We are taught that having joy is the purpose of our existence (see 2 Nephi 2:25). So why does happiness sometimes seem so elusive? Maybe it’s because we don’t understand what happiness actually is … and what it isn’t.
At the simplest level, happiness is the temporary elevation of your mental state to a level higher than that of your usual emotional equilibrium.1 In other words, it means feeling good.
There are lots of ways to trigger an emotional high—making jokes with a friend, playing a fun game, or even eating a piece of cheesecake—but it never lasts long. We often end up bouncing from one source of pleasure to another in an attempt to recapture that emotional high. But isn’t there a happiness that lasts?
Yes—but it’s a lot subtler than you think, which is why we often miss the mark. The world tells us that a worthwhile life must be filled with adventure, that your days should be a nonstop thrill ride down an easy, pleasure-filled road. But the truth is, you don’t need constant excitement in order to live “after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27). Lasting happiness—what we might call true happiness—is more a quiet, steady sense of well-being rather than an obvious feeling of euphoria. Fun and pleasure fade, but true happiness isn’t a passing mood—it lasts much longer. If experiencing pleasure is raising your emotions above equilibrium, achieving true happiness is like raising the equilibrium itself.2
You might think that steady happiness requires steady prosperity and freedom from pain or trials. But studies show that favorable circumstances don’t guarantee happiness, and unfavorable ones don’t doom it. Instead, among all factors that affect your happiness, your choices have some of the greatest influence.3 Elder Ulisses Soares of the Presidency of the Seventy taught, “Happiness is determined by habits, behaviors, and thought patterns that we can directly address with intentional action.” Happiness is more than just a good mood or a carefree life—it’s a way of thinking and living that we can control. General mood levels are certainly affected by genetics and our upbringing, but our personal choices play a significant role. In short, “happiness is a choice that anyone can make.”4
So how exactly do we “choose” to be happy? What’s the secret ingredient to our happiness cheesecake? As Elder Soares explained, true happiness requires “a long-sustained effort for something more important in life.” Similarly, Viktor Frankl, a well-known Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, suggested that happiness is the “side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”5
And what could be a greater cause than the one God has laid out for us? In our search for happiness, we need not look any further than Heavenly Father’s plan. After all, it’s called the “plan of happiness” for a reason! (Alma 42:8, 16). Scripture after scripture testifies that following God’s plan brings happiness (see 2 Nephi 2:13; Helaman 13:38). Although righteous living will not save us from every heartache, it will put us in a position where we are better able to experience happiness in this life, and it leads to our exaltation and eternal joy in the world to come.
Much like faith, happiness can be weakened or strengthened, depending on your actions. If you spend your time pursuing momentary merriment, your happiness will be “carried about with every wind” (Ephesians 4:14). But if you strive to live righteously, you’ll develop a steady sense of underlying peace and well-being that can weather any storm. And when you prioritize faith over fun, you can discover real joy—the kind that can be found only by “the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness” (Alma 27:18).