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I have been friends (not extremely close, but friendly) with a number of practicing Mormons in high school, college, and now in graduate school. There is one thing I have always wondered about, though. It seems that they act cheerful and perky all the time. Is this a church mandate? Do they have a secret that is making them actually happy all the time? Maybe it is the "clean" living? Or do you think my sample was just biased and Mormons in general are no more cheerful than the average American?
What's with all the perky, cheerful Mormons? If you asked an orthodox Mormon this question, she would probably tell you that Mormons are happy because Mormonism is a religion that gives knowledge and prescribes rules for living that lead to greater happiness in this life and the next. Some Mormons will say that it's our theological outlook -- for example, the belief that families can be together for the eternities -- that makes them really happy. Others will say that abstinence from the pitfalls and perils often associated with alcohol and drug use and sexual licentiousness keeps them smiling all the while.
I'm not going to argue with that answer.
But let me propose a parallel interpretation. Perhaps Mormons are happy in part because Mormonism is a religious culture that assigns tremendous social, cultural, and religious value to happiness. From the time we are little, Mormons grow up singing children's hymns with lyrics like "When we're helping we're happy," and "If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay . . ." The New Testament mentions the idea of happiness in just a handful of instances; the Book of Mormon, a whopping seventeen times. So important is the idea of happiness that not so long ago the folks at Church headquarters renamed a key element of our theology from the "plan of salvation" to the "plan of happiness." Growing up a Mormon, you can't escape the message that being happy and presenting oneself happily really matters. It may be that we are acculturated into our perma-grins, and that we'll do whatever it takes to keep them bright and beaming.
Not every religion assigns similar theological or cultural value to the outward manifestation of happiness. For example, from what I've observed among my Jewish friends and relatives, constantly exuding Donny-and-Marie-Osmond style happiness does not rank among the highest priorities life. Truth-telling, yes: especially in difficult situations. Kindness, yes. Making sure the people who matter to you get their needs met, yes. And as my Jewish father-in-law has taught me, even pessimism has an actual functional value: it can ward off evil. Or at least (he hopes) it can bring about better outcomes when his favorite basketball and football teams are playing.
But whether one believes that Mormons manifest happy because it's an inevitable outcome of our theology or a cultural mandate, one must approach with greater diffidence and humility the question of whether or not Mormons have some greater purchase on actual internal happiness than other religious folks.
Joanna Brooks is an award-winning writer, religion scholar, and university professor. She lives in San Diego and writes the weekly Ask Mormon Girl column.