass rather than our own God-provided pleasant places? I suppose for many years—clinging to my positive-thinking infused narrative, reinforced by decades of cultural prodding—I joined the throng and believed that striving was the better alternative to settling. You don’t get ahead in life unless you’re on the move, scaling new heights, knocking down roadblocks, running the race with determination. But is it really a binary option—striving or settling?

In her book The Gift of Limitations: Finding Beauty in Your Boundaries, Sara Hagerty adjusts the lens and disrupts that thinking.[i] What if God’s carefully orchestrated limitations actually allow us to soar, to know him well, and to experience the contentment our hearts long to find?

Of the Psalm 16 life, Hagerty writes, “We want to feel this, to know this, to claim it as true for our hearts, but many of us subconsciously feel disappointed with our portion, our lots. We don’t like the limits God has given us.” She adds, “The limitations God gives us can feel punitive and disruptive, out of time and deaf to our desires and dreams. Or they can feel light and caring, needed and deeply refreshing.”

To make her case, Hagerty uses a fence motif to explore the limitations we resent or work fiercely to overcome. She acknowledges that most of us see our fence lines as a sort of captivity. But instead of seeing the fence as a marker of what isn’t, what we can’t have, what we can’t do, or what is out of reach, Hagerty encourages readers to view the fence as a signpost—a signpost that directs our attention toward what is inside. There, we will find something worthy of staying.

We can bloom brightly right where we are planted if we trust the fence builder. I began to understand this truth when we moved our young family to Paris for a few years. I’ll admit, Paris is not a bad fence line, but the transition was difficult and sometimes unsettling just the same. My marginal language skills made communication difficult. I had to learn to navigate a big city, a foreign culture, and unfamiliar customs. With the girls in school and my husband working 10-hour days, I often felt lonely and out of place. Moreover, while I tackled the French metro, frequent worker strikes, and aloof neighbors, friends back home were making great strides in their careers while mine was on sabbatical.

Those early months in Paris, I had what Hagerty describes as low-grade dissatisfaction. “The temptation when we’re faced with a life that isn’t matching our ideals is to lose the ability to live in what’s real, and instead, to imbibe discontentment,” she writes. When you can’t move the fence posts, it’s easy to become bitter.

Rather than dismiss the bitterness, it’s better to name it. Observe it. And then drop it on God’s doorstep. “If we don’t name limits,” writes Hagerty, “we live captive to them, our attention continually averted from how He wants to meet us within the boundaried life to what we just can’t have.” In the early months, I desperately wanted out of that fenced-in Paris existence, and I let God know about it. I invited Him into that place—that lonely, angry, frustrated place. He didn’t move the fence posts, but he did move my heart.

We stayed in France just under two years, but when it was time to go, I was the one who wanted to stay. I had found a rhythm in that fenced-in Parisian garden God had provided. I took French lessons, indulged my appetite for European history, and explored the textile and embroidery shops in and around France. We traveled, and my girls were exposed to places and ideas my friends back home could only dream about as they charged forward in their careers. These were some of the unexpected blessings that were revealed once I was able to relinquish—as Hagerty describes it—my tightfisted grip on the limitless life I had envisioned.

My professional sabbatical ended when we left Paris, as did my original career hopes. Two years examining the fence line pointed me in directions I would not have considered and could not have appreciated otherwise.

And here is a nod to God’s whimsical character: More than 20 years since bidding adieu to my Paris fence line, God uses me and that experience to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students here in the U.S. Even now, God uses my tears and frustrations, my limitations and low-grade dissatisfaction from decades past to pour into others who find themselves anxious and wanting to move their own fence posts. In between grammar, idioms, and vocabulary, I try to infuse some of Hagerty’s parting wisdom: “Untold amounts of energy spent studying the fence lines of our lives and how to circumvent them steals the real pursuit of exploring God and His story written and unfolding inside of us.”

I don’t believe any systemic damage came from listening to my dad’s motivational tapes ad nauseam. Yet, looking back, I wish the positive mental attitude messages had been peppered with a few more fully developed God-messages. A lot of credence was given, for example, to Philippians 4:13—I can do all things through him who strengthens me (ESV). As a teenager, this became my superpower verse, the one to recite before a calculus exam or when preparing to sing a church solo. Later, as life’s opportunities, losses, and disappointments grew more challenging, Philippians 4:13 remained an important anchor verse.

Still, the truth is we don’t have superpowers. In union with Christ, we find our strength in life’s difficult moments, but there will be trials, bad days, hard years, heartbreaks. Someone else will get that perfect job. The test results will confirm a cancer diagnosis. The prodigal son or daughter still has not returned. A well-tended positive attitude is not enough. We need the strength of Philippians 4:13 every day, and it is available to us.

But it wasn’t until many years later (okay, maybe it was last year) that I fixed my attention on the preceding verse, Philippians 4:12—I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

I’m still letting that one sink in, but I believe it starts with a willingness to acknowledge our own limitations, to assess them with intentionality. To name them. And to let God know how we feel about them. I suspect only then can we know what to do with those limitations. Some are meant to be overcome. Others we learn to accommodate. A few, we need God’s grace to accept.

