What Is Happiness?

We are taught rather boldly in the scriptures that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). We’re also taught that God’s plan is a “plan of happiness.” We here talk of the “happiness” prepared for those that serve God. It’s almost indisputable that we are promised happiness if we but follow God’s commandments. Many are feeling disappointed by these promises, because they feel they’ve done everything they are “supposed” to do, and feel deeply unhappy. Where’s the happiness that was promised them?

I read a blog post today written by a mother who found child raising to be a very unpleasant and at times miserable experience. She hated changing diapers, she hated entertaining her children all the time, and she resented being “pressured” into motherhood and away from other pursuits. The tone of the post expressed a feeling of betrayal—she was supposed to be happy as a mother and a gospel-living saint, but wasn’t. And worse, she had sacrificed her ambitions for it. She was feeling trapped by her parental obligations and stymied in her non-familial pursuits (pursuits she believes would have made her more happy). So clearly either she’s broken or the Gospel’s broken (or at least the way we teach it). At least, that was the implicit conclusion of the blog post.

I completely believe the promises made in the scriptures: the Gospel does bring us happiness. But I believe that we often define happiness entirely differently than God does. The Savior lived the most righteous life of all, and we read that he was a man who was full of sorrow and acquainted with grief. We read that God, the morally perfect being who rules over heaven and earth, weeps from time to time with sorrow and grief. Clearly, the happiness the Gospel promises in this life is not a happiness devoid of sorrow and grief, unpleasantness and discomfort. And knowing the life of the Savior, it is clearly also not a life devoid of loneliness.

Here’s what I believe about happiness: at its very core, happiness is personal communion with God and a conscience clean of any offense towards God or man. In short, happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. Consider the purity and simplicity of that. Happiness cannot be achieved without these two things, and happiness requires nothing else. Everything else is peripheral to genuine happiness—at least, to the kind of happiness promised to us in this mortal life to the faithful.

For at least one point of evidence, I look to the scripture following the scripture where we learn that wickedness never was happiness: “And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness” (Alma 41:11). Why is wickedness the opposite of happiness? Because happiness is being with God in the world, liberated from the bonds of iniquity. I interpret “bonds of iniquity” and “gall of bitterness” to represent a burdened conscience, a conscience inflicted by crimes one has committed against God and others. And this is the state that is described as “contrary to the nature of happiness.” So there you have it: happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. Anything else is extra.

Consider a different mother that I know, one who is a close friend of mine: she cares for a chronically ill daughter who has been struggling with severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I wouldn’t be surprised if caring for her daughter for the past decade has shaved decades off of her own life. And I know for a fact that it has halted and perhaps even buried whatever career aspirations she may have had. And it’s a deeply unpleasant experience—her daughter can be frequently emotionally abusive and occasionally physically abusive, through no real volition of her own. It is physically, emotionally draining to care for her. As a family they are grateful for any relief and assistance they are offered and can afford. But nonetheless, it is a relentless burden and a tiring task, one that offers little rest of peace of mind.

And here’s the divine irony: were this mother to abandon the parental stewardship she’s been given and begin to pursue her career aspirations instead, because she felt entitled to a little bit of “happiness” (because, after all, the Gospel promises happiness, so aren’t we owed it?), she could never find the happiness she seeks. Because the happiness she seeks—that is, the happiness the Gospel promises—is not a comfortable, pleasant life devoid of grief, sorrow, heartaches, stress, etc. That’s certainly not the happiness the Savior got in exchange for his toil and troubles. The happiness God promises the faithful is a clean conscience and Divine companionship. And nothing burdens the conscience more than shirking one’s divinely appointed parental duties.

Simultaneously, the happiness God promises—Divine companionship and a clean conscience—can be found even the midst of grief, sorrow, stress, and heartache. Like the still small voice, the happiness God promises us pierces through the deepest of our Gethsemanes, our Liberty jails, our handcart treks, and our caring for mentally troubled family members. It is a happiness that can be experienced in the midst of trouble, because it is a peace of heart that comes from knowing that we stand clean before God. It requires no idyllic circumstances, no social or physical Utopia. It does not require that we live our dreams, fulfill what we imagine to be our worldly potential, or even get the time to check off activities from our bucket list. This mother does not require any of her “unlocked potential” in accounting or education to be fulfilled or actuated in this life in order to experience this Divine companionship and peace of conscience.

