Is happiness the same thing as “positive emotions”?

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Because both holy scriptures and modern prophets teach that happiness and joy are the object of our existence, many Latter-day Saints inadvertently adopt the worldview of hedonism, which assumes that (1) joy and happiness are defined by positive emotions and that (2) the pursuit of these positive emotions is our purpose in life.

In contrast to hedonism, we argue happiness can be better understood as peace through communion or reconciliation with God; that is, atonement — something which requires suffering on our part and on the part of Christ. This communion with God can be experienced even in the midst of “negative” emotions or experiences, like sorrow or pain.

The Assumption: Hedonism

Happiness is defined as positive emotional affect and is the highest good in life.

When most people hear the word “hedonism,” they think of a belief system that encourages people to “eat, drink, and be merry,” and do so with no serious regard to the future or for the welfare of others. It is not entirely wrong to have this association, as there are in fact some people who do advocate just such a view — and they do proudly call themselves hedonists. However, as we use the term here, hedonism is simply the philosophical assumption that pleasure, satisfaction, and personal fulfillment are life’s highest goods, and that pain and suffering are inherent evils to be avoided.

This assumption saturates modern culture, and can be found even within the way we understand the Gospel. The central questions of theodicy — or, what is known as the problem of evil — often assume a sort of hedonism: How can we reconcile an all-powerful, benevolent, loving God with the existence of pain and suffering in the world? Hidden in such a question is the presumption that pain and suffering are inherent evils, and, as such, need to be reconciled with the claim that an all-powerful God is benevolent and loving. After all, if God really is all-powerful, is truly the source of all goodness, and really does love us, then how can he allow evil (i.e., pain and suffering)? (We will treat the problem of evil in more detail in a follow-up article.)

More specifically, hedonism assumes that (1) joy and happiness are defined by positive emotions and experience and that (2) the pursuit of these positive emotions and experiences is the primary aim of life. From an hedonistic perspective, it is asserted that people “ought to act in ways that maximize their happiness and minimize their suffering,” because doing anything else is irrational. As Christian psychologist and former BYU professor Brent Slife explains:

Such happiness has, of course, many other aliases and guises in our culture: self-esteem, security, fulfillment, and peace, along with the avoidance of depression, insecurity, anxiety, and discomfort. However, the common theme among all these aliases is that feelings like happiness and self-esteem are “good” and depression and discomfort are “bad.” Indeed, these basic hedonistic notions are so ingrained in our cultural mindset that they have become a kind of “common sense.”((Slife, B. D. “Modern and postmodern value centers for the family.” In conference, “Disenchantments with Modernism,” Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. 1997.))

Slife explains that from this view, “[T]here can be no meaning or goodness in suffering; suffering is morally repugnant . . . . Self-sacrifice, another form of suffering, makes no sense from this perspective, unless again, it is a trade-off for some greater happiness.” Because of this assumption, many assume that living the Gospel will bring us a life of unending positive emotions, or at least substantially reduce negative ones. Further, we often come to believe that negative experiences are inherently useless, symptoms to be alleviated in the most immediate and convenient way possible. We will discuss both of these in implications in future articles.

We can see this assumption at play when we question whether the Gospel is “working” for certain demographics for whom it requires tremendous sacrifice and, perhaps, loneliness (such as LGBT populations). If the Gospel leads us through paths of pain or suffering, we question whether those paths are truly “good,” or good for us, as we assume that happiness and well-being requires that we experience positive emotions, avoid negative emotions, and make this the central quest of our lives.

The Alternative: Atonement

Happiness is understood as communion with God, which sometimes requires great suffering and pain.

In the Book of Mormon, we read that joy is the ultimate aim of our existence: “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Further, Joseph Smith taught, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” The Plan of Salvation is sometimes referred to in the scriptures and by modern prophets as the “Plan of Happiness” (see, for example, Alma 42:8, 16). It is abundantly clear that one of our highest goals, then, is to find joy and happiness.

However, the Gospel invites us to reconsider how we understand what happiness is. In contrast with the philosophy of hedonism, we believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ teaches us that there is a higher good than contentment, pleasure, or satisfaction, and it is reconciliation with God. A close scrutiny of the scriptures will reveal that the happiness and joy that is, as Joseph Smith said, “the object and design of our existence” is very different from the pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, and positive affect that is elevated as the highest good in the hedonistic worldview. For example, Alma taught his son Corianton:

Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness. (Alma 41:10-11)

We can interpret Alma as defining unhappiness as a state of being without God in the world. Scriptural happiness can be defined reunion and communion with God, and scriptural unhappiness can be defined as alienation or separation from God. This is why those who are righteous, for example, “are raised to dwell at the right hand of God, in a state of never-ending happiness” (Alma 28:12). We see this theme throughout scripture. For example, the prophet Mormon taught:

And [Christ] hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom … in a state of happiness which hath no end. (Moroni 7:7)

In addition, King Benjamin taught:

I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold … 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. (Mosiah 2:41)

