Using Happiness to Evaluate Belief

A question which came up in Kiskilili’s latest thread on feminism (and has also arisen in a number of other conversations) is that of the relationship between happiness and belief. Should we believe the things which make us the happiest? Does it make any sense for a person to believe something which leaves her feeling unhappy and frustrated? I think these are interesting questions, and I’d like explore them a little more.

Much of my current academic work is with the role of narrative in human life, the stories we use to make sense of the world and of who we are. A difficult question which often arises in connection with this subject is that of how to judge between competing narratives which could possibly account for the same situation. For example, say I’ve just suffered a serious personal setback. Depending on the narrative framework I use to understand it, I might see it as divine punishment for past sin, a trial engineered by God to help me grow, a random happening of life, etc. On what basis do I opt for one of these narratives over the others?

Some argue that this decision is best made using pragmatic criteria. They ask, what will be the effects of accepting narrative x versus narrative y, and advocate adopting the one which “works best.” I think there’s something to be said for this approach; I certainly can see the value of adopting narratives which enable me to see my life in a positive way. However, I think problems arise if this is your only criterion. A woman in an abusive marriage might feel happier if she holds on to the story that her husband is behaving in hurtful ways out of love for her– yet I doubt that many would argue that she should resist challenging that narrative because doing so would cause her a fair amount of personal anguish. To give another example, it would make me much happier to believe that the U.S. government knows what it’s doing in Iraq, but that alone isn’t enough to persuade me to accept that story.

My view is that the best narrative is not necessarily the one which makes you the happiest (though I’m not opposed to giving some thought to that question), but rather the one which most plausibly accounts for the data you have. These aren’t necessarily the tidiest ones– it’s often a temptation, I think, to overlook difficult or contradictory data in the desire for a simple, clear story. But I find that narratives are most persuasive when they’re able to integrate a wide variety of experience, rather than focusing selectively on either positive or negative events.

I do recognize the inevitable subjectivity involved in making these kinds of judgments. In thinking about some aspect of the Church, I might find one particular narrative to be the most compelling, while another person finds a quite different narrative to be far more plausible. But when disagreements arise as to which is the preferable story, I’m wary of appeals to happiness as a way of judging between the two. I admit that I have a bit of a gloomy streak, but I’m not a feminist because I have some twisted desire to believe narratives which make me miserable. Rather, I believe what I do because I think it best makes sense of my experience.

I will say that my belief in Christianity and in the goodness of God causes me to hope that eschatologically, happiness and truth will have some connection. However, in the context of our finite, fallen world, I think we need to be careful about too closely conflating the two.


  1. As a scientist, I have a faith in objective truth that seems to be mostly lacking among people in society at large. (I have had bosses, for instance, that seemed to truly feel that problems with technology are fruitfully addressed by yelling at them. They think that somehow the issue at hand is being positively engaged when they do this. =))

    From my perspective, dealing at a nuts and bolts level, there will eventually be found something that is amiss, that when put right, will cause the equipment or machinery to work as intended. Because of the daily interactions of my chosen profession, I’m accustomed to dealing with systems that are somewhat simpler than a human being. Therefore, the reality that there exists some objective truth, that when we understand that truth and act with knowledge and intelligence, that good results are obtained, is brought home to me every day. I believe that people in “softer” professions are not made aware of this reality on any sort of regular basis. And because they deal with complex systems, which are less well understood, they are able to convince themselves that reality is a fluid, interpretable thing. This represents a fundamentally different worldview than I hold.

    Although I don’t have knowledge as specific or exact about people as I do about machinery (which can also exhibit some behaviors that are not easily interpretable, or explained by theory), I do have a faith that such knowledge is possible, and would yield deep insights. I don’t think reality is fruitfully seen as malleable according to our whatever interpretation we care to put on events.

    So that’s all a complicated way to say that I agree with you completely. What matters is the truth. The truth will set you free. Applying soothing narratives to messy situations in order to tame them is not necessarily a wise or positive thing to do. Better to attempt to understand the messiness. Perhaps it’s not as complicated as at first it seems.

  2. Tatiana, I’m curious how your scientific mind reconciles with your faith. I have found that aspects of the faith I was taught simply don’t hold up when scrutinized rationally. I’ve met a lot of people who think scientifically and rationally in the rest of their life, but religion has its own compartment that is left untouched. I’d love to hear your perspective.

    Lynette, regarding the actual topic of your post, I find it intriguing to ponder. I find credence in the Buddhist idea that attachments cause suffering. Much of my suffering has come from desperately wanting things to turn out a certain way or be a certain way. But then again, I don’t know how to reconcile that with my position in the church or other aspects of life and the world that I know are simply not right. I think things can be better, and that’s an idea I’m not ready to let go of. I think I’m left with more questions than asnwers on that one.

