Happiness

May 26, 2004 | 23 comments
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We Latter-day Saints often talk about the blessings that come from being a member of the Church. Occasionally that talk bothers me because I think it too often overlooks the importance of worship: as God’s children, we have a covenant obligation not only to obey (so that we can live the happy life), but also to worship, to adore, to commune. Though his purposes are to bring about our eternal life, a fact that it is important for us to know, it is not our only purpose. In spite of those qualms, however, I want to think about what happiness means for us and how we talk with or think about happy people outside the Church.

Let me start by denying any too-easy distinction joy and happiness. Joy is the happiness that is intended for us; other states of existence than that intended may indeed by happy, but our faith is that the difference between them and joy is “only” that the latter will turn out not to have been happiness in the long run. But without that faith, the two are indistinguishable.

One of my very good friends is an atheist. He is also a happy man, with a good family and a good job, living in pleasant circumstances. I doubt that I can tempt him to consider taking the missionary discussions by suggesting that he would be happier if he were LDS. In fact, there are reasons to believe that in this world he would be less, not more, happy. Perhaps his wife and children would come with him into the Church, but it is unlikely his mother would, and that difference would almost certainly be a sore spot between them. The same happiness can be found in many agnostics and, certainly, among many who practice other religions, Christian or otherwise. Some of the happiest, most serene people I’ve known were Buddhist monks. And it certainly isn’t true that those who have left the Church, whether through a conscious choice, through the action of a Church disciplinary council, or just by gradually moving outside its circle, are necessarily unhappy. (Of course, there are some very bitter former Saints, but there are also many who are happy, not only happy that they are no longer part of the Church, but happy overall.)

How do I explain the importance of the Church in my life to such happy people? How do I persuade them to think that the Church is something desirable for them? Answering that would almost certainly involve deciding what it means to say that I am happy.

I know that I am happy. I take great pleasure in my life. I am married to someone with whom I continue to have an exciting relationship. I have four children who are each successful and happy, and of whom I am very proud, not least of all because they have blessed us with seven grandchildren. I work at a job that I think everyone should envy. They don’t, but that’s not important. It is only important that for me it is that kind of job. I am not wealthy, but I live comfortably, and my job allows me luxuries that we usually think available only to the wealthy—such as regular trips to Italy, France, and Belgium. I’m sitting at a computer in my home office surrounded by my books and various artefacts that remind of who I am, where I came from, whom I’ve encountered, . . . . all things that make me happy. I can easily talk about LDS and other ideas with colleagues at work and with students, and I enjoy doing so. I don’t kid myself that this is the only country in the world in which I could live happily. I’ve lived in a number of other countries and was happy then. I could have remained in any of them without difficulty and, more than once, considered doing so. Nevertheless, I love the country in which I live and I appreciate the enormous privileges and advantages it gives me.

But in spite of the fact that I know I am happy, I don’t know what I mean when I say that. Do I just mean that I live, on the whole, a life of more pleasure rather than less? It seems like there should be more to it than that, but it isn’t easy to put my finger on what more there is. Is it the serenity I feel, a serenity that I have felt even in the midst of oppression and trial? Or is serenity something else?

So, what do we mean when we say that we are happy, and how do we talk about the Church with happy people?

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23 Responses to Happiness

  1. David King Landrith on May 27, 2004 at 3:33 am

    Many activities may lead to happiness that do not themselves (necessarily) involve happiness. An easy example of this is dieting. Also, we can be happier after a busy weekend of yard work and church meetings than if we simply slept in and watched televised athletic contests. At the same time, there are many enjoyable activities that do not necessarily entail happiness; e.g., smoking, drinking, or even eating a tasty meal.

    So perhaps when we say that being Mormon makes us happy, we mean two things. First, that worship and obedience as activities are productive of happiness (maybe uniquely so), though they may not themselves be happy practices. Second, that our church’s standards and practices make us less likely to displace activities that produce happiness with activities that are merely enjoyable.

    Having now expressed this and re-read it, it sounds pretty much like the party line, and it may even be a bit trite (e.g., it skirts the issue of whether happiness is always real and whether one can tell the difference). And it either takes happiness as an undefined primitive or it begs the question.

