I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of being fortunate, and not necessarily feeling overjoyed.
However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.
There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.
Unhappiness is not a sin
As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.
Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).
Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions
It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.
That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.
Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.
We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.