  3. That’s a very interesting question to me because I have heard many people base testimonies on the fact that the Gospel brings them joy (or happiness or peace). Wouldn’t it stand to reason then that if the Gospel (or church) brought unhappiness or suffering that would be ample reason not to believe? The parts of the church that DO bring me happiness (service, fellowship, striving to be better) are actually the basic parts of any church. So one would argue that if I was simply out to find happiness, I would join a church that offered the “happy” parts and not the “unhappy” (like polygamy, for example). I guess for me happiness is important, but finding truth is more so, even if it means discomfort of some kind. So I think it makes sense to believe in something even if it brings unhappiness if you have enough reason to suppose that said “something” is true.
    And Lynnette, it was SO nice to meet you in the flesh and have a face to put with the name!

  4. I’m not opposed to people believing whatever they want. If it brings them happiness and does no harm to anyone else, more power to them. If I’m looking at it from an entirely secular perspective, I can see no reason to believe that it’s always bad to believe in untrue things or that it’s always good to believe in true things. Some true things are obviously important to believe (like that you die if you don’t drink water, for example) but believing other true things (like that the earth revolves on its axis) has no positive consequences that I can think of. The same is true for untrue things: believing some untrue things brings negative consequences, believing some others has no negative consequences.

    I think happiness can be part of a testimony. If prophets promise certain outcomes (happiness or peace, for example) contingent upon believing or doing certain things, then experiencing the promised outcomes after doing prescribed things can serve as one piece of evidence that the prophets are speaking the truth.

    But of course the coincidence of happiness and a certain belief or state of affairs is not prima facie evidence of the truthfulness or appropriateness of a belief or state of affairs. That people can attain happiness and contentment within a patriarchal society doesn’t mean that patriarchy is the way things should be. And neither does the fact that people can experience pain and discontentment within a patriarchal society mean that patriarchy is not the way things should be. [Unless you value human happiness above all else and patriarchy is shown to produce more human happiness than alternatives.]

  5. Tatiana, I’m curious how your scientific mind reconciles with your faith. I have found that aspects of the faith I was taught simply don’t hold up when scrutinized rationally. I’ve met a lot of people who think scientifically and rationally in the rest of their life, but religion has its own compartment that is left untouched. I’d love to hear your perspective.

    This probably isn’t the place to have a conversation on this topic and you’re probably already well aware of this, but there are many ways for smart, educated, scientifcally-minded people to be faithful, active Mormons. There are several departments full of believing scientists at BYU and during grad school I have personally associated with several super faithful scientists. I think everyone that does so has a unique way of balancing faith and skepticism.

  6. Tom, you’re right, this is probably a discussion for another place and time. I know that people do balance “faith and skepticism” as you say it, or I might call it faith and reason/science. I think ZD is a good example of that. I’m at a point where it would be helpful to me to hear in more detail how people do it. Perhaps that’s a blog post I need to write up myself.

  7. hope that eschatologically, happiness and truth will have some connection

    Buddhists believe that happiness and truth have some connection in the here and now, and I’m inclined to agree with them. From an article in Salon today (worth sitting through the 30-second ad if you don’t have a subscription): “In Buddhism, the very root of suffering and all our mental distress — what Buddhists call mental afflictions — is ignorance. The path to liberation, or enlightenment, is knowledge. It’s knowing reality as it is.”

    Speaking for myself, I find that happiness and truth are linked because when I understand the true nature of a situation, I’m better able to make the choices that will lead to happiness. When I’ve misunderstood (or been misled as to) the facts on the ground, then despite good intentions, I am less able to react in a way that brings happiness.

  8. Compounding the problem is the complexity of happiness. Maybe it’s better to speak of ‘happinesses.’ As I’ve made decisions to follow the truth, I’ve had to take into account the social implications (social harmony, loneliness and ostracism v. acceptance and companionship), existential concerns (trading certainty for ambiguity and acknowledged ignorance), cognitive dissonance (v. peace of conscience). I could list more factors, but each contributes to or detracts from some aspect of happiness. We can be happy in some ways while being simultaneously miserable in others.

  9. AmyB,
    I would contribute to a discussion like that if you hosted one. I’ll keep a look out for it (you’re at Exponent II, I guess?)

    One other thing, I didn’t follow the comments so I don’t know if it would be at all helpful to you, but there was a recent post at Feminist Mormon Housewives asking how people deal with Church history issues.

  10. AmyB, I talked a little bit about that on my on blog, in an entry called Faith. I don’t want to sidetrack this discussion, but I will just say that I came to religion after a lifetime of atheism because I made observations and had experiences that proved to me that it was true. The way I formed my beliefs about religion is exactly the same thing as science, with the exception that I also allow as data experiences that are personal to me, can’t necessarily be replicated, and wouldn’t convince anyone who didn’t experience them for themselves.