  2. Nate Oman on May 27, 2004 at 11:24 am

    Jim: I have been struggling with a similar problem of late, trying to get a handle on the concept of welfare or well-being as used by various utilitarians, welfare economists, etc.

    It seems that we have a couple of ways of understanding happiness:

    1. Getting what you want.
    2. A particular subjective state.
    3. Conforming one’s life to some model of happiness.

    I suspect that what Mormons mean when they talk about happiness is the convergence of all of these things. We live according to God’s way, which is what we want to do, and it results in a particular subjective state. However, one can very easily disaggregate the concept so that you satisfy perhaps only one or two concepts. I suspect that something like this is behind the happiness of those not following the Gospel or the unhappiness of those that are following the Gospel. The problem then becomes that our appeal happiness often turns out to be an appeal to something else, e.g. you can now be subjectively happy, content, etc. AND you can be following God’s way. You are not really arguing for happiness at all, but rather for following God’s way. At best, you are presenting happiness as some sort of unity of subjective state, satisfied desires, and conformity to divine pattern (and who knows what elses). Perhaps this unity is what we mean by “true happiness” and similar phrases. But in this context it seems that the qualifier “true” means something like “not quite” or “similar to but different than.”

  3. D. Fletcher on May 27, 2004 at 11:56 am

    I think that defining a state of mind such as happiness is elusive and somewhat self-defeating. It will be subjective and personal to everyone, and it will change often even to single individuals. It may be that happiness is strictly controlled by chemicals in our brains.

    I do find it ironic in our Church that we suggest joy is for everyone, but at the same time suggest that mortal life is miserable, but blessings will come in the next life. The Church, like everything else in the world, provides happiness for some, and pain and stress for others. Some will find happiness here because they came from pain and stress, and were looking for relief. Others will look for relief from the pain and stress of living within the Church.

    There does seem to be a pattern of stress and relief, stress and relief. Even too much “happiness” can be stressful, because it isn’t motivating, but rather stopping progress in its tracks.

    I suggest that happiness is simply relief from stress and pain, that really only lasts a moment, and only should.

    As to happiness in the next life, it’s impossible for us to gauge, being so used to this life with our model of stress and relief. Will there be no stress in the next life? Hard to imagine.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on May 27, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    Nate, your break-down is interesting. Certainly, it demonstrates that there is a profound confusion in how we use the word “happiness.” For instance, take your number 3: one way of “understanding happiness” is to live a life that conforms to “some model of happiness.” Of course, that’s tautological; it defines nothing. Obviously, as you suggest, what that model actually consists of is living “according to God’s way” or a “divine pattern.” Presumably such a pattern is God’s, is divine, because God, who is divine, declared it to be so. Which would mean that if living as God wants us to live is a route to “happiness,” it is such not because there happens to be a state called “happiness” which God happens knows the route to, but because He declared it to be a happy route.

    I strongly suspect that when Lehi talked about our existence as a means to “joy,” he didn’t have anything like what we usually call happiness in this modern era. Jacob, if the Book of Mormon is an even remotely accurate scriptural record, was by no stretch of the imagination a happy man. Given Jacob’s own understanding of his eternal destiny, as he is presumed to have recorded it anyway, that fact that he wasn’t happy seemed to have no impact on his standing before God whatsoever. I take that to mean that happiness, in the modern sense (good job, material security, pride in one’s work, loving spouse, healthy children, hope for the future, etc.) is not especially high on the list of things God cares about. In other words, I’m not sure talking about how the blessings of the gospel can make you happy isn’t profoundly misleading.

    Of course, there is also the statement by Joseph Smith (assuming the record is accurate) that “happiness is the object and design of our existence,” and he clearly mean that at least in part to refer to our feelings and our mortal condition. So obviously Smith himself, at least, thought there was some utilitarian gain from living the gospel.

  5. Julie in Austin on May 27, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Perhaps this is facile, and in any case it only addresses part of the problem, but:

    as a teenage non-member I did my share of lying, etc. It causes a great deal of stress to try to remember exactly where you told your parents you were, and with whom, etc., when it is all out of whole cloth.

    Maybe part of what we mean by being happy is that we aren’t expending this mental energy to remember which story we told the boss, etc. We aren’t worried that the spouse will find out about our infidelity, etc.

