Searching for Happiness and Never Finding It

By Michael Vinson


Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy.                                                                                                                  —D&C 11:13


Even though Mormons are enjoined not to play the lottery, many are nevertheless tempted by it, fantasizing about how a sudden infusion of cash would make them happier. As Latter-day Saints, we often feel that we need to be uniquely happy since we have the restored Church and exclusive insights. But we, like most everyone else in the world, inevitably find ourselves feeling as if the bluebird of happiness is always landing on someone else’s shoulder.

The American compulsion to search for happiness (in all the wrong places, it should be noted) was commented on by Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America nearly two centuries ago and observed Americans’ voracious appetite for “more”: “Death finally comes, and it stops him before he has grown weary of a useless pursuit of a complete felicity that always eludes him.” Americans, according to de Tocqueville, have a misleading idea at the head of our Declaration of Independence—the pursuit of happiness—because the “pursuit” (chasing) of happiness has and always will obscure it and keep it hidden from us.

The most popular self-help books of our day, titles such as Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, are those that promise to show us the way to finally be happy. Ben-Shahar’s course on happiness at Harvard still holds the record for the largest enrollment in an undergraduate course (854 students).

Happiness as a human need was identified as an academic field some twenty-five years ago by the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, who, in a presidential address to the American Psychological Association, urged the establishment of a new field, “positive psychology,” that was to “complement” psychology’s work on “healing damage” by turning “toward understanding and building . . . human strengths.”

The exploration of human flourishing is, of course, not new, having roots in the work of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and many others. But while Seligman and leaders in positive psychology work to substantiate their findings, their research often gets obscured by what might be called the modern “happiness movement,” with books such as The Secret and its imitators focusing on mental attitudes and blithely claiming that through the right visualizations about wealth and success, one can attract and maintain true happiness. Millions of these books are sold, and yet very few people are finding the happiness being promised.

The impermanence of a perpetual state of happiness has been commented on by Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, whose research shows no substantiation of claims that permanent happiness can ever be achieved. Gilbert notes studies showing that though there is an immediate and sharp spike in a person’s happiness when extraordinary circumstances such as winning the lottery occur, the spike is only temporary. Soon, happiness levels return to pre-boon status. Apparently this return to the baseline works both ways: people who experience extreme tragedy also return to their general baseline happiness state sometime after the incident.

Given these and many other evidences, I contend that the quest for happiness is a fool’s errand: ultimately, we are looking for a state of being that even if achieved will not remain for long. I believe even the scriptures say as much. As one clue, neither the words “happy” nor “happiness” appear in the Doctrine & Covenants, which refers instead to “joy” as the ideal state of being. And, interestingly for readers of Sunstone and others with a bent toward expansive exploration, the D&C verse at the beginning of this column states that as our minds are enlightened—literally, filled with light—our joy will increase. But why should the enlightenment of our minds affect our sense of joy?

One of the first things we need to clarify is that when the scriptures say “light,” they do not mean knowledge of the factual sort. The more a person succeeds in worlds that honor a particular kind of knowledge, the more likely she or he is to become increasingly entrenched in the ways of thinking that are being celebrated (and here I’m talking about both academic and religious circles). Rather, scripture and spiritual traditions seem to indicate that the act of receiving spiritual light is a process of becoming more “aware.” Instead of increasing our knowledge of subjects, awareness enlarges our perceptions of the world as a whole, including realizations of what we do not—and may not ever—know.

For instance, Buddhism enjoins us to become a “witness” of our thoughts. Some people interpret this to mean that the ideal way to attain enlightenment is to detach from the world of action, spending time purely in observer mode. However, the Rig Veda, a book of Hindu scripture, can clarify this misconception. Upon the tree of life, it says, two birds perch, “knit together” in the bonds of friendship. One bird, participating in life, eats of the fruit of the tree of life; the other bird watches. Both birds are necessary. As we live in the world of action, we must also participate as a witness if we are to be enlightened. When we act in the world without continual reflection, we limit our awareness. When we reflect on what we know and do, we begin to incorporate the two birds within our own tree of life.

So Happiness is pleasurable but temporary. What about joy, then? If joy is, as the scripture reports, a spiritual condition that results from increasing enlightenment and awareness, could that mean that even if one is living in a state of joy, one may not necessarily be happy? Oliver Burkeman, a critic of the happiness movement, thinks so. In his book The Antidote he suggests that instead of seeking fleeting pleasure, the most important things we can learn are (1) to be comfortable with ambiguity, and (2) to accept our negative feelings. The key to this state of enlightenment is the ability to embrace and accept the good and the bad in our lives. If we meditate and reflect on our actions, we will become increasingly aware of habits that have been hidden from us. This awareness—the “witnessing” of our thoughts—increases our spiritual light, and thus, our joy.

Was Jesus happy? Were any prophets or saints happy? Thomas Merton, a prominent social critic and Trappist monk, reflected on the contradiction between happiness and joy in this way: a monk may be happy but never has a good time. In other words, monks, saints, prophets—those who live the truly examined life—do not confuse internal contentment with an external mood. That elusive elixir, joy, comes not from external states—our achievements, alterations to our bank accounts, or our social status—but from internal practices that lead to examination and acceptance of every aspect of our lives—even the difficult parts. This is the enlightenment that fills our minds with joy, though not with happiness.