Taking Happiness at Face Value

May 1, 2010 | 25 comments
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“…wickedness never was happiness.” — Alma 41:10

I’ve only ever heard this phrase from the scriptures used as an encouragement toward righteousness — “if you are wicked, then you won’t be happy, so be righteous!” But reducing the scripture to a causal relationship like “if ( wicked ) then { not happy }” necessarily implies the contrapositive: “if ( happy ) then { not wicked }”.

Both of these readings reduce the rich context of the passage to a logical proposition, and these sorts of shallow reductions don’t often translate well to the complexity of real life. Even so, I think it’s worth considering the passage from both directions. I can’t tell how often I’ve heard said at church, “Those people out there sinning may look like they’re happy, but it’s not real happiness.”

As my circle of friends has widened to include people of various lifestyles, I’ve found that, while yes, some of them are not happy, many of them are. If I’m reading Alma correctly here, my job isn’t to judge others’ happiness, nor their righteousness. Rather, my job is to come to righteousness through happiness, and to come to happiness through righteousness, and that perhaps through both of those approaches together, the blessings and peace of God may be manifest in my own life.

25 Responses to Taking Happiness at Face Value

  1. Mike S on May 1, 2010 at 9:14 am

    I have a great many non-LDS friends who are among the happiest and most well-balanced people I know – certainly far more than many of my friends in the Church. And amazingly enough, they may even have a glass of wine with dinner or not wear a tie to Church.

  2. Dane Laverty on May 1, 2010 at 10:11 am

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that “wicked = not happy” does not logically translate to “righteous = happy”. In Alma’s logic, there’s space for the unhappy righteous as well as the happy righteous. There’s just no room for the happy wicked.

  3. E on May 1, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Mike S, maybe being non-LDS does not equal “wicked”.

  4. Geoff J on May 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Maybe this reflects a problem with properly defining and identifying wickedness.

  5. Paul on May 1, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    One reason that wickedness is not happiness for the faithful is the dissonance of doing the wrong thing (wickedness) while knowing it is wrong.

    Also agree with Dane’s perspective. Immediate happiness is not a promise of righteousness, and there are plenty of scriptural examples to demonstrate that situation.

  6. living in zion on May 1, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Dane and Paul have it right. Thanks for saying it so well.

  7. SC Taysom on May 2, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Dane’s #2 and Paul’s #5 are excellent points. I would only add that I have always been struck by how easily we breeze past that word “happy” in a discussion of this scripture without trying to define it. It seems to me that there are lots of possible definitions, but which one did Alma have in mind?

  8. Justin on May 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Just because someone isn’t a member of the Church or even a Christian, doesn’t mean they are wicked. Sometimes we LDS folks forget this.

  9. Jared D on May 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    A few observations:
    1. I think as a people we tend look at the gospel in terms of absolutes and not generalities. Hence we expect every action to have a consequence: every sin to bring a penalty, every act of obedience to bring a blessing (Mosiah 2:24). However, experience tells us that people who obey The Word of Wisdom can get sick, people who pay their tithes can be poor, and good people can get a raw deal. But in actuality the commandments work in a much more generalised manner: because we obey the word of wisdom we as a people are relatively free from substance abuse (an absolute scourge of society), the church teaches us to get out of debt and stay out of debt (good counsel that helps us again as people to prosper), chastity helps to prevent sexual disease, unwanted pregnancy etc. So these ‘sins’ I suggest are examples of wickedness which lead to unhappiness in genral terms. Yes, not everyone will become an alcoholic, get an STD and so on, but in rough measure the commandments work and keep us free from negative consequnces in a very approximate way.

    2. You don’t need to be a Mormon to live Mormon principles better than a Mormon e.g. Industry, Fidelity, Honesty etc. We do not have the monopoly on wise and good choices, as such we don’t have the monopoly on happiness.

    3. Looking past the mark can make Mormons unhappy, an unhealthy other or self-imposed super high standard of perfection can result in unhappiness. The irony of sisters strivng to be perfect and ending up on prozac is amazing. The older I get the more I realise that man was not made for the sabbath.

  10. Kristine on May 2, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Here–http://machaut.uchicago.edu/?resource=Webster%27s&word=happy&use1828=on–is the definition of “happy” from Webster’s dictionary of 1828. It’s worth noting, I think, that while pleasure and enjoyment are mentioned, only one of the definitions offered has much resemblance to our modern usage of the word to describe a particular kind of mood or affect.

  11. Dane Laverty on May 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks for that link, Kristine. I love the breadth those definitions add to the word “happiness”, and I think they are all useful lenses.

    Jared, re: your point #1, as a missionary I discovered pretty quickly that the correlation between obedience and success is not absolute — sometimes the most obedient missionaries see few results, and vice versa. I call this “the law of exceptions”. In any spiritual/human endeavor, there will always be exceptions to the rule, and it’s easy to focus on those exceptions and loose perspective on the value of the rule.

  12. Paul on May 2, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    #8 Justin, I think you’re spot on. And it’s part of what I meant when I suggested that when we do wickedness and know better is when we will find the least happiness.

  13. jks on May 2, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    “The irony of sisters strivng to be perfect and ending up on prozac is amazing.”

    How about the irony of someone posting this sentence seeming to posit that sisters should give themselves a break and not try to be so perfect, but in reality this sentence supposes that sisters (who have accepted that they are not perfect and that their chemistry necessitates medication) don’t know what they are doing since, in your opinion, their problem isn’t biological and if they would just not try to be so perfect then they could get along just fine without medication.

