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Latter-day Saint psychologist: Finding happiness regardless of your circumstance

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When I was little, I begged my parents to let me stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to experience that magical moment when the old year passed, and the moment when a new year began. Sometimes they would humor me and set the clocks forward so that we could “ring in” the new year at 8:00 p.m. As I’ve grown older, I’ve struggled to stay awake until midnight but have had ample opportunities to witness the dawn of the new year. I have to say, it’s not as dramatic as my young, innocent brain imagined it to be. For sure, there are hugs and kisses and glasses of sparkling apple cider, but in reality, it’s just one moment going into the next. Even so, I believe many of us stayed up late on December 31, 2020, at the very least to bid good riddance to what had been a very difficult year. Almost all have looked forward to 2021 to be a better year than the previous. Truly, I hope it will be. But I’ve also discovered that a change in circumstance, like one year passing to another, does not automatically make things better.

In the ten years I spent in school, receiving undergraduate and graduate training, my wife and I had four children. For many of those years, we were poor and looked forward to life beyond school. We anticipated the ability to make more money and I remember thinking, “When we get out of college, then things will be good. We can truly be happy then.” We finally graduated. What was next? I had to get licensed as a psychologist. Next? I started a private practice. After that? I needed to market my business. Life has been a never-ending series of goals and accomplishments, each “end” simply signaling the start of a new beginning. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to find happiness, I would not automatically find it at the end of a particular destination. I needed to look for and create it along the way. Life, and even eternity for that matter, is one long journey. If we wait for the end to finally be happy, we will have missed many potentially joyful opportunities along the way. 

Lehi taught Jacob there must be “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). Fourteen verses later, he taught his son that “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). How do we reconcile those two concepts? How can we experience opposition, difficulty, and stress while at the same time being happy and fulfilled? Conventional wisdom suggests we need to wait for trials to cease, and then happiness can result. The main problem with this strategy is that it casts us as observers instead of actors. We become helpless witnesses to our lives, hoping that something good will happen so our mood will change. It’s like being in a boat with no sail, waiting for a strong wind to blow in the right direction so we can get where we want. That can result in a lot of waiting. Even worse, changing winds can blow us to destinations we never desired. If you attach a sail, you can use the wind to your advantage. It can blow at your back, to your side, or even right in your face; if you use the sail correctly, you’ll get where you want to go. The winds of opposition can lead us to joy if we apply certain principles.

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Look for Evidence

The Book of Mormon tells about a successful Nephite missionary effort to the Lamanites. The Nephites testified to the Lamanites of the things they had “heard and seen,” which resulted in many Lamanites being converted. “The more part of the Lamanites were convinced of [the truth], because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received” (Helaman 5:50; emphasis added). The Lamanites saw the evidence of truth and subsequently believed. In our day to day lives, there is ample evidence to support happiness or despair. 

Our family lives in the Pacific Northwest, and our beautiful Portland has been ransacked in recent months by violent protests. A short while ago, my wife and I drove to downtown Portland to witness the aftermath. There was a lot of graffiti, some of it profane. Traffic signs were bent and smashed. Many businesses were closed or had their windows boarded up. At the same time, there were beautiful trees, a lovely park, and stunning skyscrapers. Depending on my focus, I could describe downtown as beautiful or ugly. Our lives are similar. It is true that our lives are a combination of good and bad. Some days, the bad overwhelms the good. But I truly believe that if we look for joy, we will find evidence to support it. Sometimes we have to look pretty hard, but when we find happiness after such diligent searches, it is all the sweeter. Be active in your search for evidence of good things. 

Joy Through Action

After Lehi taught that our purpose is to have joy, he gave additional instruction regarding how that can happen: “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:26–27; emphasis added). We were placed on earth to exercise agency; to manage our situation instead of letting our situation manage us. 

I remember doing a psychological evaluation for a homeless man. He was literally living on the wet streets of the Pacific Northwest. As we discussed his symptoms, he told me he had been feeling less depressed lately because he had chosen to think about all the good things in his life. He also said he tried every day to do something kind for someone else, which helped lift his spirits. This man was at high risk to be “acted upon” by his circumstance, and would have been justified in letting his truly miserable situation drag him down. Instead, he chose to act. He chose to do things each day that could cause happiness. We cannot just wait for happiness to wash over us like a random wave; we need to do things that can spark joy. Especially in the midst of trials, we can act in ways that will increase the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. Obedience to the commandments, service to others, feasting upon the scriptures, and other proactive behaviors can help create the happiness we seek. 

Develop Realistic Hope

Hope can be a powerful tool to help elevate our mood. Conversely, despair, or lack of hope, can lead to feelings of defeat. When hope is based in true principles, it provides motivation and helps us move forward. It does little good to have a Pollyannaish vision of life if we intentionally ignore potential adversity. Life is difficult. It is difficult by divine design, and this opposition is intended to help us become like our Father in Heaven. Hope should not spring from the anticipation that our boat will never spring a leak or that we’ll have smooth sailing until our destination. Hope should come from the knowledge that, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all leaks can be repaired, and all storms can be weathered. Moroni taught, “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God” (Ether 12:4). Having a deep understanding of the Savior’s Atonement, and truly coming to believe that He will support us through our trials is practically the greatest cause for happiness there ever was. With Him at our side, what can possibly go wrong? What trial cannot be overcome? What sadness cannot be ultimately reversed? One of the outcomes of having solid faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is to be happy. That faith leads to hope, which can create peace and optimism in even the most desperate of circumstances. 

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Don’t wait for happiness to find you. Go find it yourself. Look for the signs, take control of your situation, and increase your faith in Jesus Christ. As we follow the pattern established by the Savior, we can increase our happiness despite difficulties, and receive the promise made to His ancient apostles: “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11). May we all experience such joy. 

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