In general, I think we humans are desperate to understand the secret of contentment that Paul describes. Here in the U.S. at least, the alternative seems to be the adoption of a Mick Jagger view of life: Americans can’t get no satisfaction. Or at least, the threshold is lower than it has been in years. According to a Gallup Poll released earlier this year, less than half (47%) of U.S. adults are very satisfied with their own personal lives.[ii]

The statistic is rather astounding considering the United States, by most measures, is among the most prosperous nations in all of human history. The pursuit of happiness is even enshrined in our founding documents. Contentment, satisfaction, happiness. Why are these so elusive for so many of us? If culture persists in telling us we can have it all, why then are we not a happier lot?

Arthur C. Brooks makes a living studying the science of happiness. He teaches courses in leadership, happiness, and social entrepreneurship at the Harvard Kennedy School and pens the popular “How to Build a Life” column at The Atlantic. In a recent conversation with The Trinity Forum, Brooks discussed happiness as a social science concept, saying,  “Happiness is made up of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. If you don’t have them in abundance and in balance, you won’t feel happy about your life.” He adds, “If you boil down all the research articles, you’ll find the happiest people pursue four things every day: faith, family, friendship, and work that serves others.”[iii]

Recently, Brooks teamed up with Oprah Winfrey to develop this theme more fully in the 2023 bestseller, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier.[iv] Reminiscent of those motivational books of my youth, Build the Life You Want makes a nice segue from Hagerty’s thesis on limitations by offering practical applications for cultivating contentment within our spheres of influence.

Build the Life You Want is not a spiritual book per se, any more than The Power of Positive Thinking would have fit that category back in my Amway days. The first section leans heavily on cutting-edge neuroscience, modern psychology, and ancient philosophers to examine many of the same themes that Hagerty explores. On managing emotions, for example, Brooks and Winfrey write, “Your emotions are signals to your conscious brain that something is going on that requires your attention and action…your conscious brain, if you choose to use it, gets to decide how you will respond to them.”

This assessment parallel’s Hagerty’s own discussion about acknowledging and naming our limits as a first step to responding to them. For Hagerty, self-examination without God’s grace at the center generally comes up short. She cautions, “There is a thin line between strategies for improvement and strategies that disrupt the life God has placed us in.”

In that regard, Brooks and Winfrey offer up many lessons in the pursuit of happiness that are consistent with biblical teaching, such as practicing gratitude, choosing hope, and extending compassion. Their chapter entitled, “Focus Less on Yourself,” is the essence of Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

By Brooks and Winfrey’s calculus, attention to emotional self-management is the first step toward a happier life. Brooks writes, “When we have the tools to manage our emotions, the world’s baubles and time-wasters no longer attract us so much,” and we create space to pursue the four big happiness pillars referenced earlier: family, friendship, work and faith.

The second half of Build the Life You Want is devoted to relationship building. “Our lives are spent in connection—to other people, to our work, to nature and the divine,” writes Winfrey. “The more we do to improve those connections, the better off we are.” Here again, Brooks and Winfrey lean into science and research to tackle a range of challenging relationship-related topics such as dating, compatibility, forgiveness, dishonesty, and workaholism.

Both authors share that spirituality and faith are central to their lives. Brooks writes that his Catholic faith ” is the most important part” of his life, even as he actively studies and learns from other faith traditions. Winfrey also practices the Christian faith but “remains open to the mystery of all connections, to the oneness we all share coming from the source of all existence.” As with the motivational tapes and books of earlier days, I can’t help but wish Build the Life You Want was peppered with a few more fully developed God-messages among the well-researched and useful nuggets.

In the pursuit of a happier life—the search for contentment despite limitations—Hagerty, Brooks and Winfrey, and countless others through the ages have offered wisdom and insight. They have supplied useful anecdotes, distilled complicated theories, and offered inspiration that points us in the proper direction.

When it comes to that contentment described by Paul—hungry or fed, in plenty or want—I believe the secret lies less in research, science, or positive thinking and flourishes more fully in Scripture, sealed in prayer, and surrendered to God.

Hagerty ends each chapter with a collection of Scripture for readers who want to dig deeper and trace what they have read back to God’s truth. I will follow her lead, and suggest the following curated verses as a starting point toward claiming authentic contentment in a world where we, quite simply, can’t have it all:

I see the limits to everything human, but the horizons can’t contain your commands!” (Psalm 119:96 MSG)

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30 NIV)

And Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:26-27 ESV)

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2 NIV)

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV)

[i] Sara Hagerty, The Gift of Limitations: Finding Beauty in Your Boundaries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Books, 2024).

[ii] Megan Brenan, “Less Than Half of Americans ‘Very Satisfied’ With Own Lives,” Gallup, February 8, 2024, https://news.gallup.com/poll/610133/less-half-americans-satisfied-own-lives.aspx.

[iii] Arthur C. Brooks, “Online Conversation: Strength in the Second Half with Arthur Brooks,” interview by Cherie Harder. The Trinity Forum, February 25, 2022, https://www.ttf.org/?portfolio=online-conversation-strength-in-the-second-half-with-arthur-brooks.

[iv] Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2023).

Erin Rodewald is a published writer, editor and communications strategist based in Northern Virginia. Her topics include civil society, community engagement, international religious freedom, and foreign policy. She is the author of the Writing for the Public Square blog. Erin holds a Masters of Public Policy from Pepperdine University. You can follower her on Twitter at @EDRodewald.

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