On more than one occasion as I was growing up, my father said something like this: “Pain has a purpose. Pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Often, the best fix is an adjustment to one or more of four basic health-related habits: what and how much we eat, how much we sleep (not too much; not too little), how often and how long we exercise, and how we manage stress in our lives. Frequently, the best remedy is a rather uncomplicated correction to one or more of these aspects of our lifestyle.”
I have thought about that idea a lot over the past couple of weeks as we have discussed the elements of happy living in our seminar series. If veggies, fruits, whole grains, 7.5 hours of sleep, 30 minutes a day of rigorous exercise, and functional stress relief valves in our lives make for physically healthy living—at least as a general rule—could it be that there is a similar “formula” for spiritually- and emotionally-healthy living that would help us live in a state of happiness?
We finished (for now, at least) putting our heads together this week in our Thursday evening seminar and came up with a list of nine elements or ingredients for happy living. I like to call them “The Manners of Happiness” since we are trying to explain what it means to live “after the manner of happiness.” (Recognizing that happiness is, in reality, a matter of degree and not either strictly present or absent, we nevertheless identified these things as being required to get us to a way of living that would generally be described as “happy.” For achieving the greatest amount of happiness ultimately possible, more is needed—and we’ve identified those things, too, in a second list.) For being happy right here and now, here are the nine things we came up with—in no particular order.
- Pursuit of personal improvement. We need to be striving for personal growth—not just striving to be better at something or to acquire more knowledge (though those are good), but striving to be better human beings—better contributors to the common good.
- Love. Here we refer to love as a verb and with ourselves on the giving, serving end. We cannot be very happy when we are not striving to help others feel loved, valued, supported—and happy—themselves. We tend to make ourselves happier when we are making efforts to help other people feel happier.
- Choosing well. Alma said, “Wickedness never was happiness.” Conversely, it seems a valid axiom that righteousness—or choosing well—not to be confused with piety or self-righteousness—is a necessary condition for happiness. Not that we must be perfect or we can’t be happy, but we must strive to keep the commandments and to live life as God encourages us to live it.
- Handling adversity. “Into each life some rain must fall,” said the poet. God sends “rain on the just and the unjust,” said the Son of God. We will all gain experience with life’s difficulties: disappointments, tragedies, heartaches, doubts, discouragement, mean people, etc. How we handle those things is up to us. If we do not handle them well, we will severely limit our ability to experience happiness while we struggle with them, which can be most of the time.
- Forgiving. Like adversity, we can hardly avoid being wronged or offended. The better the perspective we maintain and the more generous we are at giving people the benefit of the doubt, the less we’ll need to forgive. But if it’s true that “the greater sin” lies with the person who fails to forgive than in the person who commits the original wrong and if it’s true that happiness is not found in sin, then it stands to reason that failing to forgive is a great formula for living unhappily.
- Having hope, faith, and optimism. It may be true that a pessimist is never disappointed and it is surely true that we should anticipate and prepare for negative events in our lives, but surely happiness is associated with a bright outlook and a sense of confidence that we will become better than we are today, that fairness will ultimately prevail, that people can change, and that a better future lies ahead. Faith centered in the Atonement and teachings of Jesus Christ is the ultimate form of optimism and confidence.
- Diligence. Of “a virtuous woman,” it is written that “she looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” The commandment Adam received, when leaving the Garden of Eden, to eat his bread by “the sweat of thy face,” was, according to Elder Bruce D. Porter, a gift, not a curse. Working means contributing and is surely an essential ingredient in a happy life.
- Feeling loved. Nothing in our list is dependent upon the choices or actions of others. Feeling loved is, perhaps arguably but nevertheless defensibly, not an exception to that. It is not enough to be loved; we must recognize and accept that we are loved—hopefully by family and friends and all the people whom we love, but if by no one else—and hopefully in addition to those others—then by our Father in Heaven and by a Savior who has given all for each of us.
- Recreation. This item came down to a close vote, but with an appeal to “The Proclamation” and its reference to “wholesome recreational activities,” the pro-fun faction among our young single adults won. And why not? The Lord doesn’t just make the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He makes the sun shine on us, too (well, unless you live in the Northwest). It’s hard to imagine feeling happy in a life devoid of moments of wholesome fun and laughter and enjoying the good things of the earth.
As previously alluded to, it is important to note that there were five other items on our list, which we say are essential for the fullness of happiness which awaits us if we choose to live after the ultimate manners of happiness. These include: not only gaining a testimony, but being fully converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ; forming meaningful relationships with each member of the Godhead; making and keeping temple covenants; being humble and acquiring to their fullest extent all the attributes of Christ; and being in and contributing to a happy, successful family. Including those in our immediate list would have meant excluding large portions of our world population from being happy, which we agreed was unjustifiable and contradicted our experiences and observations. Yet we note again that there are degrees of happiness—with much available to us now and yet more later if we so live. (Of course, most of these things are available to most of right now and need not be waited for.)
Is it possible that doing things like loving better, being more diligent, and facing adversity with more faith and optimism will result in us feeling happier—just as straightforwardly as eating better and exercising more consistently will result in us being healthier? I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t one more item to add to our list, which departs a little from the physical health analogy—and that is making the choice to be happy. I doubt that a person can be happy solely by choosing to be while ignoring things like those we’ve listed; but it does seem possible for a person to do a lot of things right yet lack the willingness to let themselves experience being happy.
Joseph Smith said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” Clearly happiness is within the ability of each of us to experience in the short-term. Perhaps if we are not, we just need to adjust one or more of a few basic happiness-related habits in our lives.