We often think of these as separate things: (1) the presence of God and (2) unending positive emotions (happiness). We argue that these verses are, in an important sense, defining happiness as the deep and abiding peace that ensues from the presence of God — and that this “happiness” doesn’t always involve a positive emotional affect. We can experience that abiding peace even in the midst of grief, suffering, and sorrow, which are experiences that involve negative, unpleasant, or uncomfortable emotions. Slife wrote:

It is true that those who have lived a Christ-centered life report an inner peace from doing God’s will. Nonetheless, it is quite debatable, if not unlikely, that this peace is anything like the personal fulfillment which is discussed and pursued in our popular culture. … The peace “that passes all understanding” finds meaning (and peace) in many forms of suffering and conflict.((Slife, B. D. “Modern and postmodern value centers for the family.” In conference, “Disenchantments with Modernism,” Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. 1997.))

This also helps us to understand why sin cannot lead to happiness. Ultimately, sin alienates us from God, separating us from His presence — even if those who sin take pleasure and find satisfaction in their sin, and enjoy positive emotional affect throughout. When the scriptures teach that “wickedness never was happiness” we should not conclude that the wicked never experience positive emotional affect; rather, we should conclude that they do not experience the presence of God in their lives. Because that is how the scriptures define happiness.

Dr. Arthur Henry King explained that the word “Atonement” is derived from the words “at-one.” The at-one-ment takes two beings that have been alienated and brings them to be “at one” with one another. In this way, the Atonement bridges our separation from God, allowing us to experience the presence of God anew as we forsake our sins through the power of Christ. This reconciliation with God, made possible through the Atonement, brings with it genuine, scriptural happiness and joy. Communion and reunion with God makes us into holy beings, and so this perspective makes the words holiness and happiness virtually synonymous.

This at-one-ment does not come without great suffering, both on the part of Christ and ourselves. We read in the New Testament that “God so loved the world” that He sent His son Jesus Christ to suffer and die on our behalf — an act of sacrifice that undoubtedly lead to pain and grief on both the part of the Son and the Father. When Alma taught the Nephites about the coming of Christ, he said:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-13)

God sent His Divine Son to the earth to experience the pains and afflictions of His children. For that reason, we read that Christ was “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He suffered “temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood [came] from every pore, so great [is] his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people” (Mosiah 3:7). The most Holy Man to ever live suffered more deeply than any mortal has ever suffered, and did so willingly and selflessly to reconcile man with God.

Given this, perhaps one of the most poignant scriptures in the New Testament is this statement by Christ: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). From what we know of the way Christ expressed His love for us, we cannot expect this to be a painless experience. It is no wonder, then, that taking upon ourselves the name of Christ involves committing to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8-9). We become reunited with God — and we become like God — only by learning to love others in ways that require us to sometimes suffer with them and for them — an approach to life that calls into question the very foundations of hedonistic thought.

In short, the scriptures teach that as saints and disciples of Christ, we are not to simply avoid uncomfortable experiences — we are, in fact, invited to take upon ourselves pain and discomfort on the behalf of others. Suffering teaches us is to shift our priorities, to prioritize spiritual communion with God and service to others over personal satisfaction and comfort (a very unhedonistic approach to life). Suffering not only teaches us to love; but also that loving others can lead us to suffer for them and with them. We cannot fully understand or experience Divine love until we have learned to hurt for the sake of others. To become like Christ means to learn to lovingly suffer as He did.

So, in a way, one purpose of suffering (from this view) is to teach to not be hedonists, to teach us not see personal comfort as the highest good life has to offer — but to see the presence of God as the highest good, a good that can at times require us to wade through pain. Consider the themes found in the beloved hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee”:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me. …

Though like the wanderer
The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me,
My rest a stone,
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to thee …

There let the way appear,
Steps unto heav’n;
All that thou sendest me,
In mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee ..

Then with my waking thoughts
Bright with thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs
Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be
Nearer, my God, to thee …

This hymn is a prayer to be reunited — reconciled — with God; a plea for the at-one-ment promised by Christ. But it isn’t a prayer to escape suffering. It is a plea that through our suffering, we will draw closer to God. That our crosses and our pains will raise us towards Him. It’s an acknowledgement that it is in the darkness of our lives that we find visions of God and His mercies. The hymn poetically describes building Bethel, a house of God, our of our stony griefs, so that “by our woes” we can be reunited with Him. Our suffering and trials become the very temples within which we commune with God — in the same way the immense suffering of Gethsemane brings about the great at-one-ment of God and mankind. Our pains themselves can become a holy edifice of worship, and can thereby make us holy in the process.

In other words, pain and suffering are part of the Atonement, both Christ’s and our own. The happiness and joy that Christ has promised us is found not in pleasant experiences and feelings of satisfaction or contentment, but in being at one with Him, being at peace. As He has promised: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). For peace to have real meaning requires strife and sorrow.


  1. The scriptures truly teach us regarding happiness that His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts. Thank you for sharing how sometimes we don’t realize that we are mingling the philosophies of men with scripture.

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