Main Idea: Happiness is a state of peace, contentment and satisfaction with life that is distinct from joy and pleasure. It is the result of submitting to God’s will, living in harmony with His laws and having faith in His promises. It comes from accepting parts of ourselves and reality that we don’t like but can’t control. It is influenced by the expectations we place on ourselves, the world and other people. It is cultivated when a person is fully engaged in the journey of progressing towards accomplishing their unique life mission and developing a Christlike character. Happiness is ultimately a feedback mechanism that indicates that you are in harmony with God.
Defining & Distinguishing Happiness
Good Morning brothers and sisters, today I have been asked to talk to you about happiness. This is a subject that is of great importance and interest to most people that have ever lived. William Shakespeare said: “How to gain, how to keep, and how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive for all they do.”
Let’s start by defining what exactly happiness is and distinguish it from similar concepts. Happiness is a state of peace, contentment and satisfaction with life that arises from certain happiness practices. I think it’s important to differentiate it from 3 related concepts: eternal joy, emotional joy and pleasure.
- Eternal joy is a transcendent state of joy given to those who make and keep covenants with God that lead to eternal life. This eternal state of happiness remains a future potential we have not yet achieved, so the focus of my talk will be on achieving happiness in this life. We can get a taste of it through encounters with the Holy Spirit, but our bodies cannot endure a fulness of transcendent joy in this life.
- Emotional Joy: Happiness can also be distinguished from the emotion that we call joy. An emotion is an intense, short-term experience that facilitates survival in some way while a mood is a less intense but longer-lasting affective experience. Joy is therefore an emotion while happiness is better thought of as a mood. Joy is a temporary feeling that results when we achieve some sort of gain, but happiness is not just a series of joyful moments.
- Pleasure: Happiness also differs from pleasure, which can be equated with stimulation of the sense organs or activation of the reward center in the brain (nucleus accumbens and basal ganglia). When these centers are stimulated people reliably report having a feeling of “liking” or “wanting” but not happiness.
The brain centers associated with happiness are distinct from both joy and pleasure as happiness is associated with greater activity in the left frontal cortex and misery is associated with more activity in the right frontal lobe and in the amygdala.
Many people conflate happiness with pleasure and joy which frustrates their ability to achieve it. Addictions arise when happiness is sought through compulsive activation of the reward center and dissatisfaction with life results when a sense of ecstatic joy can’t be achieved all of the time. While joy relies on perceiving gains in the external world and pleasure relies on sensory stimulation, happiness relies on neither and can be achieved in any circumstance.
The Happiness Practices
There are several different practices that you can engage in that will maximize your happiness in this life. These practices include: Faith, Submission, Acceptance, Setting Expectations, Presence, Purpose and Virtue.
Trust: Faith & Submission Overcomes: Doubt, Fear & Pessimism.
According to happiness researcher, Dr. Shawn Shea, one of the foundations of happiness is trust. He says that happy people have “an attitude of profound trust accompanied by a reassuring feeling of confidence that one can effectively handle whatever life may bring, good or bad.”
This quote begs the question, what do we trust in? I would suggest that putting your trust in anything other than God is building your life on a sandy foundation. The first key to happiness is developing a deep and abiding trust in the character of God and in the promises that He has made to those who enter into covenants with Him.
In order to be able to put your trust in God, you need to first ensure that you have built your life on the foundation of gospel principles and are doing your best to keep His commandments.
Jesus taught this principle when he gave the parable of the Wise and Foolish builders. He compared those who base their lives on His teachings to those who build their houses (lives) upon a rock (a solid foundation) so that when the storms come (adversity) the house is not moved. He compared those who based their lives on anything else to building their houses on sand (weak foundation) so that when the storms come the houses get blown away because they are not built upon a solid foundation. (Matt 7: 24-27)
If you have built your life on a solid foundation, then the promises contained in the scriptures are guaranteed to be yours. In D&C 82: 10 the Lord says: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” This means that if you are obedient to God’s will you have a legal claim on the following promises:
- Promise 1 – Compensation for all your losses: “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s,But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29‐30)
- Promise 2 – The Resources to overcome our life struggles: “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
- Promise 3 – None of your suffering will be in vain but will be used for your gain: “Nevertheless, Jacob, my first‐born in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Nephi 2:2)
- Promise 4 – Protection from Opposition and Evil: “Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail.” (D&C 6: 34)
- Promise 5 – Everything that happens to you will be to your benefit in some way: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)
- Promise 6 – You will ultimately transcend your current existence and inherit eternal life: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23)
When you base your life on the foundation of the Gospel and live within the will of God, you enter a state that Joseph F. Smith called “God’s rest.” Ask yourself, what would my life look like if I truly believed all of these promises? How would I behave differently? Can you say that you are living in God’s rest? If not, which of these promises do you not believe in?
