If they feel happy and think they’re happy, how is that different from BEING happy?

That was Rebecca’s response to her Mormon mom who dismissed the possibility that an exmo friend might be happy (“Oh, she only thinks she’s happy”).

I thought of this point when the subject came up again, and Hellmut mentioned how awful the Mormon phony/forced happiness is.

Now, I agree that Mormons often want to be a walking advertisement for the church, so they feel pressured to put on a happy face even when they’re not happy. Plus, the standard solution to various problems is to pray harder and study the scriptures more, which kind of implies that if you’re unhappy, it’s because you’re not doing a good enough job of living the gospel. So if you’re unhappy and can’t psyche yourself into being happy, then the church compounds your problem by adding a dose of guilt and inadequacy.

On the other hand, I’ve occasionally dealt with a very similar problem as an atheist. As an atheist, I know that life is finite, so every day is precious. Thus, it’s imperative to seize the day! Yet, I’ve had days when I felt lethargic and blue, and — not only did I not accomplish anything towards my goals — but I didn’t even do anything enjoyable by myself or with my family. In other words, a day went by that I did not seize! And I only have so many! Then I felt worse, until I convinced myself that no one can reasonably expect to seize every single day.

But anyway, even if we need to accept that we can’t always force ourselves to be happy, it may well be true that telling yourself you should be happy works more often than not. In a Mormon context, it comes out as “Count your many blessings.” In a secular context, it’s the power of positive thinking and a positive attitude! So maybe not all the Mormon phony/forced happiness really is fake — if they feel happy and think they’re happy, how is that different from being happy? It’s obviously not 100% (since we have plenty of counterexamples of people who were/are faking it), but maybe it works some of the time.


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at @chanson@social.linux.pizza or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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16 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    Well, far be it from me to be able to tell if someone is actually happy, or if it’s forced happiness. I couldn’t say. And I did hear quotes often that “wickedness was never happiness” and “they only THINK they’re happy”. Not from everyone, but it was not uncommon either.

    With that said, I think there’s a lot to be said for allowing choice and accountability within some families. I am well aware that for some LDS families I’ve observed, there is little choice or unconditional love within the family. A person can see it in the family interaction (or non interaction). (These same people I’m thinking of who didn’t allow choice or accountability within their families also thought clinical depression could be overcome by more prayer).

    From my perspective, in the families that work, support is unconditional. Adult children are allowed to make their own choices and mistakes, go to therapy, not go on missions, not go to BYU, not marry by 25, etc. Talking about problems and feelings is not seen as weakness.

    To your point – are there families/people who are really happy? Definitely. Are there healthy members? Definitely.

    I just think that sometimes that “every member a missionary” thing seeps into family life. Sometimes when there ARE real problems, some families are hesitant to admit or address them. Sometimes they will go to great lengths to keep secrets and keep up appearances. That is their choice, though. I certainly hope some of those trends are changing.

  2. I’ve been mulling over the idea of “They only think they’re happy …” The elided part of thought isn’t really “… but they’re actually miserable” is it? I think we finish the thought with “but they could be happier”.

    In fairness, I think this about Mormons. They think they’re happy, but they could be happier. Or so I believe. This is based on my experience inside and outside of the church, but maybe my experience wouldn’t translate well to everyone else. Perhaps some people would actually be happier as Mormons.

    I’m not saying that we should avoid speaking out for the truth for the sake of letting people stay in their happy, naive bubbles. Rather, we can’t necessarily promise them that they’ll be happier outside of Mormonism. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will.

    Either way, they’ll be more familiar with the truth, and happiness isn’t everything.

  3. Hellmut says:

    There is reason to be skeptical about happiness claims. Both ortho- and heterodox Mormons have incentives to delude themselves and their peers. On the other hand, as a matter of respect people deserve to be taken at face value.

    Having said that, happiness is overrated. It’s nice to be happy but it’s just as human to be blue. Sad people deserve respect as well.

    Imagine how much poorer our life would be if Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven had never been depressed.

    The happiness imperative is also bad theology. According to Genesis (and Charles Darwin), we are living in the fallen condition where happiness ought to be the exception.

    Moreover, unhappiness is probably a necessary condition for progress. Unhappy people are more likely to try something new and innovate.

    So the inquiry into each other’s happiness isn’t all that useful. A worldview that wants to demonstrate its superiority, if that is ever a worthwhile pursuit, might contribute more if it can give meaning to discomfort and suffering.

