One of the most striking things I’ve noticed since leaving the church is how much happier I feel overall. This new sense of normal began a few months after discovering that the Mormon church isn’t what it claims it is (or “true” in their own jargon), and made several jumps along the way as I passed multiple milestones. My guilt over innocuous things that are part of being human melted away, my diminished sense of self worth improved, the bulk of my stress left, I no longer felt scummy over repentance, I no longer feared death or judgement; and indeed the more I distance myself from the church the more the fear of death itself has diminished. That last point was a surprise to me, as the church has some pretty spectacular things promised in the hereafter. What poisons this is the fact that according to their own rules you have no chance of acquiring these blessings unless you actually reject the gospel and have your ordinances performed posthumously in the temple. Almost no living person could really live the standards unless they are asexual and are constantly paying attention to ensure that they don’t break the tiniest of arbitrary rules.
I’ve heard the counter argument to that involving something about the atonement, but that’s a point for another day.
When I finally was able to stop attending church, my integrity was restored and with it my departure was complete. This brought about the final step in my ultimately unexpected transformation into a truly happier, more authentic person. The difference is so profound there were times I wondered if I was living in reality. But when I articulated this to a believing Mormon, I got asked a simple and surprisingly difficult to answer question: Were you really that miserable as a Mormon?
I… well, I didn’t feel miserable as a Mormon. But would it have really been fair to say that I didn’t understand what happiness was? At the same time, it’s tempting to point at the statistics that show the high rate of depression and suicide among Mormons, including the fact that Utah is the most depressed state in the nation. Knowing that I would have told you without hesitation that I was happy when I was a believer, and I wouldn’t have been lying, this quickly became something I wanted to dig into. To do this, it’s necessary to identify what happiness is exactly. While this isn’t an exact science, it’s not entirely outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Right up my alley.
The gist of it is this. “happiness” can be summarized by the acronym “PERMA” which stands for Pleasure, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. The more these are satisfied the happier you will feel. This certainly reflects my experience. Without going into too much depth, let’s look at these a moment:
- Pleasure — In Mormonism we are taught to avoid pleasure because they somehow detract from happiness. So nothing sexual, artificially stimulating, etc. The only way to satisfy this as a Mormon is if you can get pleasure in other ways that are not arbitrarily considered “sinful,” such as through adrenaline type of activities. If you do masturbate or have sex, the pleasure will be destroyed by guilt. Thus, most Mormons will not be able to satisfy this.
- Engagement — This generally refers to flow of information or mentally stimulating/challenging activities. Like all religious groups, Mormonism discourages critical thinking and goes a step further with thought stopping and dumbing everything down. I was one that found mental stimulation in other places, such as a library, but anyone who isn’t a “nerd” will fall short on this one.
- Relationships — This doesn’t necessarily mean romantic relationships, only social ties. Most Mormons will have little trouble here, but as an introvert I have the personality type where I tend to have fewer, stronger friendships rather than a large facebook-esque social network as the church encourages. So extroverts will be just fine on this one, introverts (like me) score poorly.
- Meaning — Mormons feel like they belong to “something bigger.” Where this can fail for some, as it has for me, is the idea that you’re not going to make it in the end. If you have any guilt then meaning for you is destroyed because you’re doomed to hell. (or the Telestial Kingdom, which we were told is pretty much hell since you can’t progress) The only way to score high here as a Mormon is if you take a liberal approach and assume that “doing your best is good enough regardless.” This approach is not encouraged by the leadership, so it’s not very common. Thanks to a selection bias most believers that stumble onto this blog post are likely to be more liberal, however.
- Accomplishments — This one will depend completely on the individual. There are meaningless little accomplishments within the church and there’s nothing stopping members from participating in activities elsewhere. It all depends on the individual’s attitude toward the accomplishments, meaning that we finally found a factor that the church doesn’t really affect.
It should be noted that stress, fear and guilt can detract from multiple areas in the above list.
The first thing that I’m noticing about that is how different personality types are going to land all over the place based on those parameters, but it’s not hard to see how it can be very common for two or more of those to score very low and lead to depression; just as it is clearly possible to score relatively high and be genuinely happy. The trouble is you have to be just the right type of person to score high in all five areas as a Mormon. (or, just as likely, believe in your own specific brand of the religion)
Had I taken the church more seriously than I did I could certainly have been clinically depressed just as many others are. Another clear case of what doesn’t affect you. What’s more, I can tell from my own experience that regardless of how happy or miserable I am, I will still feel happy since that’s my sense of normal. After all, I judge my emotions off of my normal state, so what do I call how I’m feeling right now if not happy? Throw the fact that I was taught that the church leads to happiness and my trust in the church at the time to tell the truth and voila.
Finally, if your experience with Mormonism was different from mine and you beat the odds and are (or were) happy as a Mormon that doesn’t change the reality of what’s going on. I have learned that it’s unfair to say that anyone is “happy” or “miserable,” since that’s all relative. All I know is that I felt “happy” then, since leaving my sense of normal has shifted for the better, and I feel “happy” now. The fact that my sense of normal is vastly improved doesn’t mean I was that “miserable” before. But I wouldn’t trade the improvement for anything.