If happiness is based on trust, the only sure foundation for a lasting happiness is putting your faith in Jesus Christ. Anything else you put your trust in will fail you and will ultimately be revealed as a false idol over time.
Joseph Smith taught that in order to have Faith in God, you must know that you are living consistently with His will for you: “We next proceed to treat of the knowledge which a person must have, that the course of life which they pursue is according to the will of God, in order that they may be enabled to exercise faith in him unto life and salvation. It was this that enabled the ancient saints to endure all their afflictions and persecutions, and to take joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing that they had a more enduring substance.” (Joseph Smith)
In Psalms 25: 12-14 we read:“What man is he that feareth the Lord?… His soul shall dwell at ease; and his seed shall inherit the earth. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant.” (Psalms 25: 12-14)
When you submit to the will of God for you then you need not worry about regrets and the possible opportunity costs that inevitably arise out of every choice you make. Only God knows all things so only God can truly say what is best for you at any given moment in time. When you rely on our own fallible and miniscule comprehension of reality you have no guarantee that your choices will lead to the best possible outcomes in life. This uncertainty can lead to many regrets and lost opportunities that have eternal consequences.
Acceptance Overcomes: Suffering, Covetousness.
The next key element of the happiness equation is to practice the skill of accepting things about your life that you do not like but that are out of your control. For example, you cannot control your genetic inheritance, the proclivities of human nature, the characteristics of the fallen world you live in, the beliefs and behaviors of other people, eternal law or the will of God. Some philosophers have called these unique circumstances that you have been born into the “facticities” of life. The variables that differentiate you from other people are so numerous that comparing yourself with others is a futile effort. This is why President Packer has advised us that: “The only competition in life is with your former self.”
It is useful here to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain refers to the physical sensation of the body while suffering refers to the emotional reaction to that pain. While we have less control over pain, we do have more control over suffering.
Many people rob themselves of happiness because they cannot accept certain facts about their life that they have no control over. I believe that this was partially what the Lord meant when He commanded us not to “covet.” To covet means to excessively envy the facts about another person’s life that are different from your own. When you do not accept what you cannot control, you are in danger of breaking the commandment not to covet.
There are many parallels between the commandment not to Covet and the Buddhist insights into attachment and suffering. The first major insight these thinkers had was that suffering appears to be the baseline experience of many people which they believe is caused by attachment, aversion and ignorance. Attachment means desiring things you don’t have (Or Coveting), Aversion means agonizing over things you don’t like but can’t control and ignorance means believing that your happiness is dependent on external events.
They believed that the solution to limiting suffering was to stop coveting what you don’t have, to accept the realities that you can’t control instead of agonizing over them and to give up the delusion that your life circumstances have to look a certain way before you can be happy.
Epictetus was a slave who coped by learning to accept what he couldn’t change. He said: “What then should a man have in readiness in such circumstances? What else than “What is mine, and what is not mine; and permitted to me, and what is not permitted to me.” I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?”
Rumi, a Sufi mystic, writes: “how long are you going to worry about what has already happened and can’t be changed and what has yet to come and can’t be controlled.”
These principles were recently reinforced by our prophet President Russel M. Nelson who taught:
“Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year! My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives. (Joy and Spiritual Survival)
Not only do we need to accept the unique circumstances of our lives, but we also need to accept the characteristics of reality that we may not like. And one of the characteristics of reality that most people struggle with accepting is the existence of suffering and evil. Many people phrase this resistance in form of such questions as: “How can a benevolent God permit the existence of evil?” Attempts to answer this question throughout history have been so important that the answer itself has been given a name: a theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to answer the question of why evil exists.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi writes his own theodicy in attempting to answer this question. In 2 Nephi 2: Lehi says: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things….If not so there would have been no purpose in …creation.” Lehi is saying that there is no existence without opposing forces. Existence itself arises out of a tension of dualities that give each other meaning and value.
Lehi further expounds: “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God.”
