It seems that every time our ward talks about the Plan of Happiness, someone brings up the fact that the happiness in the plan is not necessarily today, but it’s a future state of happiness that arrives by obedience, or some other theoretical mumbo jumbo.  Sometimes I like to refer to this as our eventual celestial lobotomy, the idea that somehow even if we don’t like something now, we will suddenly like it when we are dead.[1]

The Plan of Happiness is the Book of Mormon lingo for the Plan of Salvation, and I assume that salvation is happier than damnation.  If by Plan of Happiness we mean going to earth to get a body to continue to progress, then it’s a happier alternative to being disembodied and stagnant.  If we put “the plan” in the context of “salvation,” then clearly it is meant to be a future state, not our day to day lives.  And yet, Mormons seem to be a happy lot on the whole, not necessarily only due to all the prescription medication usage and online paid pornography subscriptions Utah is so well-known for.

How to be Happy

A recent article in Time talked about 4 things we can do here and now to be happy:

  1. Focus on gratitude.  Let go of guilt, shame and worry which are negative emotions that feed our reward center with a sort of psychological junk food–we feel full, but there’s no nutritional value.
  2. Name our feelings.  Unknown feelings trigger more fear in us than known ones.  Just knowing what our feelings are reduces their impact on us.  This is why mindfulness is so important in meditation.
  3. Make decisions, even if they aren’t perfect.  Just the act of making a decision gives you a feeling of control that reduces stress.  According to neuroscience researcher Alex Korb, “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”
  4. Hugs & handshakes.  Touch people, particularly people you love, if you want to be happier.

Church Culture

When people complain that the Plan of Happiness doesn’t make them happy, I suspect that what they really mean is that going to church doesn’t make them happy or that it even triggers unhappiness in them.  Yet church seems particularly primed for #1 and #4 on the things we can do to be happy.  In fast & testimony meeting, it’s even become a cliche to start with “I wouldn’t be grateful if I didn’t stand up today and . . .” so counting blessings is definitely a thing Mormons like to do.  And handshakes are also a particularly Mormon thing.  As to naming feelings and making decisions, church is probably agnostic on those.  Church is not creating an unhappy environment if these are the 4 things that improve happiness.

Dysfunctional families

Family Patterns

What seems even more obvious to me is that some families are better at these things than others.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)

We learn our coping skills by seeing how our parents model them.  For example, if parents are impatient when frustrated, kids often exhibit the same behaviors when dealing with frustration.  Some families dine on guilt, shame, and worry, repressing their feelings either stoically or passive-aggressively.  Some families are not demonstrative when it comes to affection.  Some are indecisive or prefer to coast by on status quo rather than making decisions.  Passivity seems linked to depression.  These are patterns of behavior common to families.
Two Choices:  Opposition in All Things

I just returned from Disneyland, arguably the happiest place on earth. [2]  And what’s not to be happy about?  We got to play hooky from work for a week, and the kids even got to miss 2 days of school.  The lines weren’t bad, there were catchy tunes, friendly people, corny jokes, and we ran into ward friends and family members to boot.  We took one day off to go to Magic Mountain which was kind of like a Mexican prison by contrast:  broken down infrastructure, indifferent safety and security, sweltering heat with very little shade and no air conditioning, defaced ads, no cheerful background music, gruff patrons with neck tattoos using profanity, and trash on the ground. [3]  Returning to the Disney parks the next day, I had new appreciation for everything:  the cleanliness, the friendly people, the smell of the place, the incessantly catchy music.

Having two choices is a strategy we often use in our business; always give customers two choices, and they will psychologically be more invested in the choice they made because they chose it.  But if you give people too many choices, they will feel stuck and confused.  In the famous “jam test,” two displays were set up:  one with 30 flavors of jam to try, and one with only 3.  The display with fewer choices resulted in far more sales than the one with more choices.  Less is more.

Remembering Self vs. Experiencing Self

Opposition in all things.

Another interesting idea that relates to happiness is that we have two selves:  our experiencing self, and our remembering self.  We think our happiness is all about our experience in the moment, but really it’s our memory of our experience that matters.  One study involved participants immersing their hand in painfully cold water for 30 seconds.  In the second trial, they had to keep their hand in the water an additional 15 seconds but the water was warmer by 2 degrees.  Surprisingly, when asked which trial participants would rather repeat, the overwhelming majority defied logic and chose the second trial.  In both trials they were in painfully cold water for 30 seconds; trial two just ended on a slightly more pleasant note than trial one, even though both endured the same difficult 30 seconds.  This is similar to the old adage that you forget the pain of child birth after the fact.

Another example of the remembering self trumping the experiencing self is to ask yourself how much you would be willing to pay for a fabulous vacation to Hawaii if your memory of the vacation and all evidence of the vacation would be immediately erased at the end of your stay.  The value is significantly less without the remembering self.  Or conversely, would you sign up to climb Mount Everest if after you did, you would have no memory of it and no evidence that you went?  This option is even less popular than the Hawaii Amnesia Tour; most people would not.  [4]

Our most recent experiences color our perception of all that came before it.  Likewise, in the movie Inside Out, Joy is upset that Sadness is touching all of the happy childhood memories and turning them blue, but that is also part of moving to another city and growing up.  We can’t change the impact of most recent events on our overall perceptions, but we can learn to accept them and put them into perspective over time.

Discuss.

[1] Most commonly, a strategy Mormon women use to deal with the idea of eternal polygamy.

[2] Disney would certainly argue that.

[3] OK, not really sure that’s what a Mexican prison is like, but maybe.

[4] Mount Everest is all about the bragging rights and the accomplishment of doing something challenging.  The experience sucks.  You are literally trudging past frozen corpses of fellow hikers.  No thanks.