Can You Be Truly Happy Outside the Church?By: Jake
This weeks Sunday School lesson was meant to start with a description of how Satan markets misery to people. As the manual says:
“answers may include that he could make misery look appealing or that he could trick people into thinking that his product will bring happiness instead of misery.”
Later in the lesson it explored the interpretation of the phrases from Alma and Helaman: “they sought for happiness in doing iniquity” and “wickedness never was happiness.” As a class we explored what was happiness and what was mistakenly labeled happiness.
Since then I have pondered this. I often hear people describe those outside of the church as being not truly happy. But as I look at many of my less-active and non-member friends, they certainly seem happy, so I ask: how can you determine between true happiness and (as the manual suggests) misery disguised as happiness?
Happiness and True Happiness
There are many strategies within church culture to obscure the fact that some people are happy outside the church. The most common tactic is to draw a distinction between so-called “true happiness” and misery that only appears to make someone happy. As the scripture says: “Wickedness never was happiness,” so if someone wicked or apostate appears to be happy, it can’t be real, true or lasting happiness. This is the message of this week’s Sunday School lesson, that Satan deceives people into having a false form of happiness. In this passage from Talmage’s Jesus The Christ:
“Happiness includes all that is really desirable and of true worth in pleasure, and much besides. Happiness is genuine gold, pleasure but gilded brass, which corrodes in the hand, and is soon converted into poisonous verdigris. Happiness is as the genuine diamond, which, rough or polished, shines with its own inimitable luster; pleasure is as the paste imitation that glows only when artificially embellished. Happiness is as the ruby, red as the heart’s blood, hard and enduring; pleasure, as stained glass, soft, brittle, and of but transitory beauty.” (Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], page 230.)
This suggests that we can not judge happiness simply by what it feels like to us, or what it may appear. There is another criterion that must be considered in order to determine if you are happy–the level of our obedience to the church. This suggests that the church not only has a monopoly on salvation but also on happiness. As LDS.org says:
Many people try to find happiness and fulfillment in activities that are contrary to the Lord’s commandments. Ignoring God’s plan for them, they reject the only source of real happiness. They give in to the devil, who “seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). Eventually they learn the truth of Alma’s warning to his son Corianton: “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).
Given the claim that the LDS church is the only church containing the fullness of the gospel, the only way to obtain the will of God is through the mediation of Church leaders. No one outside of the the church can ever be truly happy because they do not have the fullness of the gospel. At best they can live it partially, but they are still missing God’s plan for them, the only source for happiness. Real happiness can only come through the church.
So what is Happiness?
In true undergraduate essay style (not to mention your typical LDS talk) let’s see the Oxford English dictionary definition of happiness:
- The quality or condition of being happy
- The state of pleasurable content of mind
- Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness
Of course, dictionaries are a graveyard of old word meanings; they describe how the word was used in the past and not necessarily how it is used in the present. In the past 5 years there has been an explosion in self-help books on happiness, and consequently, a shift in the concept of happiness. Happiness has become a commodity to be sold as a product. Let’s consider a review of this literature from Psychology Today:
What is happiness? The most useful definition—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioural economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than “happy” in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilising your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.
It’s maximised when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort. It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.
Contrast these definitions with how the church uses the word in the past twenty years in LDS publications. In church publications, the word is increasingly used in conjunction with obedience. This is explicit in an 2005 General Conference talk on happiness that says:
Happiness comes as a result of our obedience and our courage in always doing the will of God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Elder John Dickinson further equated happiness with levels of obedience in his talk ‘After the Manner of Happiness’:
“the closer we come to living in accordance with the patterns and principles He has set, the happier and more complete we will be.”
Elder Marlin Jensen said:
“living righteously and keeping God’s commandments make us happy. Alma gave a concise sermon on this topic when he said, “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Based on my own experience and my observations of others, Alma’s declaration is as categorical a statement as can be made on the subject, and our chances of proving Alma wrong are about zero.”