In other words, if truth doesn’t exist then you can’t sin against it. If sin doesn’t exist, then neither does its opposite which is obedience to truth or what Lehi calls “righteousness.” If those two dualities don’t exist, then happiness and misery can’t exist either since misery is the result of sin and happiness the result of righteousness.
In the end, when you really think about it, the cost of existence are these dualities that exist in tension with one another. It is out of the experience of these opposites that the capacity for choice, meaning and value are created. For example, life only has value because death exists. To live in a reality where death is not possible is to live in a reality where existence itself has no value. In the same way, without the possibility of eternal death, eternal life has no value either.
This leads us to a similar principle, that the heights of happiness correspond to the depths of misery we have experienced. For example, picture how enjoyable a glass of water would be for you right now and compare it to how enjoyable that glass of water would be for you if you were dehydrating in the desert. Suffering dehydration would enhance your capacity to find joy in a glass of water, just as suffering of any kind will enhance your ability to value its opposite.
This means that all of the suffering that you have experienced has been making a greater height of joy possible for you in the future. In D&C 29: 39 the Lord taught: “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet.”
An interesting thought experiment illustrates the principle that suffering is necessary for a meaningful life.
- Imagine you could have dreams that lasted a whole life time and you could structure it in any way you want. Eventually, you would get bored so would put random variance in that dream to keep it interesting. Eventually, that would get boring too so you would make sure negative things happened to contrast the positive and you would want some things out of your control. Eventually, you would want to lose control of the dream and not know it was a dream at all so that it were like the life we are currently living. Alan Watts.
Expectations: Being Realistic. Overcomes: Disappointment
After submitting to the will of God, exercising faith in His promises and accepting what you cannot control you can still be unhappy as a result of your expectations. Expectations are the “should” statements that you make about the world and other people in it. These assumptions about how the world should be or how other people should act or what your day should look like are thieves of happiness and harbingers of disappointment.
Blaise Pascal said that the ability to imagine things as they are not leads man to the highest grandeur and lowest misery. It is a gift and a curse. You can never know if your imagination of how things should be is truly the best way all things should be so you should at least be skeptical of the “shoulds” you impose on the world.
These unrealistic expectations have been the cause of much human suffering throughout the ages. The Roman Emperor and Stoic practitioner Marcus Aurelius recommended lowering your expectations about things in order to be happier. He said: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
This isn’t pessimism but an expression of grace and acceptance of the weaknesses of others and the suffering inherent in human experience. The opposite of lowered expectations can be an attitude of entitlement and perfectionism where any weakness or discomfort is seen as intolerable. When you believe that any kind of discomfort in your life is intolerable you are setting yourself up for a lot of suffering. Accept that discomfort and unanticipated barriers to your goals will arise each day and you will not be disturbed when they come. If you find yourself irritated, disappointed or unhappy more than you would like to be then examine your expectations and experiment with adjusting them.
With lower expectations two outcomes are possible: either your expectations are met, and no real change occurs in your mood, or your expectations are exceeded, and you become pleasantly surprised. However, with high expectations two outcomes are likely: disappointment if your high expectations aren’t met or mere satisfaction if they are.
One of the most pervasive expectations that we are often seduced by is the belief: “I should be happy all of the time.” This belief is naïve both to human nature and the nature of happiness itself.
Another reason to examine your assumptions about how the world should be is that you are wholly incapable of making such judgments. The ancient Skeptics have rightly taught us to suspend our judgments because left to ourselves, we cannot achieve certainty about anything. You can never know for certain whether something is truly bad for you in the long run. For example:
- What You think is Good Might be Bad: Lottery Winners prove that what we think is good might be bad and what we think is bad might be good. Jack Whitaker won 319 million dollars and then lost all privacy as people begged him for money all the time. He was drugged and robbed, arrested for drunk driving, lost his wife and family and his daughter died of a drug overdose all because of the money he had.
- What You Think is Bad Might be Good: Without opposition there is no meaning to life and everything loses value. You may have just been fired, but how do you know that wont set you on the path to your dream job?
Like Socrates, we should accept our ignorance and leave judgments about how the world should be to God. Admit that you know nothing and that what seems bad now might be good for you in the future.
The Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote about what he called the “restless strivings” of human nature. He noticed that people are always setting goals and restlessly striving towards achieving those goals with the delusional belief that once they achieve that goal they will be happy. To many of us our lives are characterized by this belief that: “Once x thing happens” then I will be happy whether that is a new job, achievement, relationship or life circumstance.