    I guess I am defining happiness (again, only in part) as brought about by the lack of stress that accompanies sinful behavior.

    I also have to note that right now, a state of happiness that has laster almost three years causes me no end of stress, because I am worried about what might happen to end it. If I didn’t believe that one of the reasons I am here is to be tried and tested, I probably wouldn’t ‘expect’ hard things to happen and could relax and enjoy my happiness.

  6. Kingsley on May 27, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    I have a friend who recently left his wife after committing adultery. He moved to another state with his new lover, leaving “all that” (family, Church, etc.) behind him. He was quite surprised to find that he didn’t feel especially sorrowful about his decisions. On the contrary, he was feeling “real peace for the first time.” In retrospect, all those years of Church activity & fatherly responsibility were a laborious nightmare, & now that he did what he wanted when he wanted, real life, the good life, had begun. Back in the day I might have doubted his story & suspected him of rationalizing & suppressing his true feelings, but the fact that I have had similar experiences leads me to take him at his word. I have never been married, but I did leave the Church for a long while & came to the brink of having my name excised from the records. Like my friend, I felt “real peace for the first time” during my self-imposed exile, & wasn’t particularly troubled by guilt. I didn’t feel unhappy at all. This highlights the problem of focusing primarily on feelings as key evidence for the rightness or unrightness of something. If sin was never pleasurable we’d always avoid it. If righteousness was always pleasurable we’d never avoid it. There has to be something more inflexible than pleasant emotions tethering you to the Church & Kingdom, because there are other providers of pleasant emotions in existence, & often they’re more consistent providers than people suspect.

  7. Gary Cooper on May 27, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    There are any number of things, ways of living, activities, states of mind an/or being, associations, etc., that may bring me a measure of happiness, here in mortality. But, D&C 132, in speaking of the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, makes it clear than none of these things will last beyond the grave, if they are outside of God’s covenant. This is the rub: true happiness, even JOY, involves the *surety* that that our happiness will last with us, and be enhanced, FOREVER.

    Unfortunately, the happiness we can enjoy in this life that is outside God’s covenant does not carry this assurance. The happiness is real, but it is not everlasting. On the other hand, the happiness of the Gospel, even though much of its realization may be deferred beyond mortality (I’m thinking of Jacob in the BoM, or better still Mormon and Moroni at the end of the BoM), will last, and be endhanced FOREVER— never ending. So when other’s ask, “Hey, I’m happy too. What makes your happiness different?”, the easy answer is “I know I can take my happiness with me beyond the grave, forever”. Yet, still, I don’t think this really says it all.

    Joseph Smith once said that the Gospel was all about friendship. I, as you Jim, see others that are seemingly happy, without the Gospel elements I enjoy. But, what about those who are *not* happy? If the Gospel teaches anything, it is that God expects us to *not* be content with our own happiness, but that we are *expected* to seek the happiness of others, and not just our own circle of family and friends. So, we could say to those outside the Gospel, “Yes, I see that you are happy. I am too. But, that isn’t enough for me. I see others who are not happy, who are miserable even. What about them? The Restored Gospel reminds me of these people, and empowers me to help them, too, in ways I could not without the Gospel.”

    The problem, as I see it, is that this is a “good” answer, even the “correct” one, DO WE REALLY MEAN THIS, IF AND WHEN WE SAY IT? Do we *really* care about others, and if we don’t what does that really say about the “everlasting” nature of our LDS happiness? Might that happiness be more short-lived than we realize, if in fact we are selfish people, living off of God’s goodness to us, but really not acting as His people? Ouch….

  8. dan w on May 27, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    Do we not sometimes fall prey, in all our talks of happiness, of turning the gospel into a means to the end (i.e., happiness). I often get the message at church that we worship God because it makes us happy, and not because he is worthy of worshipping. In the end, it seems like the glory of the gospel is deglorified into something neat that makes me happy.
    I don’t think that prolonging that happiness to extend beyond the grave improves the argument any. Would not God still be worthy of our worship and devotion if heaven were an incredibly unhappy place?

  9. Gary Lee on May 27, 2004 at 11:53 pm

    Would God be worthy of worship is heaven were and incredibly unhappy place? No. Why would we worship a being who consigns the faithful to eternal misery?

