Choose Happiness by Choosing to Follow the Spirit
I’m delighted to be with you this morning, brothers and sisters. I’ve been looking forward to this assignment for some time, and it’s wonderful to be here with you. I’ve been looking forward to it because I know some of you, and it’s good to see your faces again.
I appreciate that opening prayer; that is my prayer, that the Holy Ghost will be here. I prayed that the Holy Ghost would be here with me today, and with you, because, as was spoken, the Holy Ghost is really the teacher. And if the Holy Ghost is here, and if your minds and hearts are open to it, you will get what you need no matter what I talk about.
I appreciated President Richards’ introduction. It reminded me on one occasion, at a gathering of the Seventy and their wives, we had stood to introduce ourselves and tell a little bit about ourselves as we were new general authorities. And we introduced the fact that I had gone to the University of Utah and that my wife had gone to the BYU, and we were married. Upon which, one brother, who has an extraordinary sense of humor, exclaimed out loud, “Oh, you’ve got a mixed marriage.” Well, I don’t know if we’ve got a mixed marriage, but it’s been a mixture of a lot of great things, and much of what good has happened to me in my life has been a result of two things: First, having served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Second, to have been fortunate enough to marry June Langeland. I don’t know what I would have become or where I would be had it not been for those two decisions. They are the single most important decisions I’ve ever made in my life. And I’m grateful, most grateful, for her companionship. As different experiences come to me and come to us in our life, and challenges and experiences, I am so grateful that she is by my side and that she is my companion.
I’ve come to wish you happy New Year and to help you realize this wish now and throughout your life. How many times did you hear “Happy New Year” over the course of the last month? Most of you didn’t stop to think much about what that means or what it implies, but I have over the last few weeks. I assume that you will find the topic of personal happiness relevant. I hope you do. After all, people who claim to be happy tend to live longer. They also get hired and promoted more frequently by their employers. They tend to have good friends, lasting marriages, and happier children, studies suggest.
Since happiness is ultimately what people want the most, I thought it might be relevant for our consideration this morning. Personal happiness is relevant to every season of your life, but for many of you, this is a season of your life when the decisions you make will cast a long shadow on the rest of your life and the prospects for lifelong happiness. What you decide and how you make those decisions is critically important.
Our topic is also relevant because the very doctrinal foundation for happiness is under siege in our modern society. The values, principles, and doctrines upon which personal happiness is based, are increasingly characterized as socially and politically incorrect. In your time, the debate will shift from tolerating differing values and beliefs than those taught in the scriptures by the prophets to an aggressive, full onslaught on the very existence of God in the first place. His divine plan of happiness and the principles it contains will be twisted almost beyond recognition, making happiness ever more elusive for many of us to find.
So, happiness. The pursuit of happiness has been the subject of philosophical debate and objective research for years. It’s been the topic of music and art for ages. Man’s pursuit of happiness is both universal and timeless. But I want you to understand and know that personal happiness is decisively a spiritual principle and not merely a philosophical abstract. Since everything begins with a question, my question to you is simply this: Do you understand what happiness is and how to obtain it?
I know that many of you are focused on your education. You’re focused on getting a job. You’re wondering if you’ll ever be competitive, if you’ll ever be adequate. You’re wondering if you’ll ever succeed in life. Let me assure you that you can and you will. But if you want to be happy, then you must understand the doctrine and principles that underpin happiness.
President Packer is famous for saying that true doctrine, understood, changes behavior more than the study of behavior will change behavior. (See “Do Not Fear,” Ensign, May 2004, 77) That is particularly true as it relates to personal happiness. So what is the true doctrine as it relates to personal happiness?
As you begin thinking about that, one thing always comes to my mind when I am thinking about you and the decisions that you will make. I have no doubt that many of you will find a way to be successful in life. What I worry about is not whether or not you will but whether or not, at the end of the day, you will have climbed the right ladder. It is devastating to think of someone who climbs a ladder, and by the age of 50 or so, my age, realizes the ladder they have climbed is leaning against the wrong wall. If you understand the doctrine of true happiness, you are much more likely to define and pursue success in your life in such a way that it will bring you true happiness.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “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.” (History of the Church, 5:134-35) In the pre-existence, we shouted for joy when presented with the Father’s plan of happiness, which is the doctrine of Christ, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. The plan provided that all God’s children—all God’s children—could receive a fullness of joy and exist in a never-ending state of happiness in the presence of the Father and of His Beloved Son.