However, once you achieve whatever it is you wanted you quickly learn that you are dissatisfied again and set a new goal to restlessly strive towards with the idea that” this time it’s real, this time I will be completely happy once this is achieved.” However, happiness is not found in the achievement itself but in the striving towards that achievement.
I believe that these restless strivings are part of the nature of our fallen bodies and are described in Genesis when God says to Adam: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. (Gen 3:19)” It appears that our bodies were designed never to be permanently content, but to always be restlessly striving towards a never-ending set of goals.
Modern psychologists have named the tendency of humans to never be completely content as the “hedonic adaptation principle.” This simply means that we judge new experiences by comparing them to how we feel in the present. This means that you will notice an upward trend in your happiness levels for a short time but over time you will get used to it and it becomes the new norm that you compare all new experiences to. The net result is that your general happiness level remains stable over time.
The human brain is responsive to change and not to stability. We need constant changes in pleasure levels to have meaning. This means that you want to achieve an optimal level of adversity and suffering, not to get rid of it all together It is the volatile flux of positive and negative feelings that gives life meaning. Those who have too much ease and not enough challenge in their lives begin to feel jaded and nihilistic.
The Problem with permanent happiness is that it leads to contentment which tends to cause complacency. There is no motivation to improve as you are content with what you have and are. This is why the curse of “living by the sweat of your brow” is for your benefit. Human nature is not designed to allow us to live in a permanent state of happiness. We do not want to stay in this body forever, because it is cursed to be “endlessly striving” and lacks the capacity to be completely content.
The Russian Novelist Dostoevsky recognized this and cautioned us not strive after delusional Utopias that cannot be achieved. He said that the utopia can never exist because there is always another mountain to climb. He asked, how do you know when enough is enough? You can always find flaws to tell yourself when this is fixed then I can be happy. No matter how good the world gets, you will always have reason to suffer.
So, do we just give up on our restless strivings and seeking after a better world? Of course not, we should only give up the delusional expectation that permanent happiness is either achievable or desirable. You need to avoid the extremes of endless restless striving that leads to dissatisfaction and giving up on striving altogether which leads to boredom and depression. The key is to learn how to live in the present moment, experience flow and to find joy in striving itself.
President Monson often stressed this principle when he taught us to “find joy in the journey now.” The Psychologist Richard Davidson called this the “Progress principle.” He distinguished between two different brain circuits: one that was related to pleasure while pursuing a goal and a separate that becomes activated for a short time once the goal is achieved. The brain circuit active when pursuing a goal leads to a much longer lasting pleasure than the momentary activation associated with achievement. Thus, human happiness is much more related to progressing toward a goal than it is about achieving goals. With this understanding of human nature, it becomes much easier to live in the present moment since we stop looking to the future for happiness.
Understand that happiness is more about an approach to life that involves continuous improvement, exploration and appreciation than it is a final achievement that one earns after finally getting all that one wants. Happiness is ultimately denied to the complacent and the ungrateful.
Presence: Living in the moment with wonderment, awe. Overcomes: anxiety
After you have exercised Faith in God’s promises, have submitted to His will, accepted what you cannot change and have established healthy expectations you are better able to live life in the present moment with wonderment and awe. However, there are a few more barriers that prevent living in the present that include: guilt, shame, bitterness, drudgery and anxiety.
Guilt and bitterness both keep you focused on the past, with guilt focused on past wrongs you have committed, and bitterness focused on past wrongs others have committed against you. The solution to guilt is to engage in the repentance process and the solution to bitterness is to forgive those who have wronged you. If you repent of your own sins and forgive those who wrong you then the Lord promises that you will have “peace in this life.” (D&C 59:23)
Shame occurs when you believe you are unworthy of love and connection with other people. It is often manifested in beliefs such as: “I am not good enough” or “I am worthless.” The solution here is to interpret your weaknesses and flaws through a Gospel frame, exercise self-compassion and speak to others of your experiences.
The next barrier to living in the present is drudgery. President Hinckley taught us that “Work without vision is drudgery.” When you are engaged in aimless, boring work that isn’t developing your talents and for which you don’t see meaning you will have a hard time living in the present moment. The solution to drudgery is to engage in work that you find meaningful, challenging and that develops your talents. The opposite of drudgery is a state that psychologists call “flow” which is described as losing all sense of time and being fully engaged in whatever you are doing.
