Q. ‘Some experts say we can choose to be happy. Is that true?’
No. We don’t choose the emotions we feel. If we could choose to be happy, everyone would be happy. We all want to be happy.
‘Some people don’t. Some people like to complain and make themselves miserable.’
No, they don’t like to make their lives miserable, but they do have habits of thinking they can’t relinquish. To assume people want to make themselves miserable is naive. No-one chooses unhappiness.
‘Then why do the experts say we can choose to be happy?’
They themselves might be happy, and mistakenly assume it is because they have made the choice to be happy. They ignore the possibility they might be happy for other reasons, and ignore the fact that many people have chosen to be happy but remain unhappy.
‘But when people say we can choose to be happy they are referring to how we can choose to interpret a situation. Two women get sacked from their jobs. Beth sees the situation as catastrophic; Fran sees it a new chapter in her life. Assuming everything else is equal, isn’t Fran choosing to be happy by choosing to see the situation in a good light?’
Fran isn’t choosing to be happy, but she does have the ability to perceive the situation in a positive light, and that in turn will help her cope. Beth cannot see things in a positive light, and it’s no use telling her to choose to do so. If it were that easy there would not be a negative thinker on the planet. Therefore, it would be unfair, naive and simplistic to assume Fran is happy because she chose to be, and to assume Beth is unhappy because she chose to be.
‘Why is Beth choosing to see things in a negative light?’
Beth doesn’t believe she can handle the ‘bad stuff’ in life, so she thinks pessimistically to prepare herself for the worst. That’s why she thinks losing her job is a catastrophe: she is readying herself for a terrible battle she fears she won’t win. Fran, on the other hand, feels she can handle the situation and therefore doesn’t need to prepare herself for the worst. She can afford to feel optimistic and positive.
‘What if Fran has six children to support and a mortgage? Are you saying she can still be happy?’
People with strong core happiness still suffer, still feel all the emotions; they just aren’t shattered by them. Fran might well feel awful about losing her job, but knows she will recover and that her life will be okay again. She just has to ‘wait it out’. That’s important, because when you have that feeling it ceases to be a catastrophe.
‘Alright, but we can choose to get upset. When my sister accidentally killed our cat I had a choice between becoming angry and being cool with what she did. I chose to be cool with it.’
You didn’t choose to be angry, or be not angry, you chose your response to your anger. You were angry, plain and simple, and you could either express that anger or respond gently. You chose to be gentle. Don’t confuse the emotion with the response.
‘When a horse pins its ears back it is displaying anger. Some horse trainers tape the horse’s ears forward to create a feedback loop, to trick the horse into calming itself. If we can trick the horse’s brain into adopting an emotion, why can’t we trick our own brain into adopting an emotion?’
We can. In a scary situation like a job interview, we can fool ourselves into being confident by changing our body language, vocal tone and manner.
‘That’s right! And in Susan Jeffers’ book, Embracing Uncertainty, she talked about ‘the laughing Buddha’. That’s when we ‘radiate’ a happy, loving energy no matter what is happening. It worked for her husband. He ‘radiated’ loving energy to his workmates, and after a while he felt as though he really was radiating energy! His relationships with his co-workers improved. He was faking loving energy for his co-workers, and found himself feeling it for real!’
That’s not choosing to have an emotion, that’s choosing to act in a way that manufactures an emotion.
‘Same thing! We can ‘manufacture’ happiness if you’d rather use that word. If we act happy – if we keep smiling, for example – we will trick the brain into becoming happy. We can do what the experts recommend: fake it until we make it!’
No. If taping the horse’s ears back works, it is because the horse was feeling one particular emotion at the time: annoyance, or something like it. It’s a short-term thing. If you tape the ears back permanently the effect will wear off.
Besides, when we act confidently we are trying to fool someone else – a prospective employer, for example. We are not trying to fool ourselves into believing that we ourselves are confident. In the same way, if we ‘radiate loving energy’ we are trying to fool others, not ourselves. Problems arise when we try to fool ourselves.
‘What do you mean?’
When we pretend to ourselves we are confident in a scary situation we immediately create an inner conflict, because we know it’s not the truth. When we pretend to ourselves we are cool with a situation when in reality we feel jealous, or if we pretend to ourselves we are calm when we are angry, we won’t get to deal with those emotions. How can we deal with our jealousy effectively if we pretend it’s not there? For that matter, how do we get to know ourselves if we are lying to ourselves?
‘But you just agreed that if we act confidently for long enough, we will become confident. And that guy who radiated loving energy . . . after a while he felt it!’
Yes, if we act as though we are confident, we can build our confidence. If we act as though we are angry, we can become angry. If we act as though we are ‘radiating loving energy’, we may begin to feel that.
But remember: core happiness is a long-term, ongoing day-to-day feeling of well-being when nothing in particular is happening. We can’t increase that happiness by ‘acting happy’ through life. It requires a long-term satisfaction of innate needs, and that’s the subject of this book.
‘So what are you saying?’
Don’t expect people to ‘choose to be happy’ or to adopt any other emotion. No-one can simply choose to have an emotion and manufacture it. I know I can’t. I am an ardent supporter of the Hawthorn Football Club and get enormous pleasure from watching them play. Every time I see them win I am elated, and when they win Grand Finals I am euphoric. It’s a great feeling and I wish supporters of other less successful clubs could experience it.
So, why don’t I choose to feel elated every day? Or, why don’t I support a team in another code and have the exquisite pleasure of experiencing more Grand Final victories? Answer: because despite my attempts, I can’t get interested in other codes. I can’t manufacture the emotion to become an interested supporter.
Can you? Can you, right now, choose to feel angry with your shoes? Could you choose to feel elated with the button on your shirt? Of course not. You can’t choose to have an emotion even for a minute. So don’t fall for the notion that we can choose to be happy.
A reader (Barxalot) once suggested that we could change the term ‘we can choose to be happy‘ with: “I have developed the feeling that I can handle adversity, that I won’t be broken by it. That resilience gives me the confidence and freedom to respond to life’s challenges in a healthy manner, and leaves me relaxed and happier. If you can develop resilience, you may also become happier.’
That sounds good to me.
‘People who say “happiness is a choice” make it sound like it’s “bad” to feel anything else but “happiness”. . . . Making someone feel guilty because they are not “choosing to be happy” . . . shows a lack of understanding of life and emotions.’
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The positive thinking myth. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: With wisdom comes happiness. Time and again we see in the movies a strong correlation between wisdom and happiness. Do we need to be wise to be happy?
– Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?