I’ve been really troubled by a growing feel of entitlement amongst friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—a feeling that the Gospel is not a call to heartache and service in the trenches of life, but a promise of felicity and escape from those trenches. There’s sometimes a sense that Christ suffered so that we can live free of pain, as if we’ve forgotten that all walks with Christ lead through Gethsemane.

The happiness God promises—this Divine companionship and clean conscience—vanishes the moment we resent whatever life circumstances in which we find ourselves called to serve. We are under no obligation to enjoy the trenches of life—the mother in the original article that prompted these thoughts is under no obligation to enjoy changing diapers and driving children to kindergarten and washing dishes. But even as we sometimes find our stewardships unpleasant and unenjoyable, we can still choose to relinquish our feelings of resentment for having been called to serve in those trenches. We can give up our feelings of entitlement to an easier life or a more pleasant corner of the Kingdom to serve in. And it is only as we do this that God can bestow upon us this Divine happiness, which is more valuable than all of its counterfeits combined.

I’m reminded of the words of the hymn: “There’s surely somewhere a lowly place in earth’s harvest fields so wide, where I may labor through life’s short day for Jesus the Crucified. So trusting mine all to thy tender care, and knowing thou lovest me, I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere: I’ll be what you want me to be.” I love the sentiment here: it doesn’t matter nearly so much where we serve, or what stewardship we are given, so much as we serve faithfully and discharge that stewardship with a sincere and faithful heart. We don’t have to enjoy that lonely part of the vineyard. We may even feel that our unique talents are more useful in other parts of the vineyard. But the Lord doesn’t always call us to serve where we can shine the brightest or use whatever talents we might want or enjoy—he calls us where he needs us to be, and whether that’s for own growth or the growth of others, we don’t always know.

And that’s the attitude I missed in the original article I read that precipitated this string of thoughts: the recognition that our own families are as much a part of the vineyard as any other, and if at times in our lives (whether we are male or female) we are called to serve in that part of the vineyard alone, why should we resent the chance to serve? If a man finds himself unable to obtain the job he really wants where he feels like he can really make a difference in the world, and finds himself working solely to financially support his family—or if, for example, he must give up the job he really wants in order to have time for a family—why should he resent that, if he is following his moral conscience? It is a clean conscience that is at the core of genuine happiness, not fulfilling one’s career aspirations. Further, if a mother finds herself giving up a job she wants in order to devote her attention to family and children—particularly if her moral conscience whispers that this is the right course of action—is this not the path to true happiness, even if child raising proves itself to be at times burdensome and unpleasant? Can we fully appreciate the tragic irony of betraying our moral conscience in our quest for personal happiness, when at the core of any genuine happiness resides a clean conscience? For us to feel betrayed because the path of conscience sometimes leads away from our extra-familial aspirations and ambitions (whether we are man or woman, mother or father), and to cry out that the divine promise of personal happiness is being yanked from beneath our feet when our career and social ambitions never fully materialize, is to entirely misdefine happiness itself.

Our happiness does not depend on serving where we wish to serve—it’s serving where God wishes us to serve. That’s because happiness is not “living our dreams,” it’s not some mythical Maslow-ian “self-actualization” in which all of our latent talents are put to use and all of our emotional “needs” are met, it’s not serving in a pleasant calling or living a pleasant life, never burdened with obligations we wish we could avoid. Happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. And that can only be had with a heart pure of resentment, a heart willing to engage in whatever stewardship the Lord sees fit to grant to us. It can only be had with a heart that prioritizes the will of the Lord over the will of the self, even as Christ did in the midst of Gethsemane—a heart willing to submit to the will of the Divine companionship God offers the truly penitent. For that reason, happiness can only be found on God’s terms, not our own, and it seems unbecoming of discipleship to resentfully challenge God when the thorns of our own assigned corner of the vineyard prick us and make us bleed, particularly when Christ’s corner of the vineyard—Gethsemane—pricked Him until He bled from every pore.