  14. Jared D on May 3, 2010 at 8:30 am

    jks

    So perfectionism is biologically based, has no environmental infuences and is impervious to intervention?

  15. DavidH on May 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    There is a strain of Christian perfectionism in Mormonism that is similar to strains of Christian perfectionism that exist from time to time in mainline Christianity. http://www.gospeltruth.net/1837LTPC/ltpc08_christian_perfectio.htm President Kimball was a proponent of Christian perfectionism (his book Miracle of Forgiveness implicitly requires perfection or near perfection for forgiveness to occur). His successors have been much less so. Perfectionism can be toxic as well. I think that is why President Kimball’s successors have not been major fans of perfectionism.

  16. John C on May 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    I think the thing that most often is ignored in referring to this passage is that Alma is not talking directly about this life at all: he’s talking about a person’s state post-resurrection. In particular, he’s warning Corianton that his apparent belief that a wicked person can be “restored” to a state of happiness (those 1828 definitions are indeed helpful here, I think), by the process of resurrection, is a false notion. (Corianton’s version of “eat, drink, & be merry…and at last we shall be saved.”) Alma’s thesis seems to me to be clearly saying that a life lived in wickedness is not compatible with being “restored” to happiness after (what we might refer to as) the judgment.

    Of course, if “wickedness *never was* happiness,” then presumably Alma would argue that any apparent “happiness” one might take in this life from wicked behavior is illusory. I’ve always thought this was the point he was making: you may think whatever satisfaction you drew from your illicit relations with that notorious prostitute were real happiness; not so, son–and it will lead to quite the opposite result after the judgment. You don’t get to be saved in the Kingdom unless you’ve earned it.

    Does Alma’s statement (in context) really imply the contrapositive? No, I don’t think so. Alma’s well aware of the fate of believers who died in the most cruel ways because of their faith, but presumably were restored to a state of happiness because of how they had lived. A happy thing to be cut down in the act of calling upon God? Not as good as dying in your bed surrounded by your righteous, loving posterity, I would say.

    Nevertheless, an intriguing thought; and there’s plenty of scriptural passages that do teach that righteousness leads to happiness (or what we tend to call “true joy” or some other word/phrase with similar meaning).

  17. Adam Greenwood on May 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    The happiness we are after is sub species aeternitas. It does not always manifest itself in the here and now.

    Christ’s happiness is superlative, but he was not giggling on the Cross.

  18. Dane Laverty on May 3, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Jared, #8, I had that point in mind as I wrote this post. I don’t believe I phrased it in a way says “non-LDS = wicked”.

    John C & Adam, I think you’re making a straw man of my argument. I never said that being righteous means you’ll be happy (in fact, I explicitly wrote against that viewpoint in my #2 comment). I said that Alma’s statement reads that if you’re happy, then you’re righteous. To say that “happiness implies righteousness” is not the same as saying “righteousness implies happiness”. You seem to be arguing against “righteousness implies happiness”, and I agree with you. But my post wasn’t making that point. My post was making the point of “happiness implies righteousness”.

  19. Ida Tarbell on May 4, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    It really made my seminary teachers mad when my friends and I would add “but it sure was fun while it lasted” to “wickedness never was happiness.”

  20. John C on May 4, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Dane #18: Gotcha. I just read your statements carelessly; my apologies. However, I think the point that Alma’s not talking about this life directly is still a valid one. And no, I still don’t think “wickedness never was happiness” (taken in context) leads to “happiness implies righteousness”; but I appreciate the chance to think about it.

    Adam #17: Christ’s expressions of dismay and tears in his visit to the Nephites suggests it doesn’t always manifest itself in the then and there, perhaps either. (For another instance, the 3 disciples who were translated were told they would not feel sorrow–except for the sins of the wicked.)

    Ida #19–Ow! I had one of those touchy seminary teachers too….

  21. Adam Greenwood on May 4, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    John C.,
    Christ’s visit to the Nephites is in the here and now. Embodiment means that our lives are always in the here and now, and always will be, even if at some point only partially so. Hence the weeping God of Mormonism.

  22. Adam Greenwood on May 4, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    DL,

    if temporal happiness isn’t the happiness that Alma is talking about, then temporal happiness does not imply righteousness.

  23. chris365 on May 5, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    “Just because someone isn’t a member of the Church or even a Christian, doesn’t mean they are wicked.”

    No actually, we LDS never forget this. Who are you speaking for? I’ve never once heard someone suggest that non-members and non-Christians are wicked1?!?

    What is this, land of the evangelical-if-your-not-with-me-your-going-to-hell? We’re one of the few Christian faiths who proudly espouse with our doctrine, prophets, and declarations, that you’re most certainly not wicked just because you have not joined our faith.

  24. Cameron on May 6, 2010 at 12:05 am

    I had a YSA bishop years ago tell us that you cannot be happy, absolutely not unless you were married. Sadly, 4 now divorced, 3 totally inactive and several one goes to church but the other spouse doesn’t, couples bought it. I used to agree with him now ten years later I say that if you are not happy then marriage is the last thing I would recommend! Course, his own was…

  25. Geoff-Australia on May 6, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Adam fell that man might be and men are that they might have joy. Many members believe we are here to learn obedience, this scripture about the purpose of our time here says it is to learn to have joy. Joy and obedience are similar to happiness and righteousness/ opposite of wickedness, so relavent to discussion. And yes we are to have it in this life.

    For those of you who are younger, you can work towards it so you are ready once the children have grown up and left.

    If you wake up expecting trials and obedience (trials go with obedience) you will have a different experience than if you wake up expecting joy. I recommend the Joy.