Today I’m going to type as I study the scriptures. I’ve been interested recently in the topic of happiness, and I would like to better understand this concept from a scriptural point of view.
Let’s start with the common assumption that happiness is the ultimate achievement, something to be desired and towards which all our efforts should be directed. In LDS theology, happiness (or joy) is the purpose of our existence:
“Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25)
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five, 1842–43, p. 255).
This last quote implies that God wants all of us to be happy, and that his commandments are designed to lead to such happiness.
So, do we really achieve happiness by directly seeking it, or is it a welcome by-product of a life well lived?
As one of our apostles once wisely stated:
“Too much anxious opening of the oven door and the cake falls instead of rising. So it is with us. If we are always selfishly taking our temperatures to see if we are happy, we will not be.” (Neal A. Maxwell, Patience, p.216)
I think Elder Maxwell is not really talking about the conscious search for happiness, but about people who frequently question their current circumstances and want to make sure that they have all the ingredients for happiness, at all times. Such people are always on the less green side of the fence, despite their frequent boisterous somersaults over it. Instead of seeking the happiness of others, they are so concerned with their own that they continually scrutinise their environment and their entourage for potential threats, giving themselves good reasons to feel miserable.
So, without going to such extremes, is it productive and efficient to seek one’s own happiness?
“Now was not this exceeding joy? Behold, this is joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness.” (Alma 27:18)
Here I assume that the words “joy” and “happiness” are used interchangeably, although there is some indication that joy is a form of great happiness (http://lds.org/scriptures/gs/joy.p2?lang=eng&letter=j). Obviously it’s OK to be a seeker of happiness, provided we are penitent and humble as well. Perhaps the key words here are “penitent” and “humble” rather than just “seeker”.
Here we see another type of “seeker of happiness”:
“But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Helaman 13:38)
In LDS theology, God is the architect of our eternal happiness, the full potential of which we can only briefly and faintly taste while in this mortal state. Things get complicated by the many ersatz produced by Satan, the ultimate charlatan. He grabs hold of many pleasures and packages them up as alluring short-cuts to happiness. We fall for them so easily, because happiness isn’t obtained without effort, and effort is not as attractive as immediate gratification. Just as the economists like to say about investments: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!”.
We can compare happiness with health. I assume that everyone wants good health, although my experience of human diversity (a nice word for weirdness) tells me that some people relish in their perceived ill health. Let’s stick with the assumption that good health is generally desired and sometimes actively sought. The number of companies and people who try to sell their products and services in the name of health certainly seems to support that assumption. However, how is health defined, and who defines it? Is health defined by body shape, and if it is, what shape is that? Is it defined by Body Mass Index (BMI)? Is it defined by the absence of disease?
I maintain that happiness is like health, in this regard. It is a subjective experience that is not easily obtained. Counterfeits exist that pretend to lead to it but actually distract from the steps that really produce it. It’s fine to seek for happiness or for health, as long as you know what it is you are really trying to achieve, and you’re willing to make the sacrifices that lead to it.