And finally, the last barrier to living the present moment is anxiety or fear. When you experience too much anxiety you are doubting God’s promise that His grace is sufficient for you. The solution to fear is faith, which we have already discussed.
Meaning & Purpose: Sense of Progression towards wholeness. Overcomes: Depression.
The next element of the happiness formula is creating a sense of purpose that excites you and gives direction to your strivings. You need to seek revelation and discover what your unique life mission is, and you need to actively pursue it. Ask yourself, if a miracle occurred today and I had the life I truly wanted, what would it be? Write down your vision, pray about it and then break it down into manageable sub-goals that you can measure and accomplish on a regular basis.
The Story of Jonah is a cautionary tale about running away from your foreordained life mission. Jonah was given a clear command to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent but instead he tried to hide from the Lord. He could not escape God, however, as the storm of the sea halted his plan to flee. Like Jonah, we cannot escape our god given life missions and our way will be halted if we try to.
While there are unique missions that we all have, we also share a common purpose with the rest of humanity. People are happy when they are actualizing their highest potential and unhappy when they ignore this part of their nature. Human nature is therefore designed to move us from incompleteness to wholeness and happiness is a feedback mechanism that tells us if we are actualizing that potential.
Joy and misery are feedback mechanisms that indicate if we are in harmony with our purpose. President Dallin H. Oaks taught: “Joy is more than happiness. Joy is the ultimate sensation of well-being. It comes from being complete and in harmony with our Creator and his eternal laws. The opposite of joy is misery. Misery is more than unhappiness, sorrow, or suffering. Misery is the ultimate state of disharmony with God and his laws. (Dallin H. Oaks, “Joy and Mercy,” Nov. 1991)
If joy is the purpose of our existence then the only way to fulfill our purpose and to become like God is to obey those laws that lead to joy. In D&C 88: 18-20 we learn that the purpose of our souls’ creation was to learn to live the Celestial law:
“Therefore, it must needs be sanctified from all unrighteousness, that it may be prepared for the celestial glory; For after it hath filled the measure of its creation, it shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father; That bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified.” (D&C 88: 18-20)
In Ecclesiastes, we learn that the main purpose of life is to prepare for judgment day by fearing God and keeping His commandments: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Eccl 12:13-14)
By learning to keep the commandments in this life, we prepare ourselves to live the law of the Celestial Kingdom in the next life.
Virtue: Coping with life’s demands. Overcomes: Vice
And finally, the last element of the happy life is living virtuously. This means that we develop character strengths that help us meet the demands and challenges of life. We look to emulate the character traits of Jesus Christ Himself. The Apostle Paul taught that one of the purposes of the church was: “For the perfecting of the saints…Till we all come…unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph 4: 12-13)
The psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have developed a comprehensive model of human virtue that is entirely consistent with scripture. They suggest that there are 6 virtues that include: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Humanity, Transcendence and Temperance. Each of these 6 virtues breaks down into 24 specific character strengths.
The 13th Article of Faith specifically exhorts us to seek after that which is virtuous. The Article refers to Paul’s Admonition to the Philippians which reads: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Developing these character strengths are the only real insurance against the vicissitudes of life. If you base your happiness on the good fortune of circumstance, then the storms of life will inevitably overwhelm you. The Roman Philosopher Boethius wrote about the dangers of good fortune, he said: “I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”
Good fortune deceives us into thinking we are truly happy, when these conditions are extremely fragile. When fortune changes, we become miserable so we are at the mercy of the wheel of fortune. This is why Boethius argues that in the end one’s virtue is all one truly has, as everything else is imperiled by the vicissitudes of life. Thus, only virtue can bring lasting happiness.
I would like to conclude by summarizing the happiness equation I have laid out this morning. Happiness is a state of peace, contentment and satisfaction with life that is distinct from joy and pleasure. It is the result of submitting to God’s will, living in harmony with His laws and having faith in His promises. It comes from accepting parts of ourselves and reality that we don’t like but can’t control. It is influenced by the expectations we place on ourselves, the world and other people. It is cultivated when a person is fully engaged in the journey of progressing towards accomplishing their unique life mission and developing a Christlike character. Happiness is ultimately a feedback mechanism that indicates that you are in harmony with God.