Because of God’s love for us, He prepared a plan that included our coming to Earth, where we would receive bodies and be tested so that we could progress and become like Him. This plan is called the plan of salvation, the great plan of happiness, or the plan of redemption. The purpose of God’s plan is to lead us to eternal life. God declared, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) Eternal life is the greatest gift God has for His children. It is exaltation in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. Through the plan of happiness, we can receive this blessing of returning to God’s kingdom and receiving a fullness of joy.
As part of our Father’s plan, we were born into families. He established families to bring us happiness, to help us learn correct principles in a loving atmosphere and to prepare us for eternal life. A fullness of joy is necessarily, then, tied to families and children. A fullness of happiness is not possible without the family and children in God’s plan. The family is ordained of God. It is the most important unit in time and in eternity. Even before we were born on the earth we were part of a family, each and every one of us. Each of us is a beloved spirit son or daughter of loving heavenly parents, with a divine nature and destiny. (See “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”) God is our living Heavenly Father, and we lived in his presence as part of His family in the premortal life. There we learned our first lessons and were prepared for mortality.
There’s a reason why I am laying this foundation for you. If you’re going to be happy, you must have an understanding of what happiness consists of and where it comes from. The very purpose for creating the earth and receiving a physical body in mortality is to make possible immortality and eternal life, or a fullness of joy. The prophet Alma taught, “It has been made known unto me …that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they b e good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
“And then it shall come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” (Alma 40:11-12)
It seems quite natural that a state of happiness would precede a state characterized by a fullness of joy or exaltation. But when Lehi taught that “Men are, that they might have joy,” (2 Nephi 2:25) he was referring to the journey of mortality and not just the destination following mortality. The people of Nephi lived “after the manner of happiness,” (2 Nephi 5:27) suggesting there is a pattern to personal happiness. Alma would later record, “There never was a happier time among the people of Nephi…than in the days of Moroni.” (Alma 50:23)
And in 4th Nephi, following Christ’s ministry among the Nephites, it is recorded: “And it came to pass there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God….
“And how blessed were they! For the Lord did bless them in all their doings; yea, even they were blessed and prospered until an hundred and ten years had passed away; and the first generation from Christ had passed away, and there were no contentions in all the land.” (4 Nephi 1:15-16, 18)
Now, since our personal happiness is the very purpose of God, doesn’t it seem natural that His plan of happiness would be the surest way to achieve it? Why would it ever make sense, then, to live contrary to God’s plan of happiness? Obviously, it wouldn’t. Yet tragically, what we know is not always reflected in what we do. Is it? A voice of warning here is necessary. Each of you are more than old enough and spiritually mature enough to have a deep and spiritual understanding of God’s plan of happiness for you, deeply rooted in your minds and in your hearts. You must have it if you are going to achieve happiness. A simple cursory understanding of this will never do. You’ve long since passed the time in your life when simple overview, Sunday-school-ready answers to deep, compelling questions will suffice. You can know by the power of the Holy Ghost that these things are true, not just in general, but specifically for each and every one of you. I’ll come back to that.
As a former mission president, I am constantly amazed at young men and women who tirelessly and selflessly sacrifice and serve as full-time missionaries and invite others to come unto Christ by helping them to receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. You remember that? The missionary purpose, right? It sounds familiar? Then, after realizing greater personal happiness and joy than they have ever experienced before, that same missionary will return home and almost immediately and purposefully reverse course and do a swan dive back into Babylon—and wonder why they are not happy. Does that make any sense to you?
How can someone bear daily witness to the plan of happiness and then come home and almost immediately pursue a pattern of living in opposition to it? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Day in and day out, they find people in every station and stage of life, and teach them powerfully and simply that daily reading from the scriptures, meaningful personal prayer, personal righteousness, attending church, actively participating as a member of the church, will lead to happiness and will help them overcome any problem or concern—and then immediately upon returning home, they stop doing the very things that brought them happiness.
Those of you who served missions, why were you so happy then? What did you do to receive such happiness in your life? What did you do? You’re more obedient than you have ever been before in your life. You had a schedule—you got up early, you worked hard, and you went to bed in the same day. You studied the scriptures daily. You searched the scriptures. You didn’t just have a copy somewhere that you used to read. Five minutes didn’t get it done then, and it doesn’t get it done now. You had meaningful personal prayer. You focused on the Savior and His teachings. You gave on a daily basis selfless service to God and His children. And because of that, you experienced almost constant direction from the Holy Ghost, and you knew that personal revelation was a reality.