Interestingly we have also seen a shift from the Mormon narrative being called the Plan of Salvation in the past to the Plan of Happiness now. Central to the plan is obedience. It is the first covenant in the temple and one of the central principles of the missionary lessons; we are told that salvation comes through Jesus Christ and obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. The shift to calling it the Plan of Happiness further equates obedience with happiness.
Happiness and Depression
Oddly, the place that should be the happiest place in the world, the place that has the fullness of the Gospel and living prophets in its midst, has shocking depression statistics. Has true happiness been falsely labelled as depression because the world is so deceived by Satan? Has Satan deceived the Psychiatric profession in America to diagnose the true happiness that comes from living the Gospel as depression. James Talmage hints at this:
“The present is an age of pleasure-seeking, and men are losing their sanity in the mad rush for sensations that do but excite and disappoint. In this day of counterfeits, adulterations, and base imitations, the devil is busier than he has ever been in the course of human history, in the manufacture of pleasures, both old and new; and these he offers for sale in most attractive fashion, falsely labeled, Happiness.”
Studies show that despite their secular culture, Scandinavian countries are the most happy places in the world. Surely with their low rates of church attendance, Scandinavians should be the most miserable nations in the world and Utahns the most happiest. Yet the reverse is true.
Perhaps Utah is caught up in a Book of Mormon pride cycle and they are not as obedient as they should be to the Gospel it is why they are suffering from high depression levels. Of course it’s easy to equate Utah with Mormonism, but as this response to the frequently asked questions regarding Mormonism points out the percentage of members in Utah is not as high as many people assume. It quotes a study that says the following:
“While Utah does have the highest rate of antidepressant use in the United States, there is no evidence that this is because of stress from the LDS lifestyle and culture. Credible research has shown that LDS women are actually more likely to identify themselves as “happy” than non-Mormon women.”
Maybe we’re dealing with different definitions of self-reported happiness. If Mormons draw a distinction between worldly happiness and true happiness, their self-identification as “happy” in a study would be meaningless for comparison because they are referring to different things when they say happiness. Under this definition, it’s possible to say that you are happy even if you do not feel happy because true happiness is being obedient, even if you feel depressed. So a depressed Mormon could claim to be happy by this definition. (For example, consider this blog curiously titled: Depressed (but not unhappy) Mormon Mommy.
Even outside of Utah I see very little joy and happiness in the church. Church services are very rarely vibrant and full of energy and joy. Boredom, tedium and banality seem to me more accurate descriptions. People talk about having true happiness in talks and lessons, but the sadness in their eyes, the weary tired look on their face suggests otherwise. It’s as if they are saying: “I have done everything that the church says should make me happy, so therefore I must be happy.” I rarely hear genuine expressions of internal joy and happiness. While this may be cynical and you are justified to ask by what right I judge the sincerity of others’ expression of happiness; yet this is precisely what the church teaches that we should do. We should distinguish between real happiness and counterfeit happiness, or as the manual says “misery labelled happiness.”
Am I really Happy?
These competing definitions of happiness inhibit meaningful communication with those outside the church. To most people, happiness is not the product of obedience; it is an emotional state and a way of interpreting the world. It is a way of interpreting our own experience and our attitude toward life. To call someone’s claim to happiness illusory or untrue is to say that people are not capable of judging their own experience and interpreting what they are feeling and experiencing.
How do I understand my own experience? Do I judge it myself or do I put it through the filter of church ideology? Further, how do I judge whether others are happy when the very people the church tells me possess true happiness are the ones who least appear happy, and the ones that appear to be happy I am told are not “truly” happy.
The times in my own life when I have felt the most stress, misery and unhappiness have correlated with high levels of obedience and conformity to the church. The times I have felt happiest have been when I was most lax in my devotion to the church codes of conduct. This leaves me questioning not only my own emotional state, but my own memories. Am I deceived by Satan in thinking that the happy moments of my life are only illusory and not real happiness? Maybe the church is right and what I think is happiness it is not true happiness, but perhaps illusory happiness is better than constantly questioning my perceptions of my own experiences.
- What is the difference between real happiness and false happiness?
- How do you know if you are really happy?
- Can you be happy outside of the church/gospel?