  10. Gary Lee on May 27, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    Would God be worthy of worship if heaven is an incredibly unhappy place? No. Why would we worship a being who consigns the faithful to eternal misery?

  11. Ben Huff on May 28, 2004 at 9:57 pm

    I think I’m with Thomas Aquinas on this, and I say joy is acting from love, or at least this is a rather important kind of joy. Love can bring sorrow as well as happiness, and if our Father’s life is any example, we should plan on a lot of sorrow in the hereafter, as well as a lot of happiness. I think there is a something in the right kind of sorrow that I want to call joyful –er, that sounds impossible and kind of wrong, but I want to say something like that.

    I’m thinking of Enoch: “the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned” (Moses 7:41). There is something exalting in godly sorrow, and I think I’ve felt a bit here and there, and it felt good in a weird sort of way, well, it felt true perhaps, more true than some other ways I could have felt.

    In this passage Enoch gets a little taste of what it’s like to be God. Of course there’s some more conventional rejoicing a few verses later when he is reminded of the redemption Christ makes possible, but when God was letting Enoch in on his world, he let him feel the depth of the sorrow before he balanced it by reminding him of the joy-er-happiness? of the redemption — and, well, surely Enoch’s rejoicing at the redemption was a wholly different experience after appreciating the depth of God’s sorrow first. It is from that wickedness and misery that so moved him that the redemption redeems!

    I think lots of people are happy without the gospel, happy in their own lives, and many of these are involved in some other people’s lives too in a good way. Of course Julie is right that sin carries with it misery, and part of what the gospel does is free us from that misery. But I have atheist friends who live pretty sin-free! My atheist buddy Peter has a glass of wine with dinner pretty often, and doesn’t go to church or anything, but he is raising two beautiful children with his sweet Catholic wife and really is very conscientious and an all-around wonderful guy. I think what people like him stand to gain from the gospel is basically what Gary Cooper said, a serious involvement in the plan of redemption, which largely means we work for other people’s redemption (and happiness), tho we certainly realize in the process how much more growing there is left for us to do as well. A big part of why this work is not attractive is all the trouble and work and pain (and annoyance and boredom) and sorrow involved. But I do think there is a deeper joy and a more expansive happiness to be found in it as well. People who are happy without the gospel may be genuinely happy, but not as happy, and not as joyful as they could be. They need their hearts stretched : )

    Whaddya think?

  12. Jim F. on May 29, 2004 at 1:57 am

    For several reasons, I spent a lot of time thinking about this before posting and a lot of time thinking about it since. The first part of Ben Huff’s post comes closest to what I think I’ve come to think in the last day or so: the Gospel is about love, not happiness. That isn’t to say that there is no connection between the two, but it is to say that love, not happiness is the basic fact and goal. The Atonement is an expression of divine love, not an expression of Christ’s desire for happiness. To be a Christian is to accept that love and to emulate it.

    My experience (not recent) has been that in the midst of what seems like insurmountable emotional and spiritual pain, the promise of God’s love is what brings solace and strength, not the promise of happiness. As Socrates argues in the _Phaedo_ and as Lehi preached at a hundred or two years before Socrates, happiness comes and goes because it cannot be untied from pain. But the love of and for God, and the love of and for others does not come and go. Love remains through the gyre of happiness and unhappiness.

    So I think what I mean when I say that the Gospel brings happiness is that it brings the assurance of the constancy of love. And I think that is what I can say, should the proper occasion arise, to my happy but unbelieving friends.

  13. Ben Huff on May 29, 2004 at 11:34 pm

    Jim, why did you have to ask about this right now? I’m supposed to be *writing* about happiness, not *thinking* about it! The last thing I need is to change my mind two-thirds of the way through my dissertation! : )

  14. Adam Greenwood on May 31, 2004 at 12:00 am

    Only amateurs ‘change their mind’, Ben H. You’ll never be a true academic until you master the art of ‘arriving at more nuanced understandings’ and ‘gradually complexifying the answers through the course of the discussion.’

  15. Jack on May 31, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    Jim, I think the distinction you make between love and happiness is important. However, I think the thrust of the gospel is in securing loving relationships (and maybe you’re implying this) not love itself. In the end, we want *people* because we love them. The worst hell I can imagine would be the cutting off of all loving relationships.

