A column in the May 2 edition of the Wall Street Journal highlights a phenomenon that is only too apparent to millions of people living in the United States and other prosperous nations of the world.
Writer Jonathan Clements expresses it succinctly: "We may have life and liberty. But the pursuit of happiness isn't going so well" ("No Satisfaction: Why What You Have Is Never Enough," p. D1).
"As a country," he continues, "we are richer than ever. Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier than they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren't very good at figuring out what will make us happy."
Noting the seeming fruitlessness of material prosperity and comfort in bringing durable happiness, he asks the question, "Why do we keep striving after these things?" and cites a couple of sources in response, one of whom opines that humans aren't built to be happy, but rather, the lure of perpetual bliss "is an incentive scheme for the benefit of our genes" meant to keep mankind surviving and reproducing.
Of course, this is in direct contradiction to what the scriptures and the prophets have long taught. Lehi, for example, in expounding the Plan of Salvation to his son Jacob, declared, "Men are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:24).
That Americans — and, perhaps, people everywhere — aren't very good at figuring out what will make them happy is continually manifested in the endless pursuit of money and the things it will buy: larger homes, fancier and more stylish vehicles, expensive pleasure cruises, costly and showy apparel, excessive food and drink.
Too often, such acquiring comes with a bitter cost later, when consumers find themselves in bondage to debt with no immediate prospect of relief. And the irony is that the things they acquired did not bring them the joy they pursued.
Two millennia ago, Jesus warned of the transitory nature of pleasure sought in the form of material possessions.
"Take heed," said He, "and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). He then gave the parable of the foolish landowner who, blessed with an excess of fruits, pulled down his barns and built larger ones to store his abundance, only to find his life cut short and to find himself deficient in the kind of "treasure" that really matters in the final analysis.
"So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:21), the Master said.
So how do we become "rich toward God"? Through the development of character. By fostering and developing those traits of divinity that are dormant and underdeveloped within our souls. By following in the footsteps of Christ and seeking first the kingdom of God (see Matthew 6:33), knowing "he that hath eternal life is rich" (Doctrine and Covenants 6:7). By preserving and nurturing our family relationships, honoring father and mother and bringing up our children in light and truth. By receiving and honoring covenants and ordinances of salvation and exaltation.
What if we have done these things, have tried diligently to unify our heart, mind and will with God, and still do not feel fully happy?
At such times we do well to remember the Lord's counsel: "Fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.
"Therefore, care not for the body, neither the life of the body; but care for the soul, and for the life of the soul.
"And seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life" (Doctrine and Covenants 101:36-38).
Through righteous living, we can expect to obtain a measure of happiness and peace in this life, but a fulness of joy awaits us in the resurrection as we attain eternal life.
Meanwhile, even the faithful can expect occasional trials. Lehi taught this: "For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things" (2 Nephi 2:11).
But, as James counsels, "Count it all joy when ye fall into many afflictions; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:2, JST).
Ultimately, of course, the "perfect work" of patience will be the joy that transcends anything earthly.