Mormon Happiness?

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Dear AMG,

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?

Allison

 

Dear Allison:

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.

The 2008 Pew Forum Survey on religion asked Americans of all sorts of religious affiliations whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with their lives, and it turns out that Mormons are not in fact America's happiest religion. That would be our Buddhist brothers and sisters, 90 percent of whom reported being satisfied with their lives. Mormons ranked second, at 89 percent. Jews, Hindus, and mainline Protestants came in right behind, at 88 percent. An exclusive Mormon claim on happiness would be a bit of an overstatement.

As we all know, sorrow comes to every life. And most religions give their adherents tremendous theological and social resources for dealing with it, whether they feel they must always be "turning their frowns upside down" or not. Personally, I'm more invested in the idea that Mormons are diverse and complex human beings with substantial inner lives than I am in the idea that we all maintain happy faces. And to that end, Allison, I think it's important that you know that there are lots of sad, anxious, and depressed Mormons too -- though you might never tell from the outside. There are even Mormons who shut down vast regions of their inner lives so as not to risk harboring a feeling that doesn't measure up. For the shadow of Mormon happiness is the tremendous feeling of loneliness and failure we Mormons shoulder when we believe we fail to measure up to our culture's high happiness standards.

Not to end on a total downer. I hate ending on downers. How very Mormon of me.

Okay, readers, it's your turn to weigh in. Mormon happiness? Nature or nurture? Fact or fiction? 

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