When I went on my mission to Australia, my ward (local church) had a tradition of hanging up a "Missionary plaque" with our picture and favorite scripture. I didn't have a favorite scripture at the time, so I searched through all the ones I'd highlighted during my seminary and personal study of the Book of Mormon. Finally, I found the one I wanted next to my picture, the perfect scripture to encapsulate my life-philosophy, hanging prominently on the wall of my Church for all to see and read:
And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. (Mosiah 2:41)
To me, it captures the essence of what Mormons believe will make people happy: Obedience to the commandments of God and faithfulness in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This message is repeated over and over again in LDS scripture and official publications: see here, here, and here for some characteristic examples.
However, there is a dark side to God's Plan of Happiness: If you deviate from the plan, then you can't be truly happy. And who doesn't want us to follow God's plan? "Could it be . . . Satan?" That's right. Satan, the father of lies, opposes God's plan because he "seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself." (2 Nephi 2:27) When tempted by Lucifer, good Mormons everywhere need to remember that "wickedness never was happiness." (Alma 41:10) If we disobey God (or, even worse, we don't even believe in Him) then unhappiness will be our lot in life.
If you could simplify this into some sort of happiness formula, it could be expressed like this:
Belief + Righteousness + the Church + Prophets + Priesthood + Temples + Enduring to the end = Happiness.
Wickedness + Disbelief + Philosophies of men + Not enduring to the end + Minion of Satan = Unhappiness.
The only problem with this idea is that it's absolute poppycock. Really - this was one of the first doctrines that I noticed had gaping holes in it. And yet, I hear intelligent Mormons bring it up all the time. Just last week, in fact, my sister received an email from her concerned father-in-law about her lack of faithfulness. The email basically repeated what I have just outlined; happiness is gained through obedience to the laws and ordinances of God and through faithfulness in the LDS Church, so (you can sing along with the primary song here) "don't go a-stray." I remember being subject to this line of reasoning from concerned family members when I left the Church a few years ago. Therefore, the idea deserves a nice spanking.
1. There are many happy people outside the LDS Church. You see happy people everywhere. If following God's plan is the only way to true happiness, what are we to make of all the shiny happy couples in love, families on vacation together, or individuals enjoying themselves socializing after work? Well, maybe they look happy, but to be truly happy - to have a fullness of joy - you need the gospel. Just think how much more happy they could be as couples, families, or individuals, if they had the Church!
2. There are many unhappy Mormons. I'm not saying that Mormonism is incompatible with happiness. I am willing to admit that there are plenty of happy Mormons out there. To deny there are happy Mormons would be just as silly as to deny that there are genuinely happy people outside the LDS Church. However, there are also many faithful members who are unhappy; perhaps wondering why they are so unhappy if they are following God's plan for happiness.
3. The happiest countries in the world, are also the most secular. In Gallup's recent World Poll, the top 5 happiest countries were also some of the most secular and atheistic. In order of happiness, these countries are: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Rates of nonbelief in these European countries are very high - especially in comparison to the US. And the trend of happy-secular counties continues, with 12 of the happiest 17 countries also having some of the highest rates of non-belief. However, the Church hardly has a presence in Europe and Scandinavia. So why all the happy people?
4. Many other religious people (besides Mormons) are happy too. Buddhists are some of the happiest people on Earth. Buddhists are not Mormon (nor do they even believe in God like Western religions do). And the happiness trend continues for many other religious people in America, who are doing just fine in the happiness category without Mormonism. This Gallup survey of Americans showed that religious people are happier than nonreligious people (which seems to contradict my third point above).
However, according to a 2007 study by Liesbeth Snoep, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness when researchers measured religion in the Netherlands and Denmark (where religious belief is not as ubiquitous). Rather, what is important is belonging to the majority group. In the US, where atheists are one of the most despised minority groups, and where 90% of the population describe themselves as believers, it's not surprising how non-religious people can feel isolated from the majority. This "in-group" vs. "out-group" difference, rather than being religious vs. nonreligious, is probably what explains the differences in happiness between religious people in the US vs. non-religious people in the Netherlands or Denmark.
However, this is a false dichotomy. Couldn't we both be happy? Couldn't lots of people find ways of living happy meaningful lives? Does our respective happiness need to be mutually exclusive? The evidence shows that lots of people, of divergent walks of life, can be happy.
In fact, psychologists, economists, and sociologists are now studying the ways in which individuals and populations live happy meaningful lives. The research in these happiness studies is finding that happiness correlates closely with the following activities:
1. Social Health: Connecting with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues in meaningful social ways.
2. Physical Health And Security: Being physically active and staying healthy improves your mood and well being. Also, people living without threat of physical harm are happier than people living in war-torn-regions. Some of the most unhappy countries are those involved in perpetual war in Africa or the Middle East.
3. Financial Health: People who win lotteries or inherit large sums of money are happier than people who don't. However, happiness studies show that there is diminishing returns on happiness after annual salaries of about $60-80,000 (where basic needs are met). Further pursuit of material assets, beyond meeting the basic needs, does not translate into greater happiness, and can actually detract from happiness if we neglect our families and friends in the process.
4. Finding Personal Meaning: This is where religion comes into happiness because it can help others find personal meaning. However, there are other ways of finding personal meaning besides religion. Taking notice of our world around us, being curious, meditate, remark on the beautiful and unusual, savoring the moment, and reflecting on our experiences. Interestingly, religions that teach that only their religion can lead to salvation, and that all other religions are to be condemned, tend to produce lower life satisfaction.
5. Mental Health: Keep learning, read non-fiction, try something new, ask questions, search for answers, learn another language, get a new hobby, go back to school - if only to audit a few classes. Happiness levels and levels of education are related; the more education you have, the happier you will be.
6. Altruism: donate time, money, or volunteer for a charity or cause or person. Get outside yourself and try to make the world a better place. People who give of their means are happier than people who do not.
In conclusion, if religion helps people do the things that have actually been shown to be associated with happiness, then I would congratulate them and wish them well. However, one does not need to be religious to live a happy, fulfilled, and meaningful life. Plenty of people manage just fine without religion in their life. A little more well-wishing, and a little less preaching and condemning from religious people, would be appreciated by non-religious people like me. Mormons are some of the worst offenders when they act like they have a lock on happiness, and try to convert (or reconvert) everyone. Let's all just remember that happiness can be found in many different walks of life: both religious and non-religious alike. Surely, that would make the world a happier place.