The Social Functions of Happiness

Because of all the other bloggernacle posts on happiness and maintaining appearances (see Dave’s Mormon Inquiry, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Exponent II), I’ve been thinking about this subject for much of the day today. However, my thoughts have taken a slight detour through my academic interests.

I do a lot of work on thinking about the ways in which emotions are not only signals of internal states or biological processes, but have social functions. In Catherine Lutz’ Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, she argues that emotional concepts cannot be thought of as independent of the culture and society from which they originate, and that the discourses and structures to which emotions belong determine their very nature. She explains that “the concepts of emotion can more profitably be viewed as serving complex communicative, moral, and cultural purposes rather than simply as labels for internal states whose nature or essence is presumed to be universal” (5).

Today I’ve been thinking about the ways in which “happiness,” an “appearance of happiness,” or a “culture of happiness” has specific social functions within the church. While I think a lot has been said about the impact that this “culture of happiness” has on its individual practitioners, today I’ve been thinking about the impact that the “culture of happiness” has on the ways in which people inside (and outside) of the church relate to one another.

I think fMhLisa hits on one of these in her post, when she writes “You are happy for an audience of potential converts who will see any sign of unhappiness as an excuse not to convert.” How many times have we heard conversion stories with the phrase “I was attracted to your church because everyone seemed so upbeat and happy”? While I would be interested in hearing to what extent this is an attraction that the church holds for non-members (my inclination is to think it’s exaggerated), I think there is truth in the belief that an appearance of happiness will attract people who are looking for a greater sense of peace and happiness in their own lives. There’s a reason that people in advertisements who are using various kinds of products are almost always smiling and having fun. (For the sake of not getting too complex, I’m ignoring the whole “light of Christ” issue, though I think more needs to be said on both the differences between and the relationship of a “culture of happiness” and exhibiting the “light of Christ.”)

I think there are also social functions of a “culture of happiness” within the membership itself. There are scientific experiments that have been done on the effects of acting happy (or even doing something as basic as smiling). Most participants in the studies reported higher levels of happiness after pretending as if they were happy. While I am certainly not a proponent of the extreme versions of this formulation–“if you try hard enough, you can make yourself happy” or “if you act happy, you will become happy”–I do think that in many instances having interactions with happy people (who are truly happy in genuine, affirming ways) can increase your own levels of happiness. Similarly, if you were around a bunch of stressed and depressed people who were projecting those emotions onto others, your own stress and depression levels would probably rise. So, one social function of happiness is that it can increase happiness levels in certain kinds of interactions.

I think another social function of a “culture of happiness”is that it seems to collectively affirm the truth of the gospel. Others have noted that there is an individual phenomenon (which Russell Arben Fox, in his comments on fMhLisa’s posts on FMH, labels “works righteousness”) where we believe that happiness stems directly from righteous living, and if we display happiness, it indicates to others our own level of righteousness. I think this happens on the collective level as well. Not only does displaying an attitude of happiness signal to those around us that we are living a righteous life (according to church discourse/culture), if everyone is doing that, it affirms to the community the truth of their beliefs. If we look around us and see that everyone is happy, we can say to ourselves “the church is true–the fact that everyone is so happy is proof.” Even if we are struggling with our own testimony, we can look over at Sister Jones, see that she’s happy living the gospel, and ideally that can give us hope that we can achieve a similar state of happiness in our own endeavors toward righteous living. It’s a collective affirmation that the church formulas for gaining a testimony, increasing our faith, and obeying the commandments really do work.

Now, I am not arguing that any of the above are “good” or “bad” social formations. I think they’re complex, and that they have both benefits and detriments. However, I think a “culture of happiness” impedes certain kinds of social formations, and I would argue that this is a clear problem.

For instance, I think that it often prevents certain kind of social conversations and relationships that could potentially be very strengthening to church members. I am reminded of the scripture in Moroni 6:5: “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.” Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I think about this scripture, I imagine a church membership getting together and having intense, honest conversations about their struggles with faith and how to overcome them, etc.

A “culture of happiness” often impedes authentic conversations on how to deal with struggling testimonies, problems achieving obedience to certain commandments, etc. If we encouraged other kinds of emotional social formations, not only would those of us who are struggling with this issues (which is everyone in the church at some point in their life) feel more comfortable with our own inadequacies, we would be able to have authentic and strengthening conversations about the very real struggles of life and living the gospel. It can also make it much more difficult to “mourn with those that mourn” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9)

Other thoughts? In your mind, what kinds of social formations and relationships does a culture of happiness encourage? impede? Are these beneficial, harmful, or (my personal favorite) both?


  1. Nice post. It touched on several things that I, also, have been thinking about lately. Especially where you mention the culture of happiness preventing the sorts of conversations that might help strengthen others’ testimonies. I can attest to the fact that I am horrified at the idea of discussing the things that worry about the gospel with anyone in a church setting. The one time I tried I was very quickly to not worry about it, and the church is true. I very much see the idea that happiness in the church implies truth of the church. This is a very negative mindset, because mortal life is sorrow, regardless of how righteous one is. Expecting it to be otherwise will lead to endless unecessary doubt, and guilt.

