Thursday, December 17, 2009

I Yam What I Yam


Does belonging to the lds mormon religion make people happy? —Zeezrom

Now that's a good question. I think the short answer is that no one could ever really say definitively, because we don't get to live our lives out two different ways and compare the results. But anecdotally at least I can tell you that when I was Mormon I, like most believers, did attribute my happiness to my knowledge of gospel principles. Take that away, and I think in general I'm neither more nor less happy than I was before. Your mileage may vary.

The funny thing about that is I can see Mormons reading this and thinking I'm either lying or deceiving myself, because surely I must have been happier as a Mormon—unless I wasn't really living my religion, in other words unless I was sinning. I'll come back to that aspect of Mormonism, but on the flipside I can also see other ex-Mormons reading this and thinking, "What do you mean you're not happier now?!!"

It turns out for most of us that happiness is a pretty nebulous concept, and humans are not very good at either remembering past or predicting future happiness. What we are good at is justifying whatever decisions we happen to have made by telling ourselves it turned out for the best. So Mormons are inclined to say things in testimony meeting like, "I don't know where I'd be without the church," like they'd be awful people if it weren't for the three hours they sit in church every week. And ex-Mormons are probably just as likely to feel that their lives are immeasurably deeper and richer without the blinders on. I tend to agree with the ex-Mormons there, which probably just means I'm a normal self-justifying human.

My point is not to say that happiness is unrelated to religious beliefs. Clearly the idea of gaining joy and happiness is central to Mormon beliefs, even if a large part of it is in the form of future happiness, like some gigantic post-dated check. But Mormons are also taught that faithfulness brings blessings in the here and now, and once someone accepts that premise it works in two ways to keep them faithful. One, they naturally attribute all the happiness they do enjoy to God's blessings; but secondly, they have no one to blame but themselves when they don't feel happy. It's almost shameful to be unhappy in Mormonism (must be sinning!), which might explain why Utah leads the nation in antidrepressant usage.

The bottom line is when I try to imagine myself living again as a Mormon the thought turns my stomach, but when I actually believed it all it wasn't so bad. I guess what I'm getting at is that the decision of whether to be Mormon or not is not about weighing which will bring the most happiness for you and your loved ones. Beliefs just don't work that way. If you accept the church's truth claims you'll also accept what it teaches you about your own happiness; if you find the truth claims impossible to swallow then no utilitarian argument in its favor is likely to keep you in.

Source(s):
Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

1 comment:

Chris said...

I liked what you said about how bad we are at remembering and predicting happiness. I think that's spot-on.