When I get that new car, I’ll be happy. When I graduate, we will have more time. When the student loans are paid, life will be better. When I find the right person to marry, life will be great. When we can get our own house, our family will be more peaceful.
Happiness always seems to be just over the next hill, around the next bend. But it’s a cruel trick.
Research shows that each person has a characteristic level of contentment. Certainly there are ripples (even occasional waves) in any person’s average level of contentment but the happy tend to stay happy, the morose cling to their misery, and today’s rejoicer is likely to be jubilant tomorrow.
I first learned this lesson about happiness when I took a teaching job right out of college. The school where I taught was divided by serious strife. My troubled peers insisted that certain things must change in order for them to be at peace. In the course of a few months all those things did change. But my faculty friends were not at peace; they were just as distressed as they had been before. But they were fretful about different things. I was amazed.
I concluded then that our level of happiness tends to be stable over time. It depends very little on our circumstances. In fact research shows that “happiness is largely unrelated to income level or educational attainment, to social status, or to whether one is married or single” (Lykken, 1999, p. 1).
Most people assume that more money provides more happiness. Professor Myers, who has written what may be the most influential book on happiness, has observed that money only provides an improved sense of well-being if you are hungry; once you have enough food to eat, more money makes no difference in your level of happiness. “Today’s younger adults have grown up with more affluence, [and yet with] more depression, and more marital and family misery” (Myers, 1992, p. 43).
A woman tells a story with a powerful lesson about appreciation: “We had just remodeled our kitchen when my grandmother came to visit. With great pride I showed her the refrigerator-freezer, the dishwasher, the washer and dryer, the electric stove with timer controls, and the disposal unit in the kitchen sink. She admired everything extravagantly and then sat watching me prepare dinner.
Suddenly she said, ‘If you could have only one of the conveniences in this kitchen, which would you choose to keep?’ I thought about it carefully, weighing the merits of each appliance, and finally decided that the refrigerator was the one I really couldn’t do without. Grandma chuckled. ‘I would pick running water every time,’ she said.”
Happiness comes more from an attitude of gratitude than from unrelenting abundance. “The cheerful heart has a continual feast” (Proverbs 15:15 NIV). Happiness comes from a choice to be grateful.
If a typical person were asked to describe their vision of ultimate happiness, it might include luxury and leisure. But research suggests that the novelty of such riches wears off quickly.
“If happiness truly consisted in physical ease and freedom from care, then the happiest individual would not be either a man or a woman; it would be, I think, an American cow” (William Lyon Phelps).
Happiness, as it turns out, has less to do with what we have than in the opportunity to work and contribute.
Productive activity is one of the most dependable sources of human happiness . . . . Desserts have their place, but the mainstay of any happiness diet is productive effort, developing and exercising skills, doing something that needs doing. Sometimes we foolishly imagine that a life replete with . . . pleasures would be heaven. But if we do not permit the denizens of that heaven ever to do anything constructive, to create anything, to learn and then exercise some skill, then I think that heaven would be a kind of hell (Lykken, 1999, pp. 24, 63).
Happiness is more likely to be found in the workshop than in the mall. It is not surprising that latter-day revelation portrays heaven as more of a bustling workshop that a retirement community.
The recommendations of prophets provide an ideal formula for happiness: be busily loving, building, and serving.
It is clear why shopping can become an addiction. It doesn’t satisfy in a deep and enduring way.
Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken; and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness” (2 Nephi 9:51, see also Isaiah 55:2).
Dr. Lykken has nominated three thieves of happiness. The first is depression. Depression is often worsened by our tendency to look for causes. It is common to dwell on our mistakes and faults, ruminate on them, and thereby enlarge and extend our depression. There are times when counseling or medication can be helpful. But for most episodes of unhappiness the remedy is an eternal perspective.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you;
And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours (D&C 78:17–18).
God loves us and intends to redeem us. That good news will cheer and enliven our souls if we let it fill us.
Dr. Lykken’s second happiness thief is fear. He recommends that skillful parents and friends urge the fearful out of their corners. God, the perfect parent, does just that as He invites us from the dark corners of fear to His remarkable peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
When we trust in God we discover that there is no reason for fear.
The third set of happiness thieves is anger and resentment. “Many people can be seen to hoard grievances and develop a kind of chronic irritability . . . . While feeling angry may be better than feeling scared or weak, it is not nearly so gratifying as just feeling happy” (p. 233). The gospel cure for anger is divine love.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another (John 13:34).
Jesus has every reason for anger and resentment; yet He chooses to love.
Happiness is the natural by-product of living the gospel of Jesus Christ. For some people happiness is blocked by various chemical imbalances. Most of us are distracted from happiness by that father of lies who would rather have us worry and fret than believe and rejoice. Satan does not want us to embrace God’s great plan of happiness.
For all of us happiness is increased by living the core principles of the gospel: loving, believing, repenting, serving, and thanking. It is true that “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” (TPJS, p. 255).
Lykken, D. (1999). Happiness. New York: Golden Books.
Myers, D. G. (1992). The pursuit of happiness. New York: William Morrow & Co.