Are you happy?
As I say this, I’m not asking whether you are in a good mood at the moment, if yesterday was the best day of your life, or even if Stake Conference is your absolute favorite Church meeting. Rather, I’m asking about something deeper and more fundamental—whether you have a sense of satisfaction and contentment regarding who you are, and what you are doing in your life. 1
Are you happy?
The United Nations now produces an annual World Happiness Report in which it ranks 156 countries on six factors that include levels of real income, social support (or sense of community), healthy life expectancy and personal freedom.
Based on these criteria, Finland was the grand champion for 2018, finishing in first place internationally. The United States came in 18th. While Burundi trailed the pack.
Social scientists have highlighted two related findings about happiness:
First, the share of Americans today who report that they are happy has not risen from where it was 40 years ago, when average incomes in the United States were lower and few folks could fathom inventions like cell phones or autonomous cars.
Second, once you get above a sustenance level of income where basic needs are satisfied—people in richer countries don’t report being all that much happier on average than people in lower-income countries. 2
What explains these results? Why aren’t folks happier today than decades ago?
One explanation is something that researchers have termed the “hedonic treadmill.” This finding suggests that people eventually take what they have for granted. Expectations adjust upward, and people return to their baseline level of happiness. It’s like being on a treadmill—it takes more and more good events to maintain an elevated level of happiness.
One article summed it up this way:
“Can you remember a time you were dreaming about something, maybe a new car, a promotion at work, or moving into a nicer house? Do you remember fantasizing about how happy you would be?
And then, when you finally got it, that happiness boost didn’t last that long or wasn’t as intense as you’d imagined?” 3
Psychologists believe that the treadmill operates in the opposite direction as well. Faced with difficult life events, people generally tend to adjust back to a level of happiness somewhere near where they started.
Notably, a landmark study from the 1970s compared the happiness of lottery winners to folks who had been in tragic accidents and had been left paraplegics. While the lottery winners were obviously happier at first and the paraplegics less happy, after 12 to 18 months both groups tended to return to their pre-crisis levels of happiness.
Results of this kind have led psychologists to conclude that, once basic needs such as food and shelter are met, our level of happiness over time only depends 10 percent on our circumstances and what happens to us. Happiness is 90 percent dependent on a complicated mix of genetic factors and, importantly, our own decisions and attitudes. Happiness depends crucially on our own actions and ways of thinking—in other words, what we choose to do and how we choose to view the world.
One observer noted: “It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.” 4
Now, dear brothers and sisters, suffice it to say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has deep and redemptive insights on these issues.
President Golightly, President Sheets and President Alfandre of the Washington, D.C. Stake (Photo provided by Brian Johnson)
The word “happy” or “happiness” appears in the scriptures 82 times, including 43 times in the Book of Mormon alone. And the Book of Mormon has another 145 references to “joy.” Indeed, the Book of Mormon might accurately be called, “The Lord’s Handbook for Happiness.”
The following are just a few examples of its teachings:
Lehi instructed his sons that happiness is the ultimate design of our human existence: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”
And, in his beautiful dream, Lehi summarized the fruit of the Gospel as: “Most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. . . And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy. . . .”
The great Book of Mormon prophet Alma described the whole plan of salvation as the “Great Plan of Happiness.”
And in teaching his son Corianton, who had strayed from the path of righteousness, Alma underscored that living a righteous life was the only way to lay hold on the joy and happiness that the Lord desires for us. Alma said, “Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.”
Thus, the Book of Mormon teaches with great clarity that the Lord’s design is for us to be happy. The plan of salvation—with the Savior’s atonement at its vitalizing center—opens the door for us to reach that destination. And the Gospel provides the direction of the iron rod as an indispensable guide to help us along the way.
But the Book of Mormon has even more to say about happiness. Consider Amulek’s teaching to the Zoramites in Alma 34. He exhorted them to in verse 38 to
“. . . take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.”
This verse tells us that as we humble ourselves, listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and seek to worship our Heavenly Father—that these steps will help us live in thanksgiving, not just one day each year, but every day—and with grateful and joyful hearts.
Now some days are clearly better than others. Some days are sunny, while others are rainy. Some days bring health, while in other days we may face sickness or serious illness. Some days may be filled with wonderful family interactions and heart-warming activities, while other days may be characterized by loneliness or deep disappointment in the decisions of a family member. Some days may bring powerful spiritual manifestations and confirmation of our faith, while in others we may wrestle with doubt.
My message today does not minimize the reality of these challenges or the depths of our struggles. And I’m not advocating fake smiles. But regardless of how we might otherwise interpret a day’s events, the Lord has instructed to live in thanksgiving—to recognize the mercies and blessings that He has bestowed on us.
