If we want to be happy and productive, we should consult with someone who knows how humans operate. The leading expert on human functioning is God. Let’s consult Him.
God’s instructions for well-being are familiar:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew 22:37-38)
The starting place for well-being is to love God with everything we have and everything we are.
Think how Jesus did this. He taught all day every day about His beloved Father. He showed His Father’s graciousness by loving, healing, and encouraging God’s children. Often, after a day of strenuous teaching and blessing, when Jesus could have taken time to restore Himself, the people followed Him. So, He continued to minister. When night came, He often did something quite unexpected. He did not say to His disciples, “Hey, guys. I’ve had a busy day. I’m bushed. I’m gonna turn in.” No–He often found a quiet place to be with His Father.
We might imagine that taking time to pray was one more demand on Jesus. I suspect otherwise. I’m guessing that Jesus’ time with His father was wonderfully restorative. While prayer for us may seem taxing, demanding, tiring, or repetitive, my hypothesis is that for Jesus it was healing. Talking to His Father helped Him clarify His thinking and it renewed His spirits. It was a spiritual feast. While I’m not sure that Heavenly Father brought treats and gave Jesus a back rub, I feel certain that Jesus was renewed by His time with His Beloved Father. There is a reason that Jesus called His Father Abba or Papa. They were the best of friends. And there is nothing like time with a best friend—especially a perfectly compassionate and wise one—to restore one’s soul.
So, Jesus practiced what He preached. Even though He was drained at the end of the day, He took time to be with and learn from His Father. He loved “God with all [His] heart, and with all [His] soul, and with all [His] mind.” This enabled Jesus to keep the second commandment, to love His neighbor—to love everyone who came within His reach.
Jesus understood the well-being pyramid. The foundation of well-being is a loving relationship with Heavenly Father. When we are filled with love for God and from God, we are able to love our neighbors—everyone God puts in our path. When we love God and our neighbors, we are filled with joy. We are overwhelmed with happiness. That is how God designed us. He knows how to enrich and enlarge us.
The American dogma that we cannot love anyone until we love ourselves is problematic because it inverts God’s well-being pyramid and stands it on its head. It suggests that we must get ourselves feeling peaceful, restored, and self-content before we can move on to helping others. This is perfectly upside-down. There is nothing that restores us as effectively as a loving relationship with God and seeking to bless His children. Jesus knew that. He knew that He could not survive without having a strong connection with God. When He was filled with God’s love, He naturally loved, taught, and blessed others. And, as He did what God directed Him to do, He felt a peace that surpasses all understanding. Jesus knew that His well-being came not from positive self-affirmations and extensive self-focus, but from loving God and His children.
Jesus set the example for us. While God does not expect us to stay up all night each night in prayer, He does want us to stay connected with Him. Not only should we pray sincerely, but we should be mindful of Him, welcoming His counsel and guidance all day long.
God wants us to feel good. He wants us to be filled with love, joy, and peace. He designed us for joy! And God knows that the effective process to obtain that joy is to love Him, serve His children, and accept His love for us. When we follow His prescriptions, we experience a happiness and a love beyond description.
Because being engulfed in the love of God is a glorious experience, it may not come easily and quickly. We will get hints and foretastes of the experience along the way, but to experience being encircled in the love of God is the work of a lifetime. I suspect that many of us delay the experience by being too spiritually self-sufficient. It can be hard to feel the love of God when we are convinced we must fix everything with our own efforts instead of throwing ourselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save. Some people who have most painfully experienced their brokenness and inability to fix their fallenness may discover more fully the power of His love.
We must be ever-vigilant when pop culture tells us that we must love ourselves before we can love anyone else. It is critical that we differentiate between two very different ideas:
We are as children of God. The great truth of eternity that Elder Holland has taught is: “that God loves us with all of His heart, might, mind, and strength. That love is the foundation stone of eternity, and it should be the foundation stone of our daily life.” (Tomorrow the Lord Will Do Wonders among You, April 2016). Our understanding of these truths give us strength and purpose to face our challenges when the world tries to convince us otherwise. Feeling the love of God and remembering that we belong to Him motivates us to share the glorious truths of the gospel with others and to lift up the hands that hang down. Our understanding of our relationship to God leads us to be more like Him and motivate us to serve His children.
We must be careful not to confuse this understanding of our divine identity with self-absorbed and self-inflating practices. The world teaches us that we must put ourselves first before we can help others with their needs. It puts us at the helm guiding our own lives, rather than submitting to a loving Father who knows what is best. It teaches that self-love and self-focus are at the heart of success and confidence. This is not what the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches, and it will not yield the confidence that many seek.
