I have always taken issue with the phrase, “In order to be happy, you must choose to be happy.” There are many iterations and takes on what this phrase says and/or actually means, and my opinion on it is by no means the concrete answer.
If you are experiencing a trial in your life, I can only imagine that you might find it just a tad bit difficult to “choose to be happy.” Why? Everyone has those moments, when being happy seems to be just that much (or a mountain-load) harder. (D&C 121: 1-6).
For example, say you have a loved one pass away that you were very close to. If you choose to be happy in a moment like that, I would venture that you aren’t even human! Everyone feels pain. Everyone feels frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, stress, and anxiety. (Alma 31: 31, 33). These emotions often tend to be the driving force of our lives.
Happiness and joy, we have discovered, are the emotions and feelings that combat anxiety and despair. How, though, can we choose the light over the dark when the dark creeps so easily into our lives? To be very straightforward, you cannot simply choose to be happy. You can, however, make choices that will make you happy. The choice, my friends, is in your attitude.
Wait, isn’t that saying the same thing? Maybe it is just a matter of semantics for some, but I think the slight difference in terminology can make a big difference for someone that finds it a little difficult, like I do, to choose to be happy. Let me explain. In our example, someone you love has passed away. This hurts. You feel sad, hopeless, and lonely. These feelings are normal. In fact, they are necessary. Necessary in that the darkness in your life lets you recognize the light. Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said:
“Sadness, disappointment, and severe challenge are events in life, not life itself. I do not minimize how hard some of these events are. They can extend over a long period of time, but they should not be allowed to become the confining center of everything you do.” (May 1996 Ensign)
Now, if someone in this instance told you “you must choose to be happy” in this situation, you might find this a little overwhelming. However, choosing to change your perspective a little might seem a little easier. The element of choice comes in not letting these emotions rule you. You aren’t choosing happiness, you are choosing optimism. (D&C 25:13). This, in turn, will make you a happier person. (See Gordon B. Hinckley, “Words of the Prophet: The Spirit of Optimism” Jul 2001 Ensign).
My entire life, I have dealt with depression. My Dad died when I was seven years old of ALS (back before anyone had even heard of the ice bucket challenge… or in the internet for that matter). I always struggled to feel loved and accepted. I have often felt alone and dejected, unappreciated and forgotten. Challenges on my mission and in college compounded my problem and depression came to the forefront of my life. I knew I needed help. I wanted to be happy.
Now, I am not a perpetually happy person. I have, however, learned what I think is the key to happiness. So back to my original question: How can you really choose happiness? You choose to adjust your attitude. Yes, grieve for your loved one that has passed away, but find happiness and peace in knowing he or she is waiting for you on the other side, that families are eternal. You can choose to change your perspective in any type of challenge you may face.
My cousin recently has dealt with severe health issues. He has had two liver transplants and other organ failures in only his late 20’s. He has a wife and a young son. Unable to work, unable to do anything really, most people in his situation might find it a little hard to be happy. My cousin however, has chosen to keep a positive perspective. His attitude is that of someone with an eternal perspective. During his trial, he was still always the first one to crack a smile or to make a witty joke about his situation. His positive attitude helped him overcome what was potentially a life-ending trial, and he came out triumphant.
I am by no means perfect at choosing to keep my perspective where it should be. Being optimistic and looking for the good in life has always been one of my greatest challenges. In my experience, however, I have found that that there is a simple cycle to my attitude and general happiness when I genuinely seek for it. For lack of a better name, I call it “The Circle of Happiness.”
The steps are simple. First, think of a moment in your life in which you have been happy. That happiness makes you grateful for that moment, the pleasant memory of a time or experience in which the weight of the world was not pressed against your shoulders. This makes you grateful for that moment and in turn grateful for all of the good in your life. Gratitude is the catalyst of all Christ-like attributes. It makes us look at the good in the life, and realize how much we rely on the Lord for all that we have. Thus, gratitude leads to humility.
Preach My Gospel states:
“Humility is willingness to submit to the will of the Lord and to give the Lord the honor for what is accomplished. It includes gratitude for His blessings and acknowledgement of your constant need for his divine help. Humility is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of spiritual strength.”
The spiritual strength that comes from humility gives you more power over your emotions. Stripped of pride, you are able to feel the Savior’s love more potently in your life. True humility whispers of action, it creates a sense of purpose in who you are in The Lord’s plan, and helps you want to be more obedient to his commandments.
Obedience is simple. If you are obedient, you will be blessed. Doctrine and Covenants 130 verse 21 states,
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
Obedience leads to more blessings in your life. In Mosiah 2:41 King Benjamin adds:
“And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it.”
Blessings make you happy! What does happiness do? Make you grateful for what you have, and the cycle starts over.
Obviously, there is much more that could be said on each of these attributes. All are important tenants of the Gospel and Christ-like attributes to which we should aspire. However, I did leave one important thing out in my initial explanation of this cycle, and that is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (Article of Faith 1).
Faith in Jesus Christ is central to everything we do in the Gospel. Christ is our Savior, our Redeemer. (See Alma 7: 11-13). And guess what? He wants us to be happy.
None of this is easy. Changing your attitude to one of gratitude and changing your perspective to reflect your eternal worth are skills learned little by little, step by step, over the course of your lifetime. (2 Nephi 28:30). When I reflect on the happiest people I know, I find it very easy to find every attribute I have discussed in their lives. Of course, no one is perpetually happy, but some are certainly further along in their understanding of how to be happy than others.
There are roadblocks in our little circle of happiness. Sometimes, blessings lead to pride, and a whole other cycle begins (See Helaman 3-12 and 3 Nephi 5-9). We may not recognize the blessings in our life, or we practice selective obedience. (See Elder Robert D. Hales April 2014 General Conference and 1 Samuel 15:13-14). These roadblocks can be overcome by staying close to the spirit and keeping your faith where it should be, on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, there are so many aspects of happiness that I could write forever. I haven’t even touched on service, charity, compassion, hope, etc. etc. etc. But don’t give up! (Orson F. Whitney, in Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle (1972), 98). If you are not happy, study the Atonement. (D&C 121-122). There is so much good in this world. Life is so wonderful. Everyone, including myself, needs to get a little better at recognizing it. Next time someone says, “You need to choose to be happy,” don’t be overwhelmed because it feels like you can’t. Try thinking to yourself “no, I just need to change my perspective, and being happy will become a little easier.” In the famous scripture mastery scripture Lehi says with surety at the end of his life,
“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25).
I know that this is God’s purpose for us. I know that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins, our afflictions, and our physical and spiritual trials. We don’t have to feel their weight and consequences forever. (1 Nephi 11:31 and Alma 7:11-13). Let us all strive to be a little better at making the choices that will let us feel that simple and eternal happiness.