  4. chanson says:

    aerin — Good points. Actually, I think it’s possible that things are going in a positive direction in terms of unconditional love in Mormon families. This is perhaps just a crazy theory of mine, but I think that a lot of problems with conditional love stem from parents having more kids than they can handle. If you have only one, two, or three kids (like Mormons are now starting to do), you’re just not going to disown one of them or write him/her off too easily.

    Jonathan — Yeah, I think you’re right that the rest of the thought is probably “but they could be happier” (or more authentically happy).

    Hellmut — That’s a good point that you (and Jonathan) make: that happiness might not always be the best or most important goal. What’s that famous quote about how it’s beside the point to note that a drunk man is happier than a sober one…?

  5. Craig says:

    I am well aware that for some LDS families I’ve observed, there is little choice or unconditional love within the family. A person can see it in the family interaction (or non interaction). (These same people I’m thinking of who didn’t allow choice or accountability within their families also thought clinical depression could be overcome by more prayer).

    And thus is my Mormon family experience summed up in a few sentences. I always knew growing up (and now talking to my siblings they’ve confirmed it too), that I could never, ever admit imperfection, I could never ever tell my parents what I was really thinking or feeling – because it wasn’t within that confined little box of approved Mormon reality.

    And the reason my family still doesn’t work, is because love and acceptance are conditional.

    And if ever I now admitted to my parents that I was having a rough day, week, month, or year, or that I was depressed, I know their first thought would be, “It’s because he’s not living the gospel.”

    Because they don’t (cannot) believe 1) that I was constantly miserable under Mormonism, or 2) that anyone could be possibly happier outside the church than within. And they believe the lie that happiness must be a constant state (if you’re living the commandments of the LORD that is).

    So much of my family’s dysfunction and shit situation I (and so many others) had growing up stem from the Mormon happiness paradox.

    Chanson, I hope you’re right about Mormons learning to be more unconditional in their familial love. Is 5 children too many to love unconditionally?

  6. chanson says:

    Is 5 children too many to love unconditionally?

    I think the precise number really depends on the parents. In general, the fewer you have, the more time and resources you invest in each one, and the less likely you are to write any of them off for any reason.

    There were five kids in my family (as I’ve shown), and I think my parents love all five unconditionally, despite our religious differences.

    Of course, my parents were pretty laissez-faire for Mormons. For the most part, their parenting style was that they each had their own elaborate projects they were working on, and we kids could join in and/or come up with our own interesting projects to do. We had rules, but my parents weren’t micro-managers. The down side of their style was, I think, that it doesn’t allow for all that much individual attention for each of five kids. I think they would have been exemplary parents with three kids, but going for five (as the Lord commanded) was kinda pushing it.

    And you can see that I’ve inherited the same basic parenting style from them…

  7. Hellmut says:

    Hi Craig,
    The emphasis on ‘blessings’ is a big part of the problem. The other aspect that is detrimental is the check list nature of Mormonism.

    Everybody is constantly judging everybody else according to the check lists. If you deviate and want to preserve your status, self-accusation in fast and testimony meeting might do the trick.

    It is really rather sad how adult human beings feel compelled to justify the most trivial decisions publicly.

  8. aerin says:

    I agree with chanson that it depends on the parents. I too hope this is changing.

    I think some of the past attitudes might be changing, that’s my hope at least. When individual members are given the freedom to choose whether or not to marry, have children and the freedom to plan their families – I think many of these issues will be resolved. I think that the LDS church is moving in that direction.

    However, the leadership could be more upfront about these changes and adjustments in policy. There could be better education for the individual members, families and bishops about mental health issues, appropriate boundaries and abuse.

  9. chanson says:

    When individual members are given the freedom to choose whether or not to marry, have children and the freedom to plan their families – I think many of these issues will be resolved.

    I think so too. Some people can do a great job of raising a big family, but not everyone. With a little autonomy and privacy, many people who are more cut out to raise only one, two, or three will be better parents by not stretching themselves beyond their limits.

  10. Hellmut says:

    The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why discusses the research on family size.

    Typically, in large families the oldest and the youngest children are well adapted. The middle children are not because they are not getting enough parental attention.

    I may be wrong but my impression is that large families are a historical anomaly for our species. It used to be that child mortality was so high that a woman who bore seven children would see two or three to adulthood, just enough to take care of the parents in old age.

    As health care improved, primarily through the discovery of hygiene by Ignaz Semmelweis, child mortality decreased dramatically and family size increased.