Well, is that happening now? And would you need to go on a mission in order to have those things happen to you now? No. Remember this imperative: You get what you focus on consistently. So what are you focused on? What are you doing now that might prevent you from happiness?
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said it well: “Only by aligning our wills with God’s is full happiness to be found. Anything less results in a lesser portion.” (“Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father,” Ensign, Nov. 1995) So what do you want? Are you happy? What are you willing to do or to change in order to be happier than you are right now? What are you waiting for? Maybe you think that happiness is a function of your circumstances. “When this happens, then I will be happy. When the semester ends…when I get rid of this professor…when finals are over…when I’m out of school…when I get a job, then I’ll be launched. When I get a new car… or a car….when I finally find the love of my life, then I will be happy.” This pattern of thinking is delusional and will lead you away from happiness, not toward it.
May I suggest three things that will help you be happier? First, decide to be happy. Happiness is a choice. Choices require the correct and proper use of agency. “And now, my sons [and daughters], I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he has created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
“And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he… created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other being bitter.
“Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for him [or her] self. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” (2 Nephi 2:14-16)
You have agency—the ability to act and not be acted upon. There is no lack of things to be unhappy about. We live in uncertain times. It’s a difficult economy. You wonder if there will be jobs. You wonder what will happen to you, if you’ll ever be successful. There is so much to be worried about, and everywhere you look there are things that could cause one to be unhappy. It’s enticing, sometimes, to yield your happiness to the actions of others or to the unfortunate but inevitable disappointments of life. Happiness, however, is a choice, and not an ideal set of circumstances. You can and must decide to be happy, and to choose happiness in spite of your circumstances. If you are not happy, it’s because you are choosing to be so. No one can force you to be unhappy. Blaming your unhappiness on others or on circumstances is not being accountable. It is not part of the plan. You are, in the final analysis, the master of your own fate and soul. The final result of your life will be exactly what you choose. There are necessarily influences that would distract you from keeping God’s commandments and being happy, but none of these can force you to do that which is not right or to be unhappy. You have agency, and happiness is a choice.
Because we all have the ability to change, we are all accountable for the choices we make. If you are not happy, change your attitude. If you consistently focus on being happy, you will become happy indeed. And by the way, no one is looking for unhappy persons to employ and promote or, for that matter, to date and marry. Who wants to marry into misery? Something to think about. And by the way, if you are happy, then notify your face. That’s what my mother-in-law used to always say. Decide to be happy. It will change your life, and it will change your circumstances, ultimately. It will lead to much greater happiness.
Now, you think about that one thing. It’s not trivial. But you begin to change your reality by changing your attitude about it.
Second: happiness is also a consequence of the choices we make. Wickedness never was happiness. The foundational basis of our Father’s plan of happiness is obedience. Obedience is the first law of heaven. All blessings from God are predicated on obedience to the laws on which those blessings are predicated. You know that. Personal happiness is predicated on personal righteousness, by keeping God’s commandments. It doesn’t get any more simple and profound than that. There is no other way.
President Gordon B. Hinckley taught it this way: “If we will live the gospel, if we will put our trust in God, our Eternal Father, if we will do what we are asked to do as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we will be the happiest and most blessed people on the face of the earth.” (from remarks at a Pocatello, Idaho, bioregional conference, 4 June 1995, Ensign, April 1996) Do you believe that, or are you still looking for some other shortcut way to make you happy?
Studies suggest that people with more money are not necessarily happier. Money does not bring happiness, and you can’t buy it. I have seen so many people in my life and career who climbed the ladder of success financially and were utterly miserable, because that ladder of success violated every single principle of happiness laid out by our Heavenly Father. And no amount of success can compensate for failure in the home. It simply is not possible.
Service is synonymous with keeping the commandments, but service is not convenient. It’s supposed to be inconvenient. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that yet. But service in the Church will always be inconvenient to other plans you might have for yourself. Is it counterintuitive to you that personal happiness would come from obeying God’s commandments and serving others? One of the great lessons of life and keys to personal success is forgetting ourselves in the service of others. Happiness does not come from getting what we want; it comes from aligning what we want with what God wants us to do and to become.
Since God is our loving Heavenly Father, He knows who we really are and what we really need to realize our divine identity—our highest and greatest potential. Obedience to God reveals our true divine identity. With this divine clarity, we can more consistently make choices that lead to happiness.
Let me just make a punctuation here. Each of you has a divine identity. Each of you does. Each of you is important to God the Eternal Father, and I bear witness that He knows you. And He knows what you can become, and it is significant. Eternal life is the greatest of all the gifts of God. It’s the cumulative result of the consequences that inevitably derive from the choices we make. Choosing obedience, therefore, to God and to His servants, is the pattern of happiness.