As journalist and commentator Charles Krauthammer wisely observed: “The reigning cliche of the day is that in order to love others one must first learn to love oneself. This formulation — love thyself, then thy neighbor — is a license for unremitting self-indulgence, because the quest for self-love is endless. By the time you have finally learned to love yourself, you’ll find yourself playing golf at Leisure World. . . . Endless, vertiginous self-examination leads not only to a sterile moral life, but also to a stilted intellectual life. Yes, examine. But do it with dispatch and modesty and then get on with it: Act and go and seek and do.” (Beware The Study Of Turtles,Monday, June 28, 1993, TIME).
America was sidetracked by the self-esteem movement in the 1970’s. This movement taught that a lack of self-love was the root of many of society’s problems. The proposed solution was self-care and self-praise. Yet, the research on self-esteem turned against the movement as early as 1983 with Susan Harter’s review of the research. She found that improving self-esteem did not improve performance. The converse is true. When people do good things, they feel better about themselves.
Later, when a group of self-esteem advocates (Mecca et al., 1989) tested self-esteem in many settings, they found that it predicted either nothing or bad behavior. Self-esteem as a way to improve well-being and performance is a latter-day myth that does not enjoy scriptural or research support.
As the renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, has observed, “The self-esteem movement in particular, and the feel-good ethic in general, had the untoward consequence of producing low self-esteem on a massive scale. By cushioning feeling bad, it has made it harder for our children to feel good and to experience flow. By circumventing feelings of failure, it made it more difficult for our children to feel mastery. By blunting warranted sadness and anxiety, it created children at high risk for unwarranted depression. By encouraging cheap success, it produced a generation of very expensive failures” (Authentic Happiness, 2002, p. 217).
Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and good research have challenged Satan’s lie about putting ourselves first. God teaches us a reliable process for joy—love Me with all your heart and use your talents to bless My children and you will be filled with joy. Satan inverts the process. He tells us to chase joy and happiness for ourselves and someday we will be able to love others.
Sometimes our ways of approaching God don’t create the relationship we want. It doesn’t work to kneel at the end of the day and say, “Well, I was a little disappointed today. I would appreciate it if you could get things sorted out and bless us in the way we all know is best.”
When we love God with all our hearts—and are amazed by His goodness—and when we are loving and looking after His children, we feel immense happiness, and we worry less about the circumstances of our own lives. Our well-being is built on loving and serving Him—and we are renewed by our deep friendship with Him.
As Gantt and Thayne (2018), have said: “The antidote to self-loathing is not self-love, but encounters with the divine majesty of God, coupled with a realization of His infinite love for us as His children. These experiences invite us to love God and place Him at the center of our thoughts and affections (rather than ourselves), and to invest ourselves in building His kingdom.”
It is not surprising that the new and defining commandment Jesus gave is “Love one another as I have loved you… By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35). People will know we are His disciples because we love each other. Jesus gave this commandment right between washing His disciples’ feet and going to the cross to die for them. When we are His disciples, we wash children’s faces, offer smiles and helping hands to neighbors, and dedicate our lives to the people He has put in our paths.
How do we show that kind of love when we are tired, overwhelmed, or doubting ourselves? That is the mortal reality. The demands of life are unrelenting! We sometimes question our abilities. We can gain strength from asking God to increase our abilities and strengthen us to meet the demands we face. Out of the abundance of the heart—the heart filled with God’s goodness—the mouth speaks, and the arms embrace. (See Luke 6:45).
As we love God and His children, do we experience His love ourselves? Yes! When we reach out to others, we feel the joy and the love of God. Love flows gladly between all of us, and we rejoice. But the focus is not on how good and amazing we are. The scriptural description of the glorious outcome of God’s process is “Thy confidence shall wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). The focus is on the joyous bond created between all of us by God’s love.
It all starts when we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
I invite you to tune into my podcast, Dr. Wally: A Fresh View on Gospel Living.
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annie Foster for their insightful contributions to this article.
Some scholarly work related to self-esteem:
Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self‑esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self‑love or self‑hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, (1), 219‑29.
Cudaback, D. (1992). Self-esteem: Rhetoric and research, Part III. Human Relations, XVII, (1), 1-6.
Faulconer, J. E. (1993). Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation James E. Faulconer. Latter-day Digest. https://www.academia.edu/3138132/Self_Image_Self_Love_and_Salvation
Gantt, E., & Thayne, J. (2018). Does happiness come from self-esteem? Self-esteem vs. Christ-esteem. https://www.ldsphilosopher.com/does-happiness-come-from-self-esteem/ [I heartily recommend this article!]
Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275-385). New York: Wiley.
Katz, L. G. (1993, November). Are we confusing self-esteem and narcissism? Young children, 49(1), 2-3.
Leary, Mark R. (2004). The curse of the self. Oxford, England: Oxford Press.
Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
Smith, L. L., & Elliott, C. H. (2001). Hollow kids. Roseville, CA: Prima.
Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation me. New York: Free Press.