Will Wilkinson, commenting on Catherine Rampell’s “The Happiest States of America” article on the NYTimes’ Economix blog, suspects “a skoche of culture-driven upward inflation” is at play in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which puts Utah at the top of states reporting a general sense of happiness (HT: Greg). More specifically, he states:
I’ll vouch for the fact that Utahns are exceptionally chipper. Though perhaps it should be noted that some Mormons are almost ideological about the idea that they ought to be happy.
Just some Mormons, Will? Happiness is inherent in our ideology.
At least canonically, that is. Clearly we place much stock in Lehi’s axiom, “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Joseph Smith famously declared in a letter to Nancy Rigdon, “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.” There are other authoritative sources in LDS canon and apocrypha that indicate that we exist to be happy.
It is perhaps worth asking ourselves whether we believe this to be true. If we honestly believe that the reason we are here is to be happy, then the next level of inquiry is examining whether our religion as we live it, and our daily path as we walk it, is such as makes us happy and brings us joy. I should note that the happiness and joy spoken of in the scriptures is not a delayed celestial gratification, such as would opiate us to present experience. No, the real measure and test at hand, in my opinion, is whether we are happy being Mormons today, in addition to scriptural promises of heaven after death. This is a far higher bar than we would apply to many religions, I think.
I can understand Will Wilkinson’s skepticism that Utah happiness is real. I perhaps share in it a little. It will take more than repeated self-convincing to make us truly happy. I don’t know what to do with his stated view that “the expectations and pressures of Mormon culture lead large numbers of women (and men, but mostly women) to squander their potential and adjust themselves to diminished lives.” I disagree with the claim but lack the tools to disprove it; certainly I know plenty of people, yes mostly women, who would agree with Wilkinson out of their own experiences. The old saw about Utahn antidepressant use might be added fuel for this point of view. But I also know plenty of people, including many women, who have found in Mormonism new ways to tap their potential. I would consider arguing, perhaps, that what Wilkinson is describing is an outsider’s view of Utah culture in particular and not of all Mormonism. I don’t know if that argument is correct, but that distinction feels right to me.
Finally, I guess I have to wonder about the role of happiness in our religion. Why do we make personal happiness our stated goal? Consider as a contrast the purpose of Islam: complete submission to the will of Allah. Personal happiness, while a nice thing, is not the point – what is our contentment compared to the greatness of the Creator? Indeed, we are nothing in comparison, and because God asks us to follow His commandments, we do it, and any happiness is a blessing which He decides to give or not in His sole discretion. How would Mormons fare with such a perspective (or is our goal of happiness more properly perceived in this way)?
Just some thoughts. I’m happy (no, really!) to discuss.