    I have so much confirming evidence by now that I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever about the main facts (that God exists, that he loves me, that I’m his child, that I have the potential to grow up to be like him). As one very smart friend put it, “I believe in the afterlife like I believe in Puerto Rico”. The rest of the doctrine, I consider to be details, and I’m not particularly wedded to any given version of those. I think science is a very fruitful method of learning about the universe, and religion is another one. I don’t think they contradict each other, any more than, say, special relativity contradicts quantum mechanics.

  11. Hi, Lynnette – I hope you’re doing okay. Interesting post. I’m not sure I’ve found a good answer to these questions myself, but I just wanted to check in and say hello.

  12. As one very smart friend put it, “I believe in the afterlife like I believe in Puerto Rico”

    Perhaps your friend read Emily Dickinson.

    I never saw a moor,
    I never saw the sea;
    Yet know I how the heather looks,
    And what a wave must be.

    I never spoke with God,
    Nor visited in heaven;
    Yet certain am I of the spot
    As if the chart were given.


  13. Oooh, I always like fun tangents. On the religion and science question, I actually have a couple of friends involved in dialogue between the two, and from what little I know, there is some fascinating work being done in that area. A common assumption for many years was that science deals with one realm, and religion with another, and the two therefore don’t really have anything to say to each other. But in recent decades, many have taken a view more along the lines that religion and science are different languages for describing the same reality, meaning that there is a real potential for them to learn from each other. Of course, there are those on both sides who still see their discipline (be it religion or science) as having a monopoly on truth. But I’ve really enjoyed talking to those who take both science and religion seriously and who have done some serious thinking about how the two might connect.

    Of course, I don’t have much of a background in science myself; I come from the humanities. Which, I have to say, is not without its own set of difficulties for believers. I’d love to see a discussion about how people have managed to maintain their faith while studying subjects like English or philosophy; with so many of the bloggers here doing graduate work in the humanities, it seems like we really should tackle that one at some point.

  14. Tatiana, thanks for your perspective on this. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to confess that I am actually one of those people who sees reality as at least to some extent fluid and interpretable, in the sense that all our observations of the world are in fact interpretations. I’m not sure what I think about the objective truth question, but it’s interesting to hear your thoughts.

    AmyB, I too would be interested in a discussion such as the one you propose! And that’s a great question about attachment and suffering. I think I’ve often struggled with finding a balance between excessive resignation (kind of a “there’s no hope, so why even try” attitude), and being so attached to my ideas of how I’d like the world to be that I can’t enjoy what is.

    Hi, Rilkerunning! You know, I’ve sometimes wondered– if I found a church where I was happier, would that be reason enough to leave this one? I have to admit that I sometimes get irritated by the way religion in the contemporary world gets talked about as if it were just another consumer product; you go church shopping, and then “buy” the one that you find the most appealing. I’d like to think that religious belief is more than a matter of personal taste, or even more than just “what works for you.” On the other hand, can I really say that it’s a bad thing for people to seek out a faith which brings them the greatest happiness? I’m not sure what I think about that.

    (And it was great to meet you, too!!! Thanks so much for the fun conversations.)

  15. Tom, I agree that there are any number of situations in which it’s difficult to see how belief in something true is particularly advantageous. Though I think that even from a secular perspective, many would argue that truth is nonetheless worth pursuing (even scientists who are completely non-religious, for example, seem to base their work on this premise.)

    That’s also a good point that happiness can be a part of a testimony if it’s a confirmation of prophetic promises. I think that’s actually been one of the more serious challenges to my faith– there are certain things which I’ve been told again and again will lead to peace, happiness, etc., which have in fact had the opposite effect in my life. I’m still trying to make sense of those situations. Of course, there are also a number of religiously prescribed practices which I can very much see having a positive influence in my life (just as promised), and seeing that has strengthened my faith; like Seraphine, I think my testimony is largely experiential.

    Beijing, I like your point that understanding the true nature of a situation allows for better decision-making, and therefore potentially more happiness. I hadn’t thought of this from that angle, but it makes sense.

    I don’t know what I think about the connection between seeing reality as it is and happiness. If I’m remembering correctly from my undergrad days of studying psychology, a number of studies have indicated that at least in some areas, depressed people might have more accurate perceptions than non-depressed ones (for example, in estimating the amount of control they have over a given situation, or in guessing how others see them). Which isn’t to say that depression doesn’t also distort things as well– but on my cynical days, I sometimes wonder to what extent we maintain happiness by deluding ourselves. 😉

    Still, I keep coming back to a comment I once read that to believe in Christianity is to believe that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, reality is ultimately benign. (This could well be true of other religions as well; I simply don’t know enough to make any assertions about non- Christian faiths.) I’m not always certain of that, but it’s my hope.

    John Remy, I really appreciate your observation that there are multiple forms of happiness, and with reference to any given situation one might be happy in some ways and miserable in others. I’m finding that a helpful thing to remember as I try to clarify my thoughts about this.

    Hello back, ECS! It’s always nice to see you here.


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