They Just Look Happy …

June 3, 2009

When I was a small boy, we lived about half a block from a rather large park in Southern California. My mom would take us over there almost every afternoon in the summers after my youngest brother had his nap. But we never went on Sundays. Returning from church each Sabbath, we would see other kids playing happily on the playground equipment and wonder why we couldn’t play with them.

“We keep the Sabbath day holy,” my mom would say. “It’s a commandment from Heavenly Father.”

“But those kids are having so much fun. Why wouldn’t Heavenly Father want us to have fun, too?” we protested.

“Well, they’re not really having fun. They just look like they’re having fun,” she would say.

As I grew older, I heard variations of this thought: People outside the church may think they’re happy, but they aren’t really happy. Only church members can truly experience real joy. Everyone else just looks happy “on the outside.”

“Happiness is the object and design of our existence,” Joseph Smith wrote in a letter proposing plural marriage to Nancy Rigdon. And we spent an awful lot of time reminding ourselves of how much joy and happiness the gospel had brought us. Numberless testimonies were given of how the gospel had blessed people, and conversely, of how they would have wandered in dark paths had they not known the truth.

I thought I was happy. I had everything a Mormon boy is supposed to aspire to: a loving wife, lots of kids, a postgraduate education, a professional career, and leadership positions in the church.

But then my faith in Mormonism collapsed, and I saw it for the manmade organization it is. But that realization wasn’t nearly as devastating as the realization that I wasn’t really happy and hadn’t been for a very long time. I had accepted the church’s definition of happiness without ever considering whether that kind of life really meant happiness for me.

I had held suspicions that I was dealing with depression during my church years, but it wasn’t until I got out of the church that I began to deal with the problem. I remember filling out a questionnaire to determine the level of depression, and one of the questions was, “How long have you felt this way?” I could only check the answer, “I can’t remember when I didn’t feel this way.”

Of course, I’ve had some church members tell me the depression is a direct consequence of my apostasy, but that’s what I would expect them to say.

The church provides a framework for interpreting experience, and in many ways that rigid framework is comforting in giving us a consistent approach to life. However, I had to break out of that framework to figure out how to be happy. At 40 years old, I had for so long lived by what others had told me that I didn’t know what I wanted out of life. I didn’t know who I was.

And in the end, that’s the only way to be happy: to know who you are and know what you want out of life. I’m sure some people can find true happiness in Mormonism. I didn’t, but then I didn’t really understand what happiness was.

So, yes, I may look happy on the outside, and that’s probably because I am happy.