The Social Functions of Happiness
Because of all the other bloggernacle posts on happiness and maintaining appearances (see Dave’s Mormon Inquiry, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Exponent II), I’ve been thinking about this subject for much of the day today. However, my thoughts have taken a slight detour through my academic interests.
I do a lot of work on thinking about the ways in which emotions are not only signals of internal states or biological processes, but have social functions. In Catherine Lutz’ Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, she argues that emotional concepts cannot be thought of as independent of the culture and society from which they originate, and that the discourses and structures to which emotions belong determine their very nature. She explains that "the concepts of emotion can more profitably be viewed as serving complex communicative, moral, and cultural purposes rather than simply as labels for internal states whose nature or essence is presumed to be universal" (5).
Today I’ve been thinking about the ways in which "happiness," an "appearance of happiness," or a "culture of happiness" has specific social functions within the church. While I think a lot has been said about the impact that this "culture of happiness" has on its individual practitioners, today I’ve been thinking about the impact that the "culture of happiness" has on the ways in which people inside (and outside) of the church relate to one another.
I think fMhLisa hits on one of these in her post, when she writes "You are happy for an audience of potential converts who will see any sign of unhappiness as an excuse not to convert." How many times have we heard conversion stories with the phrase "I was attracted to your church because everyone seemed so upbeat and happy"? While I would be interested in hearing to what extent this is an attraction that the church holds for non-members (my inclination is to think it’s exaggerated), I think there is truth in the belief that an appearance of happiness will attract people who are looking for a greater sense of peace and happiness in their own lives. There’s a reason that people in advertisements who are using various kinds of products are almost always smiling and having fun. (For the sake of not getting too complex, I’m ignoring the whole "light of Christ" issue, though I think more needs to be said on both the differences between and the relationship of a "culture of happiness" and exhibiting the "light of Christ.")
I think there are also social functions of a "culture of happiness" within the membership itself. There are scientific experiments that have been done on the effects of acting happy (or even doing something as basic as smiling). Most participants in the studies reported higher levels of happiness after pretending as if they were happy. While I am certainly not a proponent of the extreme versions of this formulation—-"if you try hard enough, you can make yourself happy" or "if you act happy, you will become happy"-—I do think that in many instances having interactions with happy people (who are truly happy in genuine, affirming ways) can increase your own levels of happiness. Similarly, if you were around a bunch of stressed and depressed people who were projecting those emotions onto others, your own stress and depression levels would probably rise. So, one social function of happiness is that it can increase happiness levels in certain kinds of interactions.
I think another social function of a "culture of happiness”"is that it seems to collectively affirm the truth of the gospel. Others have noted that there is an individual phenomenon (which Russell Arben Fox, in his comments on fMhLisa’s posts on FMH, labels "works righteousness") where we believe that happiness stems directly from righteous living, and if we display happiness, it indicates to others our own level of righteousness. I think this happens on the collective level as well. Not only does displaying an attitude of happiness signal to those around us that we are living a righteous life (according to church discourse/culture), if everyone is doing that, it affirms to the community the truth of their beliefs. If we look around us and see that everyone is happy, we can say to ourselves "the church is true—the fact that everyone is so happy is proof." Even if we are struggling with our own testimony, we can look over at Sister Jones, see that she’s happy living the gospel, and ideally that can give us hope that we can achieve a similar state of happiness in our own endeavors toward righteous living. It’s a collective affirmation that the church formulas for gaining a testimony, increasing our faith, and obeying the commandments really do work.
Now, I am not arguing that any of the above are "good" or "bad" social formations. I think they’re complex, and that they have both benefits and detriments. However, I think a "culture of happiness" impedes certain kinds of social formations, and I would argue that this is a clear problem.
For instance, I think that it often prevents certain kind of social conversations and relationships that could potentially be very strengthening to church members. I am reminded of the scripture in Moroni 6:5: "And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls." Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I think about this scripture, I imagine a church membership getting together and having intense, honest conversations about their struggles with faith and how to overcome them, etc.
A "culture of happiness" often impedes authentic conversations on how to deal with struggling testimonies, problems achieving obedience to certain commandments, etc. If we encouraged other kinds of emotional social formations, not only would those of us who are struggling with this issues (which is everyone in the church at some point in their life) feel more comfortable with our own inadequacies, we would be able to have authentic and strengthening conversations about the very real struggles of life and living the gospel. It can also make it much more difficult to "mourn with those that mourn" and "comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9)
Other thoughts? In your mind, what kinds of social formations and relationships does a culture of happiness encourage? impede? Are these beneficial, harmful, or (my personal favorite) both?