    However, as women realized within two generations that their children were more likely to survive, they have chosen to get pregnant less often. That’s a development that appears to precede the advent of birth control technologies.

    In Mormonism, the decrease of family is somewhat delayed. Possible causes may include status gains of parents for large families or the fact that many Mormon women enjoy less liberty than their western European peers, for example.

  11. chanson says:

    Hellmut — I agree on all points. Due to infant/child mortality, most parents historically didn’t raise more than a few children to adulthood. Parents raising ten, twelve, or more to adulthood is an anomaly that we’re not well adapted for.

    I’m very happy to live in a time when we can limit family size through birth control and resonably expect to have children that live to adulthood. As I said in fertility, mortality (sex vs. death), if I had to give up every single other advance of our miraculous modern era to keep this one, I would.

  12. rebecca says:

    Jonathan – actually, in my mother’s case, I think the unfinished part actually IS, “but they’re really miserable.”

    I think my statement – that if you think you’re happy and feel happy, then you ARE happy – is a huge oversimplification, because people can certainly fool themselves and that can manifest in all sorts of ways (depression, eating disorders, OCD, etc – not that those are always manifestations of something else. I’m just saying they CAN be). But overall, I think the statement works for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

    If you’d asked me if I was happy as a Mormon, I probably would have said yes. But I rarely felt happy – I was just trying REALLY hard to live the way that I was taught would make me happy. Out of Mormonism, I actually feel happier because all the things that made me unhappy – the sexism and homophobia in the church, the constant fear that I could never be good enough, blahblahblah – are gone.

    But that’s not to say I’m this super bubbly, perky person all of the sudden. Like Hellmut said, happiness is overrated. Sort of. When I say “happy,” I don’t mean that I feel this constant sense of joy. I just mean that overall, I feel good about where I am and where I’m headed, which is not how I felt in the church.

    As for the family thing, I think unconditional love is kind of a dumb idea. Not possible. There are ALWAYS conditions. I know my parents probably love me the least out of all their kids (don’t feel bad about that – I don’t, really), but I don’t think it’s because I left the church or anything. I think it’s because I’m the least like them. That’s not their fault and it’s not mine – but they find it a little harder to love me because of it (as I find it a little harder to love them). There are always conditions.

  13. chanson says:

    Rebecca — I think you’re right that truly unconditional love is impossible. My only point was that if you have fewer kids, then it will take a whole lot more before you’re willing to give up on them.

    From my own personal experience, I don’t think I was unhappy as a Mormon. There was stuff I hated about Mormonism and stuff I hated about being Mormon, yet I don’t feel like it made me unhappy or dissatisfied with life. Of course I was a kid for most of the time I was Mormon, and it was so long ago that all the memories have become rosy, so take my perspective with a grain of salt. 😉

  14. aerin says:

    wikipedia entry on unconditional love

    I guess I should explain what I mean(t) by unconditional love. I know this doesn’t completely relate to the post. I think it’s possible to love someone unconditionally, but believe it’s unhealthy to be around them – or to spend too much time around them. Basically divorcing the notion of – just because I love you, means I have to do something for you(like enable you to continue to use x substance) or hang around you.

    It’s complicated. Yes, of course there are conditions that we all have to deal with – to promote civil behavior and relationships. If a person steals from me, however I might feel about them – I may need to take steps to protect myself.

    I believe there are reasonable and unreasonable conditions (btw – fully admit that my narrative(s) are in play here).

    Most parents do love their children unconditionally. Where the rub comes in is when parents start saying – I can’t respect your independent decision (as an adult) to believe x or to no longer participate in a particular religious tradition. I don’t think that’s a fair bargain from some parents.

    Most parents (LDS and other) do not fall into this category. But some do. For example, a friend of mine who is no longer Catholic was told by his grandmother that he needed to marry in a Catholic church. His significant other is divorced and Catholic, so they can’t marry in the Catholic church (and remain unmarried). Personally, I think this is a little ridiculous. Of course my friend is making the decision not to get married, outside of the Catholic church. But it’s not exactly fair of his grandmother to make such a pronoucement (IMO).

    I may just be rambling here at the end of the day. I just think there’s a difference between fair conditions for relationships and unreasonable conditions for love and support.

  15. Wayne says:

    I agree with Hellmut that happiness is overrated. Seems to me that the true path to happiness is to admit that you are not always going to be happy.

  16. chanson says:

    Wayne — probably true. Is that Buddhist wisdom, or just general wisdom? 😀

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