  2. Starfoxy, I too have had experiences in church where others weren’t quite sure what to do when I made comments that revealed a concern or worry or unhappiness. At the same time, I have also been in situations where I have been honest about my less-than-happy feelings, and I’ve had people come up to me afterwards and say that they were really grateful for my comment. I still think it’s difficult to get the responses you are hoping for within the context of a larger discussion (i.e. in the midst of a RS lesson), however.

    When I teach, I am very pedagogically committed, both at church and at school, to having everyone be honest about their affective responses (to life, to the lesson, to the class reading, etc). In my experience, it’s really difficult to have a lesson where people can progress in their understanding if you don’t do your best to have a sense of where everyone is both intellectually and emotionally. (Of course, things get tricky and complicated when people are starting from radically different places, but that’s an entirely different issue.)

  3. Nice thoughts, S (and thanks for the link). I like the “culture of happiness” phrase; maybe even “culture of affected happiness”? There are a few places where people can lead with their negatives (testimony meeting; behind closed doors with the bishop) but not many. The insistence of affected happiness does, I think, squelch some honest communication, which likely harms the squelchee but perhaps (as your title hints) benefits the community. Hard to see where all this leads except for us to do less unintended squelching when teaching in church or conversing with others.

  4. Dave, thanks for your comment. I think that “culture of affected happiness” is a term that is quite descriptive of the reality at times; in my more hopeful moments, I’d like to think that not all the happiness is affected.

    I guess my title hints at possible benefits, though I was actually doing my best to talk about “social functions” in as neutral a way as possible. I think that the few “functions” I’ve outlined have beneficial aspects–they definitely help create a more cohesive community in a number of ways (reinforcing community beliefs, attracting others to the community, etc). But I think there are downsides too. Whenever you have things such as our “culture of happiness” whose functions includes unity-building in a community, they can often take forms that makes some members of the community feel excluded.

    I think it’s definitely important to do less “unintended squelching.” I think it’s also important to think about how to build a community that uses the benefits of positive affect (i.e. happiness) while not ignoring the potential benefits of other emotional orientations and dynamics.

  5. I would change the word happiness to “cheerfulness” and/or “kindness.”

    No one is happy all the time, but one can cultivate an attitude of good cheer and kindness, no matter what religion you are.

  6. annegb, I definitely agree with you–it’s important to cultivate kindness whatever your emotional state, religion, etc.

  7. S, I especially like your reading of Moroni 6:5 and your pedagogical commitment to honesty.

    Although I have to acknowledge the social function you describe, I tend to be opposed to the culture of affected happiness, partly because it promotes dishonesty, and partly because it shrivels our faith. We end up isolating our communal spiritual life from our trials and sorrows, and not only do we leave people to suffer alone, we also perpetuate insidious ideas that faith prevents trials (only bad people suffer) and even that God and spiritual life are inadequate to deal with trials and sorrows or have nothing to say about them. I can hardly think of a message more antithetical to a gospel based on the atonement.

  8. Eve, I’m beginning to wonder if I came off more pro-“culture of happiness” than I intended. I am in complete agreement with you that a “culture of happiness” that is affected, inauthentic, and that ignores trials and sorrows is not a good thing. While I think it can be possible to have a “culture of happiness” that is not these things, I think we find the “culture of affected happiness” more often than not in the church.

    I guess what I was trying to think through in this post is what are some of the larger, functional reasons for having a culture that encourages happiness. I think if we understand this better, we can propose alternatives that address the needs of the community that are being met by the current culture as well as the needs that are not being met.

  9. Very good point about trying to understand why we have this culture so that we can change it, S. Thanks for clarifying–I think I now understand what you’re saying better.

  10. This discussion reminds me of a dear LDS friend I loved partly because she simply refused to participate in the culture of affected happiness. She was so refreshing. She once started her testimony by saying, “Brothers and sisters, today I am so mad.” I can see why it was inappropriate, but thinking about it still makes me laugh.

  11. That’s a great story, Eve; I think I would laugh quite hard if I heard that in testimony meeting.

    I really enjoyed your analysis of this, S. It’s interesting to not just think (or in my case, complain) about the fact that this culture of happiness exists, but to consider the functions it serves.

    I’ve heard a couple of stories from people who’ve left the church after being horribly disillusioned when their life didn’t follow the perfect plan they’d hoped for. I see that as another potential negative of this culture; if people are getting the message that they can expect nothing but happiness from living the gospel, they’re bound to be disappointed.

    I really like your vision of church members getting together to have honest conversations about their struggles. I find that kind of thing far more helpful (and inspiring!) than “faith-promoting” stories.