This article should not be taken as a criticism or a judgment upon any particular individual, but rather as a public expression of my ongoing thoughts on a matter of growing concern to me. It is simply an invitation to reflectively consider what we mean when we use the term “happiness.” It is an invitation to reflect on the cognitive dissonance that results when we use the world’s metric of “happiness” to gauge whether God has adequately bestowed upon us the happiness He promises the faithful. It is an invitation to reflect on the irony that resides in the fact that happiness is linked to discharging our obligations towards God and others—a fundamentally selfless way of living in the world—and the fact that we often selfishly resent the perceived lack of this happiness in our lives. It is an invitation to reflect on whether the happiness God wishes to bless us with (peace of conscience and Divine communion) might reside in the very thickets and trenches in which we sometimes curse God for sending us to serve.

17 thoughts on “What Is Happiness?

  1. DavidF, considering how quickly after posting this you commented, I’m not immediately convinced you read the whole article—and your question demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the article is really about. The article is not about who can or can’t be happy, but about how we sometimes talk about and wrongly define happiness in ways that lead us to resent the trying nature of our mortal stewardships.

    But a short answer to your question: if we define happiness as communion with God and a clean conscience—yes. Non-members can certainly experience the presence of God in their lives, and can certainly experience a clean conscience. I think it is rather uncontroversial, though, that the fulness of God’s presence, and the fulness of the purifying power of the Atonement to cleanse our souls, is ultimately found in a trajectory that leads through authorized ordinances of baptism and confirmation, as well as the ordinances in the temple (whether it happens in this life or the next).

  2. Maybe we need a better word than happiness. I think a lot of people find happiness through self-fulfillment and comfort and pleasure. The happiness you are refering to is something different. Maybe more like divine contentment. Comfort vrs. contentment.

  3. I actually agree in some ways, nate. The scriptures, however, use the word happiness—and so we must find a meaningful definition for the term that captures the way the Lord’s servants have used it. I think the above fits the bill—but I agree that it doesn’t play nicely with what most people in today’s Western world think when they hear the word “happiness.”

  4. Good post. I think the entitlement attitude is rooted in pride. Notice that Lehi is glad for Nephi in 1 Nephi 3:8 because Nephi had been blessed. Nephi had received revelation or a testimony of the fact that God gives no commandment that is impossible to obey. The gladness felt by Lehi was not rooted in pride but in revelation and spiritual witness. We all know happiness is a function of our agency.

  5. If our spirits have always existed and will always exist, then it is logical that definitions of happiness in our relatively brief sojourn on the Earth will be completely different than happiness through the eternities. There are obviously some things that bring happiness on Earth that seem to be eternal — family bonds, unconditional love, the joy of the Holy Ghost — but it is logical that there are elements of true happiness that we cannot completely understand while we are mortals. So it would make sense that God would tell us, “true happiness is following my plan, being with me, being with your Heavenly Father…trust me.” This may mean that while doing this there will be times of discomfort, pain, annoyance, etc. Anybody who has had to sit next to my three young boys at Sacrament meeting knows the true meeting of discomfort. But getting those boys to Church helps prepare them for happiness, and helps prepare me for happiness in ways that we all probably do not understand right now.

  6. One of the things we say in our family is, “Choose to be cheerful”. I read that same blog post you mentioned. I understand where she was coming from, in the fact that sometimes housewifery is not fun. But, you choose your attitude to your situation. I recently was reviewing my own attitude about life, my kids, my duties as a mom and I realized that I could be happy, that I could find joy in this stay-at-home-mom gig I’ve chosen. It’s helped me a lot in the last few weeks and I’ve noticed myself choosing to be cheerful, and seeking to find joy in my job. That’s not to say I’m happy Mary Sunshine 100% of the time, I’m not, but I have felt and seen a change, and I am thankful for that.

  7. As the single Father of 8 Daughters, I agree with your definition of happiness, and strangely enough, I am surprised you knew “the secret”, I assumed that only parents that are driven into the ground daily were aware of the true blessings of what appears on the outside to be a burden.

