In a quiet New England churchyard lies a headstone whose epitaph contains a profoundly important message - a goal - for all of us:
Here lies a woman twice blessed;She was happy, and she knew it.
Twice blessed, indeed. Happiness is the proper pursuit of mankind. Man is that he might have joy. All we do should be directed toward that goal.
But for most of us, unlike the woman in that New England grave, the pursuit of happiness is complicated by not knowing when we have found it.
So we anxiously wait for happiness to come at some future time. We will be happy when we are old enough to drive a car, when we get married, when we have children, when we buy the new house, when we get that big promotion and can buy a bigger house in a better neighborhood, when the children are on their own and we can get some peace, when we are retired and can travel and do the things we've never had time to do. Then we will be happy.
And, suddenly, we find ourselves looking back and remembering when we were happy and wishing we could be there again.
So many of us think we can find happiness when times are "normal" - when the economy is better and the stock market settles down, when we no longer live under the threat of nuclear war, when we have achieved order and normality in our own lives.
But times were never "normal." They never will be. What we see is what we have. Today is as "normal" as it is going to get.
A discouraging thought? Yes, for those who can't come to grips with and apply in their lives the truth that happiness is a state of mind. It is within. It has nothing to do with "the times."
With that truth, we can abandon our pursuit of externalities leading to happiness. We can quiet our souls. We can take to heart the counsel of Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Happiness is . . . a butterfly which when pursued is just beyond your grasp but . . . if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."
Are we then to be passive about this matter of happiness? Is there nothing we should be doing about this most important goal of human existence? Of course not. We have only to learn whence happiness really comes, and live our lives accordingly. As we learn, we will find that every true source of happiness calls not for frenetic searching but for quiet consistency.
As always, the place to learn is the scriptures; the Word of God.
The first key is righteousness. Wickedness never was happiness, Alma warns. (Alma 41:10.) If there be no righteousness there be no happiness, Nephi affirms. (2 Ne. 2:13.) And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. (Isa. 32:17.) Peace, quietness, assurance; that's certainly the foundation for happiness.
But there are other stones in the foundation, perhaps less widely recognized.
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, Proverbs tells us (3:13), and who has mercy on the poor (14:21), who keeps the law (29:18) and who trusts in the Lord (16:20). No externalities here; all these sources of happiness are within.
So is that supremely important essential for happiness - appropriate self-esteem. Paul spells it out succinctly: Happy is he that condemneth not himself. (Rom. 14:22.)
James adds another essential: We count them happy which endure. (James 5:11.) And Alma still another - that we be truly penitent. (Alma 27:18.)
But it was the Savior Himself who gave the most challenging and profound key of all. After giving His disciples the most poignant example of self-effacing service and challenging them to follow, He promised: "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." (John 13:17.)
Isn't that what life's experience teaches us - that it is when we lose ourselves in the service of others we find our greatest joy?