  12. Yes, that is a great story, Eve. It makes me laugh to just imagine someone doing that.

    Lynnette, I definitely agree that what you’ve outlined is another negative consequence. Like I hinted at in my response to Dave, I think it’s possible to sum up a lot of the problems with the “culture of affected happiness” with the term “exclusion.” Anyone whose life doesn’t fit into the cultural definitions of the way things are supposed-to-be, or anyone who doesn’t act how one is supposed-to-act, ends up not feeling like a part of the community (and, subsequently, her needs aren’t met by the community).

  13. Wow! What an interesting post! You’ve laid out the positives and negatives so well. I’m sorry to join the discussion this late, but thanks for giving me something to think about. (It seems to me that the bloggernacle exists in part because of the constraints imposed by the “culture of happiness.”)

  14. It’s funny you made that observation, Kiskilili, because I was just thinking something similar about the existence of the Bloggernacle, that it is in some ways evidence of the real hunger among church members for a space to talk about what they are actually thinking and feeling.

    On kind of a related note, Eve and I were recently discussing one of the potentially troubling aspects of blogging: to what extent is it a problem if I say things here (to a mostly anonymous audience) that I wouldn’t dare say to the people with whom I actually interact? I already have a tendency to be too split, to be one person in one context and a different person in another. I wonder–does the Bloggernacle in some ways reinforce the culture of happiness by channeling people’s expressions of unhappiness away from their interactions with the real live members of their ward–or does it help with the situation, by giving people reassurance that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and possibly the courage to then bring up those challenges in more conventional settings? I’d like to think the latter, but I honestly don’t know.

  15. These are my very random thoughts of the moment.

    I’ve often wondered why it is that we have so few minor hymns in our hymnbook, and sing them so infrequently. I could be completely wrong, but I get the impression that we’re almost afraid of them. But several topics lend themselves quite well to a minor setting. And in addition to singing about subjects that are merely sobering, I for one would be uplifted if we went so far as to sing about genuine sorrow or feelings of distance from God (in a way that was respectful and worshipful, of course), because I think these are realities and their expression in the community would be valuable, and music would be a fantastic way to do this. (On the other hand, if it were up to me, there would be more minor than major hymns, and others would perhaps feel weighed down in a church of gloom. 🙂 )

    I’ve also often wondered what the boundaries are to what’s appropriate in church. I’m at a point where I just never make any comments, because I’m not convinced anything I could say would be appropriate. Even in my angriest moments, I wouldn’t think of seizing the pulpit and explaining why I hate the church. I once sat through what I thought was a fairly innocuous RS lesson after which a visiting non-member stood up and ripped the lesson apart and explained how horrified she was we were teaching such abominable things. Considering that I’m no paragon of orthodoxy myself, I was surprised at how furious I was. I was literally fuming. I wanted to say, Lady, you do not make fun of my church *right in my church.* This is not the place for that.

    At the same time, I want to be honest. I want there to be a place where negative sentiments and frustrations and questions can be aired, and I’m not sure the best way of doing that–to what degree that’s acceptable and helpful in church and to what degree it detracts. When people say things in church I violently disagree with, on the one hand I don’t want to stir up controversy and tear other people’s faith down; but on the other hand I don’t want to sit there silently as though I assent. So I leave the room.

    But this has led to some awkward moments. During a visiting teaching session a companion I had a while back delivered a message I just disagreed with in every part. I told her I thought I needed to leave. She was like, No you don’t–just stay for this message. The result was that she ended up sort of delivering the message to me, in a tone like, You believe this, don’t you? What could I say? If it had been a private conversation, I would have just disagreed. But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, let alone start a fight in front of our visiting teachee! It didn’t feel right to say at the end of the message when she asked whether I had anything to add, “And now for the rebuttal!” That may have been helpful for me, but probably not for the visiting teachee. 🙂

    So I have no good conclusions. For the reasons you outline, there are times when I find the culture of happiness uplifting, and there are times when I find it stifling.

  16. Lynnette, I’d like to think that having conversations like these in the Bloggernacle (and in individual conversations with people like you) gives me reassurance that what I have to say is important and valuable and enables me to go and express my thoughts to others. On occasion I do try to raise my concerns and questions with people in my ward and institute class, and while sometimes it works better than others (as my VT experience last month reminded me), I have enough of a commitment to emotional authenticity to keep trying. Sometimes it actually goes really well, and that definitely helps my resolve too.

    Kiskilili, as someone who was being visit taught something that I couldn’t agree to this past month (luckily, I wasn’t the visiting teacher who was supposed to be affirming the message to others), I can totally empathize with the scenario you raise. I don’t have any answers either; in my own life, I try to achieve a certain amount of emotional authenticity in church settings, even if it means raising concerns, but it’s always a struggle to know when that’s going to be helpful rather than hurtful (I definitely don’t want to be making others upset, uncomfortable, etc). I’m quiet a lot more often than I’d ideally prefer.

  17. P.S. I’m not sure that I wish there were more minor hymns than major, but I wish there were more minor hymns (I agree that this would be a fantastic way to explore this emotional dimension of religious faith). In general, I wish the church music culture was different, but that’s a topic for another day. Maybe I’ll make a post on it soon.


Comments are closed.