Every day we benefit from the love of our Heavenly Father and the Savior’s atonement. Each day we have material blessings that give us life and sustenance, and we enjoy the beauties of the earth. We are members of wards or branches and have wonderful bishops, branch presidents, Relief Society presidents, Elders Quorum presidents, and ministering brothers and sisters who care about us. No doubt the list of such items goes on and on. If we look, we can find much to be grateful for.
But I think the Lord has a deeper message for us. As we seek to live in thanksgiving daily, not only will we be more aware of the things that Heavenly Father has given us, but we may also start interpreting the events of our lives differently.
Consider, for example, the following passage from 1 Nephi chapter 17.
Nephi describes his family’s experience as follows:
1 ” . . . And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness.”
2 “And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.”
3 “And thus we see that . . . [if] the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them;. . . .”
Listening to Nephi, I would describe their experiences in the wilderness as difficult and challenging, but that the Lord blessed them immensely. He lifted them and made them equal to the situation.
But now hear Laman and Lemuel’s viewpoint, which is included in the very same chapter:
20 ” . . . We have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.”
21 “Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.”
What’s remarkable is that they are describing the same experiences! Laman and Lemuel lament that external events prevented them from being happy. They were simply too burdened with challenges. In contrast, Nephi saw exactly the same events as a testimony of the Lord’s hand, which left him nourished and strengthened. This passage reinforces the view that circumstances don’t determine happiness.
Now, it’s easy for us to point out Laman and Lemuel’s failings. But aren’t all of us at times in our lives, or in certain circumstances, like Laman and Lemuel? As I look back on my life, I’ve clearly had some times when I was more like Nephi, but many other times when my attitude was more like Laman and Lemuel’s.
When I was growing up, I was diagnosed with fairly severe scoliosis. None of the treatment possibilities were attractive. So I chose surgery. This was the most aggressive option, but also the one that was most likely to offer a long-term solution. Thus, soon after my 14th birthday, I had a spinal fusion and spent the next eight months in a body cast recuperating. At the time, I viewed this as a heavy challenge, but I was not bitter. It became a time of spiritual growth and intellectual awakening for me. I was grateful for friends and family. I felt the Lord’s help. I never would have wanted to go through it all again, but I also saw it in many ways as a turning point for the better.
Almost exactly ten years later, I started graduate school. I found this a harrowing and difficult experience. The competition was fierce; I did not particularly enjoy the material that was being taught in many of the classes; I thought the professors were uncaring and arrogant; and I was far from home—and felt out of place and isolated.
These were real and intense struggles. But I also let the frustrations and stresses entirely crowd out what might have been a more positive narrative. I was having a new and exciting experience—expanding my horizons and pushing the limits of my own capacities. I was learning new things and investing in the future. Also, I was part of a great ward and had the opportunity to work closely with two extraordinary bishops. The positives were there for me to glean. But I didn’t focus on them and, thus, I was not as happy as I might have been.
Let me now mention one suggestion that arises from several quarters—both secular research and spiritual guidance. It is the idea of keeping a “gratitude journal.” Every day, write down several things for which you are grateful. Be specific. I’ve aimed to do this over the past weeks as I’ve pondered my remarks for today. And I have found it helpful. Research suggests that doing this for even 30 days can help us reframe our thinking and perceptions.
As I say these things, I know that there are some in the congregation who struggle with sustained depression. As I have discussed in previous talks, this is an issue that has touched my life in profound ways. To you dear brothers and sisters, I want you to know that you are loved. We are grateful for you. I encourage you to reach out to members of your family and to your bishop for love and spiritual support, and to seek professional treatment. There are reasons for hope—the morning can come.
One of the characteristics that the World Happiness Report looks at is “social support” (or sense of community)? We should think of our pursuit of happiness as not an isolated endeavor, but as one that is deeply intertwined with our families, our friends, and our brothers and sisters in the Gospel. Our social interactions matter. For example, the evidence suggests that folks moving to happier communities tend to become happier themselves.
With this in mind, consider Mormon’s description of conditions among the Nephites in the years after the Savior’s visit as recorded in 4 Nephi :
15 “And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.”
17 “There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.”
16 ” . . . And surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.”
Brothers and Sisters, it is my prayer that such may be said of us. That within this congregation there will not be “any manner of -ites” but rather that we will be united as one mighty people focused on our love for and discipleship of the Savior. And we will recognize the Lord’s hand in our lives and, thus, live in thanksgiving not only through the week ahead but each and every day of our lives. The Lord’s blessings are real and give us good cause to rejoice.