Happiness Cults

Mormonism loudly touts its “Plan of Happiness,” as well as its general “clean living” to the world as proof of how good it is as a religion (and sometimes as proof that it is “the one true church” as it claims in missionary efforts). It wasn’t until recently that I began to suspect that the promise of happiness is actual a symptom of a kind of cult-like behavior. On the one hand, the insistence that Mormons must be happy often leads us (in particular women) to put on false masks of happy faces to prove that our religion is right. Being happy is proof of our righteousness. I’ve even heard talks given that insist that it is our duty to be happy, because God demands our obedience and our happiness in being obedient. Doubting or being unhappy are both evidence of resisting God’s work in our lives.

The problem is that enforced happiness isn’t happiness. But if you’ve lived with enforced happiness all your life, it may take a long while (say, fifty years) to figure out that it isn’t real happiness. It’s a social display of happiness that isn’t meant for you to feel internally but to be used as social capital to give status. I thought I was happy in Mormonism. Maybe I really was happy, but looking back, I’m a little more suspicious. Insisting you are happy is not the same as being happy.

Of course, I can’t tell people what their experience is. The things I find soul-enriching are not necessarily the things everyone else agrees with. I love triathlons, especially endurance events like Ironman. Clearly, most people think such an event is torture. I also dislike mayonnaise, which most of my family loves. I get the hiccups if I drink straight soda, so I cut it with water, which most of my family thinks is disgusting. Different strokes.

When I left Mormonism, I kept getting asked by other former Mormons if I was happier. When I said that I wasn’t and talked about all the losses I’d experienced, loss of family and friends, loss of my own identity, loss of certainty, I was assured that once I got over the initial shock, then I’d be a lot happier. One popular podcaster who is ex-Mormon said that he’d never met anyone who wasn’t happier after leaving Mormonism. I guess until I said I wasn’t happier. But it kind of ruined his statistics, didn’t it?

After writing regularly about my experience as an ex-Mormon, sometimes happy and sometimes not, I find myself feeling pushed out of the ex-Mormon realm. Why? Because people don’t want to be told that they’re wrong. It turns out ex-Mormons don’t like a critic anymore than Mormons did. Why can’t I just say I’m happy like everyone else and then just be happy? I’ve had more than one ex-Mormon suggest that what I really need to do is start drinking enough to “relax” more. To be happy? Really? I mean, I don’t have anything against alcohol used in moderation, but just to get drunk? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just stubbornly unhappy. Whose fault is that?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that the promise of happiness is one of the first signs of a cult. It’s also a frequent promise of advertising of almost anything. When I was a teen, I heard a lot of ads proclaiming that “Coke is IT.” What is “IT” exactly? Well, the genius of this advertising tagline is that they don’t have to say what “IT” is. Therefore there can be no complaints that they’re wrong. If I’d said, I don’t know, I’ve tasted Coke and it isn’t “IT,” what would the response be? Laughter. Because everyone knows the claim is nonsense. Yet, it was also combined with images of happy people.

The advertising of Mormonism in that same era was similar. Happy Mormon people. Mormons have happy families. Happiness is guaranteed. Well, of course not all the time. No, there will still be trials and problems. But “real happiness” is still promised. And what is this real happiness? It’s whatever Mormonism says it is. You have a duty to be happy, so we can get more converts. So they can be happy and also help get more converts. I’ve been told more than once that writing critically about Mormonism has caused there to be fewer converts and I don’t know why this is my responsibility. But it is. Image is everything.

I’ve spent the last twenty months since I disassociated with the LDS Church, seeking for happiness. And you know what? I don’t think I’ve really found it. I have happy moments, yes. I feel happy about writing this piece or that one. But I also have sorrowful moments and anguished moments and angry moments. Because those are all emotions and our emotions go up and down all the time. That’s what it means to be human. Being happy all the time shouldn’t be what any of us are looking for, because that’s not authentically human and what I want to be now is more authentically human, more myself. I think that’s the best advertisement for leaving Mormonism I can show to people. I’m not going to pretend to be happy all the time to advertise for my position, to shore up an image of ex-Mormons.

I’m not happier, my friends. I don’t promise happiness to anyone. And when people say that something will make me happy now, I am very, very suspicious to see how the money flows to those who say such things.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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