I’ve been noticing something about my kids lately: They hate being forced to do anything. My two year old will peel my hand away from hers every time I try to hold it. Even crossing the street, even in the parking lot. She doesn’t want to feel coerced one little bit. If I try to make her cross the room to me so she can get dressed, she screams, flails and kicks. However, if it is her idea, she happily runs across the room.
This may not seem so groundbreaking. But I feel like it’s offered an insight into my life-long pursuit of happiness. She crosses the room either way we go about it, the action doesn’t make her happy or unhappy. It is when she chooses to cross the room that she is happy. When she follows her little heart, she is happy.
Remember how I have been having PTA issues? Well, last week I realized that I was feeling bound, obligated and coerced against my will to continue my PTA job. I’ve been feeling that way for about a month, and it has made me miserable. I felt trapped and angry because it wasn’t my choice anymore, it was my obligation. And then a miraculous thing happened: I stopped dragging my feet and did my job. Once I felt a renewed desire to dig in and realized that I could still choose on my own to fulfill my obligations, I became happy again. I wasn’t being forced to call volunteers, I was choosing to.
So the first step in claiming our own happiness is to follow our hearts. Do what we want to do. In my experience, even when we choose to do something that isn’t necessarily right, we are happier than if we are forced to do something good that we don’t want to do. Having control over our lives provides more happiness than completing righteous actions. Have you ever sat through a session of Stake Conference that you didn’t want to be at? It is miserable. But have you ever been totally engrossed in the messages of Stake Conference and didn’t want it to end? It is wonderful! Stake Conference happens either way. The happiness variable is whether we choose to be there or feel forced.
But this is only half of the happiness equation. To illustrate the other half, let me tell you another story about my two year old.
This girl loves to follow her heart. She does exactly what she wants to, or she throws a fit until I let her do what she wants to. A few weeks ago, we were at a hotel for the weekend on the beach. We had been down swimming in the hot tub earlier, and then went up to get showered and start cooking dinner. While I was cooking, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t heard her chirpy voice anywhere for a little while. I started calling her name, checking all the rooms, the closets, even under the beds. She was gone.
She was tall enough to open the door to the hotel room and had already escaped once before. So I went out in the hall and called “Bubba! Bubba!” I could faintly hear her, or something like her, somewhere far off. I went down to the end of the hall. Her voice became louder. She was in the elevator. I panicked, unsure if pushing a button would send her away from me or keep her there, then realized it would just open the door, I pushed the button.
There she was, naked. She had thrown her diaper on the floor and was pushing the buttons on the elevator panel. Luckily it was just the buttons that opened and shut the doors, called the fireman and called the front desk. She didn’t push the number 1 with a star and go down to the pool and get in. No big deal, right? I felt simultaneously horrified and relieved. But she was safe and we went back to the room, where I locked up every lock on that blasted door.
Sara followed her heart for a bit of momentary happiness, but her destination would have brought misery in another few minutes. Worse case, drowned in the pool. Best case, an elderly couple would bring her to the front desk and investigations would follow. Happiness has two parts–there is the day-to-day happiness of doing what we want to do because it is our choice; and then there is the long term happiness wrapped up in our eventual destination. Even though choosing to do something selfish or sinful brings a bit of happiness initially, it doesn’t lead to happiness in the long term.
The trick is to match up the green sections of the graphs. We have to choose, on our own, to get to the destination that will bring us the most long-term happiness. We have to learn to love the temple, and stake conference, and having families and reading our scriptures. We need to do these good things, things that God has pointed out and said, “This is the way” with our whole hearts on board, because we want to.
I think this is why the scriptures use the term “The Plan of Happiness” to describe our progression. Satan’s plan of taking away agency could have also correctly been labeled a plan of salvation–he wanted to get us through earth and get a resurrected body. But there would have been no joy in it. Our agency is what brings us happiness, in fact, that’s why we have it. The joy of this life comes from choosing God and His way freely, without coercion.
C.S. Lewis explains: “The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”
The key to happiness lies in choosing, freely and of your own volition to do good things. It’s not about money, or success, or comfort. It’s about feeling like you are in control of your life and it is going the way you want it to. A lifetime of good things accumulates into a happy life. A lifetime of bad things may well end up with the equivalent of “naked in an elevator”. Praying is the best way I’ve found to set my heart back on the path of happiness. God is happy to show us how to desire what is good, we just need to ask and be willing to act.