    Divine companionship and a clean conscience is actually all I “need”. I may “want” more, but I have learned from a life a poverty, that things work out better for ME, if I want what I have, as opposed to having what I want.

    Maybe it is just me, but my take on the Gospel is a life of “personal responsibility”, not one of narcissism and self gratification, and not one of pain and torture either.

    The Glory belongs to Heavenly Father, NOT to me. I came here as a spirit child to Earth to return to Heavenly Father after a life of learning, not partying until the break of dawn.

  8. “The scriptures, however, use the word happiness—and so we must find a meaningful definition for the term that captures the way the Lord’s servants have used it.”

    If you actually count the number of times the word “happiness” is used in the scriptures, it is quite rare. Not nearly as universal in the scriptures as the words “salvation,” “righteousness,” “obedience,” “eternal life,” even “joy.” “Happiness” is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, I believe, because it was translated by Joseph Smith, who grew up in American culture, with it’s obsession with this goal. Happiness is not a Biblical obsession. And happiness as Joseph Smith understood it culturally, was about self-fulfillment. Think of the American dreams of Joseph and his family, home building, falling for “get-rich quick” schemes like the Chinese ginsing, freedom-loving patriotism, treasure seeking.

    Joseph Smith spoke to the American psyche when he spoke of happiness as the object and design of our existance. But of course, Mormonism’s version of happiness transcendes American self-fulfillment. “Self-aggrandizement is a true principle, but it can only be accomplished through building up others first.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” “The obedient shall prosper in the land.”

    The Biblical message was different: “Build up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness were all goals that were clearly eternal in nature, not of this world. But Joseph Smith brought heaven down to earth, and brought the vision of eternal, divine happiness to mortality as well.

  9. I have another comment that is more practical in nature: when in Mormon culture did we begin to celebrate or even tolerate expressions that are basically long harangues complaining about your fate? Yes, taking care of kids is difficult. Yes, parents (especially moms) often suffer during these times. But the Mormon story is about overcoming difficulties. The key lesson taught over and over again in the scriptures and in the history of the House of Israel is how temporary suffering and self-denial brings long-term gain. Think of the story of the Exodus as the most prominent example: what did Moses say (and what was God’s attitude toward) the people who were murmuring in the desert? Aren’t we meant to see their complaints about preferring to be slaves in Egypt rather than free in the desert as absurd? What lesson should we draw from that? Isn’t the obvious message that sometimes ya gotta suffer a bit to get long-term happiness? This message is repeated over and over again in the lives of nearly all of the major characters in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. If this message is so incredibly obvious, how could modern-day latter-day Saints be missing it?

  10. Geoff: i think there may be a bit of Prosperity Theology in modern mormon church culture.

  11. THanks, Geoff. If anyone doesn’t immediately get the reference, Prosperity Theology says that if you keep God’s commandments, you’ll prosper temporally, and have good things happen to you. There are scriptural sources for this: Mose’s recitation of blessings or cursings for keeping or not keeping the commandments, and the BoM’s recurring theme that if the inhabitants keep God’s commandments they will “prosper in the land”. But a more accurate interpretation might be that a people would _collectively_ prosper, and not as a guarantee for each individual’s situation.

    Evidence of this in modern LDS culture is the propensity for MLM’s and get-rich-quick schemes in Utah and among other LDS congregations. I think Calvin Grondahl may have drawn some cartoons on the subject.

  12. Yeah, the Prosperity Gospel is big in Latin America also. Like many things, there is a silver of truth (yes, you *might* do well in worldly things if you pay your tithing and keep the commandments) surrounded by a lot of priestcraft. A lot of important messages about the Gospel get lost if you get too caught up in such thoughts.

  13. Another factor that is overlooked in the prosperity discussion is that in the Book of Mormon, prosperity (in the form of crops, flocks, herds, etc.) concerned the ability to produce, not the ability to consume. How much production do we do in modern Western society in comparison with what we consume? Our level of consumption exceeds anything that King Noah and his priests could have imagined in their most debauched dreams.

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