The Cult of Happiness

I attended a local Tedx evening earlier this week. One talk critiqued the “cult of happiness” that is fostered by social media posts. Everyone posts the great or good things about their life, complete with carefully cropped photos (the trip to Italy, the great new job, lost 10 pounds) but almost everyone conveniently edits out the bad things (can’t pay the bills, relationship problems, actually gained 15 pounds). So most readers think everyone else is doing great and they, knowing all their own bad stuff even if they don’t post it, feel like a loser. The suggestion seems to be that if you avoid social media, you’ll be happier. If only it were so simple.

The problem is that social media may exaggerate the phenomenon, but most of us hide or at least downplay the bad stuff while putting the good stuff on display in all social environments, whether online or in real life. It’s just human nature. Here’s what struck me as I reflected on the idea. Like social media, the Church and Mormon culture also seem to exaggerate this aspect of our natural social behavior. There is a Mormon Cult of Happiness. We even rebranded the Plan of Salvation as “the Plan of Happiness.”

I will leave it up to readers to agree or disagree about the extent to which the Church and Mormon culture unintentionally encourage this mental trap. Here is what is surprising: the Church also seems to provide some features that counteract this problem.

  • Exhibit 1: Testimony meeting once a month, in which several ward members rip off the happiness mask and share some of their bad stuff.
  • Exhibit 2: Free counseling with the bishop. I’m thinking most bishops tell those sharing bad stuff that they are not alone, that many members have bad stuff too, and that they can get through this.
  • Exhibit 3: General Conference talks that encourage an alternative view: that we are all human, we all have problems, we should support each other through fellowship and encouragement, and repentance can be a positive force to combat sin and feelings of self worthlessness.

I’m not entirely convinced. I’m not sure how much Mormon culture actually emphasizes or exaggerates the Cult of Happiness problem compared to other religious cultures or other social environments (your job, your school, your neighbors, your family). And I’m not sure how effective the countermeasures noted above are for those Mormons who are particularly susceptible to the negative effect of the Cult of Happiness. But at least we have a partial solution to the problem. Think about this the next time you sit through testimony meeting or the next time you stand and share some of the bad stuff.

I kind of like my earlier summary of an alternative to the Cult of Happiness. I’m going to rebrand it The Cult of Reality and restate it for emphasis. We are all human and we all have problems. We should support each other through fellowship and encouragement. Repentance can be a positive force to combat sin and feelings of self worthlessness.

10 comments for “The Cult of Happiness

  1. Good post Dave. I would add the scriptures as a great resource to counteract the Cult of Happiness. The story of Job. Stephan’s martyrdom. Alma’s people in bondage. Saints in Missouri. The scriptures are replete with suffering.

    Indeed, Moses 7 makes a pretty good case that being a god quite often really bad, worse than we can imagine. Personally, I’m still on the fence as to whether exaltation will be worth it. If the joy and sorrow simply counteract in some great ying-yang equation, count me out. I’m hopeful that the sorrow, while great, is nonetheless swallowed up in the joy. But some days I’m not really confident in that.

  2. Reminds me of sending out Christmas letters. I wanted to share what had happened during the year. Well that included basement floods, kids with health problems, problems at work. Now none of these things particularly bothered me. I’ve got a weird mix of optimism and pessimism where I’m pessimistic about bad things happen, but optimistic in that I enjoy overcoming them. But man, I started getting all these calls about it. Because I was forthright about what was going on, it seemed even more shocking I guess compared to all the other Christmas cards. What was so weird is that I honestly didn’t think it was a bad year at all, all things considered. I felt extremely happy.

    I don’t send out Christmas cards anymore. LOL.

  3. Dave – you have almost persuaded me to share more on social media about my daughter who is NOT going on a mission due to mental illness and her eventual desire to move out so that she can, in her words, live her own standards which differ from those at home.

  4. Huh? The plan is so we can be happy. It’s not a plan where we’ll be happy at every moment unless you are able to be happy amidst tragedy. I’m sure God wasn’t laughing during the holocaust.

  5. Great post Dave. This is a topic that needs to be discussed more.

    I see the cultural cult of happiness everywhere, and what immediately came to my mind was Julie Beck’s conference talk from several years ago when she was general Relief Society president. I know many mom’s who more or less went into shock…as if their lives were not already difficult enough, now they had to make their kids look perfect for church every week too.

    It’s not healthy. We need to be more honest and we need a culture which rewards honesty.

    Years ago my wife and I attended a stake adult fireside. A highly respected, highly educated church educator and author spoke. I thought I was in for an hour of endless BoM analysis, but no. He largely talked about the years of depression he suffered through, how he had thoughts of ending his life, how he had lost all motivation to continue on with his career and didn’t know what to do. After seeking professional help, he started to recover. He said he was doing better, but there were still hard days. I came away more inspired than I ever had from a meeting like this. It was so refreshingly real it is hard for me to describe to this day.

    When testimony meetings are such safe places–and in some wards indeed they are–that people can disclose all that is in their heart, those in attendance are changed for the better. I know I am, but I still struggle to be vulnerable.

  6. Well, I have a formula called the happiness principle. If you are not happy, then change something. Even if the change means meditating on the fleetingness of life. We can fix some of the externalities. We can modify our expectations. We can change ourselves into different people by meditation and self examination. We can peacefully help the people around us to change. Then there are antidepressants, thank goodness. None is easy to do but it is generally possible, and having said that we can die happy most of the time.

    I am proof that it sort of works. I have had my share of problems, reverses and losses. I have used the principle to recover equilibrium. (But I may be a special case.) Also, I know enough about life to realize that my Facebook friends are telling me the better sides of their experiences so that I can be glad for them. They do not have to tell me of the dark side, I have a good imagination.

  7. When we give up insisting that photographs of authorities show toothy grins, maybe we can believe it’s ok to have bad days.

  8. This makes me think of a comment I heard in church this week about how the burdens and sorrows we are given are meant to be shared, that way everyone is helped. It also reminds me of a quote that goes something like this “Sorrow shared is sorrow halved, but joy shared is joy doubled”.

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