7 Ways The Science of Happiness Supports the Gospel

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“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it,” said the Prophet Joseph Smith. Recently, the emerging field of positive psychology has begun to form a concrete opinion of what that path looks like in practice.  

Do the findings of positive psychology agree with the gospel? Is there anything we as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can learn in order to increase our level of happiness? Lets take a look:

1. Relationships

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Studies show that relationships are correlated with higher levels of happiness. Some studies indicate that at least one high-quality relationship is essential to avoid loneliness, and that people with friends can still be lonely if they don’t have such a relationship.

This one may seem like a no-brainer to Church members. The two great commandments mentioned by Jesus both relate directly to relationships: loving God, and loving our neighbor (see Matthew 22:37-39). Thus, in the gospel, relationships always come first.

We also know that eternal life is to know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3). Essentially, God defines eternal life as a relationship.

Finally, the need for having at least one very good friend with whom one shares of their whole self is fulfilled in an eternal marriage, where husband and wife are expected to share so much with each other that they become “one flesh” (Mark 10:7-8).

It’s easy to say that this scientific finding agrees with what we have learned in the Gospel.

2. Caring

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Caring for others is correlated with an increase in positive emotion. Receiving compassionate caring also seems to improve a sick person’s health.

This finding doesn’t need much elaboration. In the Church, we have been taught that when we are feeling down, we should forget ourselves and go to work in service to others. Perhaps it is the forgetting itself that allows for the positive emotions scientists have discovered.

The idea that receiving compassionate care affects a person’s recovery from physical illness seems natural given our belief in the union of the body and spirit, which will be discussed in more detail below.

3. Exercise

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Exercise is correlated with positive effects including a drop in depressive symptoms.

As members of the Church, we have a unique spiritual perspective on the connection of body and spirit. The Doctrine and Covenants says that the “spirit and the body are the soul of man,” (D&C 88:15), and that “spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy” (D&C 93:33).

The Word of Wisdom teaches us that the blessings of taking care of our bodies are not only physical, but spiritual. Members of the Church would probably not be surprised by this scientific finding.

4. Flow

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Flow is a state of concentration and joy that occurs when we engage in challenging activities that are well-suited to our skill set. For example, a well-trained athlete or musician sometimes experiences being “in the zone.” Time seems to slow down, and performance seems to occur naturally and without coercion.

Frequent experience of flow is associated with higher levels of self-esteem.

At first glance, it may seem like the Church discourages flow. The nature of Church callings seems to be that we are called to something that we have little skill at, set free with little or no training, and then released just before we start to feel comfortable. Rather than flow, we might more often feel frustration. However, the gospel isn’t just about Church callings.

The Lord makes it clear that Church members should do “do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27). In our own unassigned efforts to serve others, why wouldn’t we pick something for which we had the appropriate skills, one where we could experience the high productivity associated with flow?

After all, we should be trying to actually help others, rather than just focusing on our own self-improvement. The trick is to choose something we are good at that is also challenging enough to produce flow.

5. Spiritual Engagement and Meaning

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A solid body of research has found an association between religion, spirituality and happiness. Researchers hypothesize that a deeper sense of meaning, a supportive community and the practice of prayer (or meditation) are among the likely reasons for this correlation.

Essentially, this is why we send out missionaries to bring people into the Church of Jesus Christ: So people can begin a personal relationship with God (prayer), find answers to the deep questions of life (meaning), and become “fellow citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God” (community; Ephesians 2:19).

This finding encapsulates many of the central purposes of the Restoration of the Gospel.

6. Strengths and Virtues

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There is evidence that those who discover and use their unique strengths and virtues are happier. Choosing jobs or hobbies that utilize our strengths may lead to increased happiness.

Again, at first glance it may seem that the Church often violates this principle by facilitating focus on our weaknesses, and on correcting them through repentance. In fact, the Lord even says in the Book of Mormon that as we come unto Him He will “show” us our weakness (Ether 12:27). Certainly, working on our weaknesses is part of the gospel.

But we also have gifts. Some are enumerated in our patriarchal blessings. Some we have to discover. The scriptures say that “to every man is given a gift by the spirit of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:11).

It is likely that the gifts mentioned in your patriarchal blessing and the ones you will discover relate directly to serving others. Finding opportunities to use those gifts is an important part in our search for happiness.

7. Gratitude and Optimism

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These two qualities are also associated with happiness. Optimism has been shown to protect against depression and other health problems, and to be correlated with high self esteem and life satisfaction. Gratitude is associated with increased positive emotion and greater happiness, and there is also evidence that it is associated with pleasant physical sensation.

Recently, President Uchtdorf said that “a thankful heart is the parent of all virtues.” This suggests that it may also be the parent of happiness.

Think about it: gratitude is acknowledging the good that God has done in our lives. Through gratitude, we recognize the value in our strengths, our relationships, and the blessings of the gospel.  It seems likely that gratitude is key to unlocking all the other paths to happiness.

Optimism has also been stressed by modern prophets, especially President Gordon B. Hinckley. President Thomas S. Monson has said, “the future is as bright as your faith.” It is probably not a stretch to say that faith and optimism are strongly connected.

Did you learn anything from the science?

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Sometimes the results of scientific studies force us to think about Gospel principles in new ways. Did the discussion of flow and strength utilization above give you pause to ponder?

Faith in the gospel does not mean that we currently know what all the gospel principles mean in an applied context. Science gives us the applied context, and this can help us clarify our understanding of the principles that we already knew to be true.

How have you found greater happiness in your life? Let us know in the comments!

Jesse is a twenty-something student of Arabic and the Middle East at Brigham Young University. He enjoys writing, hiking, fantasizing about world travel, and deep discussions. He is a proud member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and served a mission for the Church in South Korea. Jesse speaks Spanish, Korean and (some) Arabic. He can be reached at [email protected]