  16. greenfrog on May 31, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Jim F,

    Does the valuation of love distinguish you from the friends and acquaintances to whom you referred in your original post?

  17. Jim F. on June 1, 2004 at 1:50 am

    Ben: I had to ask this right now because it is a question that has come up in more than one context lately. I doubt that you’ll have any difficulty coming to your conclusion, no matter what I ramble about. (And don’t listen to Adam. He’s telling an important academic secret, but it isn’t every academic’s secret.)

    Jack: I don’t know what love means if it doesn’t mean loving someone, so I don’t think that adding “relationships” to “love” changes anything.

    Greenfrog: Excellent question, to which I’m not sure of the answer. But I think it does. The love of God is something to which I have access in this life and it gives a substance to my life that I think is not in my friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. But I don’t want to be facile about their lives. The point is not that they aren’t happy or that they don’t experience love. The point is that the understanding that God has given his life for me changes the way I live in the world.

    For example, I think it changes the way I understand my relation to my children. In fact, I think it helps me understand that, though my relation to them is a happy relation, that happiness isn’t the point of the relation. If I love them, then I love them even if they were to make me unhappy, just as God loves me. And, just as he waits for me, I would wait for them.

    The “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which one of my teachers rightly, I think, argued should be called the “Parable of the Man who had Two Sons,” is about that love. It is both a lesson to those who are Pharisees (like the elder son) and to those who are prodigal (like the younger son). Some days I’m a prodigal. On others I’m a Pharisee. On still others, I find myself in the position of the father, waiting for someone whom I love (whether as blood relation or friend) to return.

  18. Jack on June 1, 2004 at 3:31 am

    Jim, I was thinking more along the lines of what it is about the Gospel that makes love meaningful. I agree that the Gospel is about love in the sense that because of it we can find fulfillment in love. I think the basic purpose of the gospel is at-one-ment without which love cannot be complete. The good news is that because of the Savior’s atonement there’s a way for love to be fully expressed.

  19. Jack on June 1, 2004 at 3:41 am

    Jim this is a great post. I hope I’m not just straining at a gnat.

  20. greenfrog on June 1, 2004 at 11:25 am

    One aspect of what we refer to as love includes the idea of possession, sometimes exclusive possession.

    Does that variety of love play into this discussion?

  21. Gary Cooper on June 1, 2004 at 12:32 pm

    greenfrog,

    Yep, I think the idea of “possession” or “ownership” does play a role here. Clearly, we as members tend to *think* in terms of “If I continue faithful, my spouse and children will become truly mine in the celestial kingdom,” when in fact what we *mean* by that is “this *love* I experience with my spouse and children can truly be made everlasting, truly mine, if I continue faithful.” This is just the most obvious example I can think of. I think this “ownership” aspect is probably the primary motivator for most members at any given time; it certainly was for me for most of my church membership, and only in recent years have I begun to see other motivating factors in my Gospel walk besides this.

    Numerous statements from Church leaders seem to back this up, this idea of the “happiness” we expereince in mortality being “on loan”, or a form of stewardship, that we cannot claim as truly *ours* until after we have we have passed all the tests God places before us. This is certainly a “carrot and stick” approach to the Gospel, and while it may resonate with some outside the Church, particularly the “unchurched”, I’m not sure how persuasive it is with devout members of other faiths. In addition, this idea is certainly *not* exhaustive in explaining why members might be more “happy” than non-members, but it clearly is a factor, and I think an important one.

  22. Kingsley on June 1, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    I wonder what “owning” (i.e. being sealed to) a child will mean in the Celestial Kingdom, & how it will apply to brothers & sisters etc. If we are all ultimately family anyway, what difference will it make that I was sealed to x & not y?

  23. Jack on June 1, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    I think it’s useful to consider what possession might mean in a parent – child relationship. When a child cries *my* mom! or *my* dad! he/she is implying more than mere blood relation. There’s a special bond that comes from being cared for by the parents. This rings true(for me) when the Savior refers to the Father as “my God and your God”. Each one of us will have that sense of possession in our relationship with God because of all He has done for us individually. I’m sure most of us have cried at one time or another during our extremities “Abba Father”.