If you want to be happier, be more obedient. Being more diligent in keeping the commandments will lead to greater happiness. Now let me be specific here. What is the Holy Ghost prompting or urging you to do? Are there things that you know in your heart you ought to be doing that you are not doing? Are there also things that you are doing in your life that you ought not to be doing? The Holy Ghost will always prompt you to do things that will lead to greater happiness in your life, because he knows you and knows all things.
That leads me to number three: seek to always have the influence and companionship of the Holy Ghost. The gifts of the Spirit are peace, joy, and love. Joy is a gift of the Spirit. It comes from God through the Holy Ghost. It is granted to those who receive a remission of their sins. Each of us has been given the incomparable gift of the Holy Ghost. Its influence and companionship is an essential ingredient or element in the Father’s plan of happiness. We could not be happy were it not for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Short of exaltation itself, the Holy Ghost is the greatest gift God can give to you and me in mortality. “It will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Nephi 32:5) Now, are you interested in knowing all things what you should do? You oftentimes will go to professors or mentors or someone else and you ask, “What should I do?” I bear witness to you that a member of the Godhead has been given to you by the Father to show you all things what you should do, in all things that you are doing. Your personal happiness will be a direct function of your worthiness to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and your daily personal efforts to seek and ask for it. By the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things, including your own divine identity, and what your Heavenly Father would have you do in your life in order to pursue happiness.
Ask yourself this question: What percentage of the day do I spend seeking the companionship of the Holy Ghost? If you could convert that into minutes, how many minutes would it be? If you are awake for 16 hours, and I realize some of you sleep for less than 8 hours—I also realize some of you sleep a lot more than 8 hours. But if you base it on 16 hours of waking time, what percentage of that time would you have actively prepared for or would be in the process of seeking the companionship of the Holy Ghost? Can you measure it on a daily basis? Is it big enough?
Each time we worthily partake of the sacrament, we are promised that we might always have the Spirit to be with us. And as you study the scriptures every day, every day, every day—there’s a pattern there—and as you consistently choose to let virtue—let me say that again—as you choose to consistently let virtue garnish your thoughts and your actions, and as you humbly and diligently pray for it and then constantly throughout the day seek for it, I bear witness that the influence of the Holy Ghost can be always with you, especially in this season of your life when some of you will make some of the most significant decisions of your lives.
What could you begin doing today that would help you get closer to the Holy Ghost? What could you stop doing right now that is preventing you from being worthy of the Spirit?
Let me conclude with my testimony. My young friends, I am just a little bit older than you, and just a little bit further down the same road that you are traveling. I am grateful beyond expression that I haven’t been climbing a ladder for the last 30 years that’s leaning against the wrong wall. I am a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is my humble honor and privilege to bear witness of His reality in all the world. Now, I have no idea where you are in this moment, in terms of your own testimony and your own level of spirituality. But I don’t want you to leave today without knowing that I know that God is a reality. I know that He lives, and I know that He is our loving Heavenly Father. I bear witness that you and I are His sons and daughters, and He has intimate, comprehensive knowledge and understanding of each and every one of us, which goes well beyond name.
I bear witness that God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son to come and implement the plan of happiness, through the Infinite Atonement, and the principles and doctrines that are a part of His great plan of happiness. There is no other way nor means under heaven whereby we can be saved or we can be happy—only by following Jesus of Nazareth. I bear witness that He is our Savior and our Redeemer, and that He loves us, and that all things are possible for you and me because of His infinite Atonement. And through the Atonement and the covenants that we have made, we have access to the power of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, to make whatever changes we need to make in our lives, and to meet and overcome and conquer any challenge of any nature and any consequence in our lives. We are infinitely more than adequate, particularly when we have the companionship of the Holy Ghost to show us all things what we should do.
I bear witness that the scriptures are true. In your day and time there will be an unending set of reasons why you should leave the plan of happiness and pursue some other course. I beg you—I beg you to stay firm and committed to the Father’s eternal plan of happiness. In the end, it’s the only thing that will matter. I bear witness to you that God loves you, and you and I will be happy if we follow the pattern of happiness in our lives. Decide to be happy. Be obedient, because happiness is the consequence of personal righteousness. And constantly seek for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and you will have peace and happiness and joy in your lives, and you will fulfill your divine potential. I so witness, as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, in His name, amen.