The Secret of Happiness

by Nan Petersen

The name of this organization, “Aspiring Mormon Women,” is well chosen. Aspiring is so much more than just having raw ambition. It is also being inspired. It is hoping. Seeking. Desiring.

And what is the thing we seek more than any other in this life? Lehi teaches that “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25).

Is all this aspiring really about finding happiness? I think that is probably a big part of it. There is much talk here of work as fulfillment. What is fulfillment if not a measure of happiness? We spend our lives filling our time with people, spiritual questing, work, and other things in an effort to find happiness. Much has been written about this quest for a perfect balance between body, mind, and spirit, working from the assumption that happiness is to be found in this “perfect balance.”

This is a formula that doesn’t work for me, mostly because it requires some kind of perfection—and balance of all things—something I’m notoriously bad at. Last summer my sister asked me simply, “Are you happy?” The question brought me up short. I had just turned forty and already knew that my carefully laid and ambitious plans and goals for that milestone year had not been accomplished. As always, I was preoccupied by daily concerns and larger worries. Beyond my circle of control, I was thinking about refugees and mass incarceration and lives that matter and hunger and war and babies that cry because they are hungry and . . .

Wow. I should probably stop there. I feel that rising sense of panic building up inside of me again. I think of my five-year-old self biting my fingernails down to the quick, and I know that a degree of anxiety, brooding, and worry has always been a part of my personality.

My sister’s simple question has sat with me for many months now, a frequent companion as I pensively go about my myriad activities. The gospel promise is peace and joy in this life and in the life to come. There is that “and” again. Why does it too often seem that the promised peace and joy is more of a next-life thing? And why does it seem that some people are just gifted with personalities that are prone to happiness?

Does this mean I am doomed to be discontent? Always seeking but never finding?

The good news is that the answer might be no. That, in truth, happiness is something available to every man, woman, and child who will learn a very simple lesson.

Several weeks back I heard a remarkable TED radio hour on the subject of happiness. Though each selection was engaging, the last speaker, a Benedictine monk, was the one who spoke truth to me. He spoke about gratitude for the daily blessing of being alive and being allowed to keep trying. He spoke about finding the thing to be grateful for in every situation. His claim is that if you can find a way to be grateful, then the happiness will come.

His words aren’t new. Even to me on that day, they weren’t new. I had heard this message from countless sources. Apostles. Jesus. My mother. Hymn #241 (which is now stuck in my head).

And yet, when he said those words, it was the right time for me to hear them. In my quest for that elusive happiness, I had failed too often to acknowledge what was right in front of me. Since hearing this remarkable talk, when I’ve found myself in moments of frustration, I have tried to take a couple of deep breaths and say, “What am I grateful for at this moment?” There is always something—usually lots of somethings. When I feel what I’m grateful for there is a momentary acknowledgement of the Giver, and my mood lifts. My faith increases. My happiness is felt.

I don’t need ideal children or a perfect husband. I don’t have to have a mistake-free day at work. I don’t have to close myself off from the rest of the world and pretend there is nothing bad out there. I don’t have to have something big to look forward to. I don’t even need a personality change. All I need is to take a big, deep breath—the first thing to be grateful for—and then remember the tiniest redeeming thing about this life.

And when you start counting your blessings, you find ever so many. I think the Savior’s despair over the nine lepers who didn’t turn back in gratitude came from knowing that only one of the ten was truly made whole—only one of the ten would feel the happiness of his healing beyond the day or the week.

I have come to view happiness as a gift of the Spirit, one cultivated by a grateful heart. I don’t know if I’m happy—I’m not sure I entirely understand the word. But I am so grateful. I’m grateful for the breath of life, to be a woman in this time of opportunity and advancement, to be educated, to be a working at a job that makes me a better person, to be a mother, to be a wife—a giver AND a getter.

2 Comments on “The Secret of Happiness

  1. Am I happy is a question we should ask ourselves on an ongoing basis becauses it forces us to reflect. Mental Health research has consistently shown that being able to identify those things that we are grateful for and bring us happiness enhance us as human beings.
    Many years ago, I had an Institute teacher at the UofU that challenged us to occasionally pray, not asking for anything, but rather focus only on expressing gratitude. It’s a practice I’ve continued for 40 years. Doing so helps remind of my blessings and the happiness and joy associated with them.
    I’ve had many health challenges over my life and looking for happiness has not been easy, but it reminds me that there is always happiness to be found.
    Thanks for starting the conversation

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