Myth: We can choose to be happy.

Nephew: Many experts say we can choose to be happy. Is that true?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Some people don’t. Some people like to complain and make themselves miserable.

Uncle: That’s not true. 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.

Nephew: Then why do the happiness gurus say we can choose to be happy?

Uncle: They themselves might be happy, and mistakenly assume it is because they 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.

Nephew: But when people say we can choose to be happy they are referring to how we can choose to interpret a situation. Remember reframing? Two women get sacked from their jobs: Beth sees the situation as catastrophic while Fran sees a new chapter in her life begin. Assuming everything else is equal, isn’t Fran choosing to be happy by choosing to see the situation in a good light?

Uncle: Fran does have the ability to perceive the situation in a positive light, and that in turn will help her cope. Beth can’t see things in a positive light, but 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. It would be unfair and simplistic to assume Fran is happy because she chose to be, and that Beth is unhappy because she chose to be.

Nephew: But why is Beth choosing to see things in a negative light?

Uncle: Remember our conversation on positive thinking? 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 battle she fears she won’t win. Fran, on the other hand, feels she can cope with the situation adequately enough, and therefore doesn’t need to prepare herself for the worst. She can afford to feel optimistic and positive.

Nephew: But what if Fran has six kids to support and a mortgage? Are you saying she can still be happy?

Uncle: Fran might well feel awful about losing her job, but knows she will recover and 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.

Nephew: She can then see it as a new chapter in her life?

Uncle: Quite possibly.

Nephew: Are there any emotions we can choose to have?

Uncle: Could you choose to feel angry when a pet wants a pat?

Nephew: . . . No.

Uncle: Could you feel jealous when riding a roller-coaster? Feel elated when washing the dishes?

Nephew: No.

Uncle: There you go.

Nephew: But we can choose to get upset. When my sister accidentally killed my frog I had a choice between becoming angry and being cool with what she did. I chose to be cool with it.

Uncle: You didn’t choose to be angry, or 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.

Nephew: Alright then, how about this: 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.

Uncle: And?

Nephew: If we can trick the horse’s brain into adopting an emotion, why can’t we trick our own brain into adopting an emotion?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: 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!

Uncle: Alright, but that’s not choosing to have an emotion, that’s choosing to act in a way that manufactures an emotion.

Nephew: 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 happiness gurus recommend: we can fake it until we make it!

Uncle: No. If taping the horse’s ears back works, it is because the horse is 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.

Nephew: Maybe . . .

Uncle: 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. And that’s fine: there is no harm in pretending to others that we are feeling a particular emotion. Problems arise when we try to fool ourselves.

Nephew: What do you mean?

Uncle: When we pretend to ourselves that 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 that we are cool with a situation when in reality we feel jealous, or if we pretend to ourselves that we are calm when we are angry, we won’t get to deal with those emotions in a healthy manner. 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?

Nephew: 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!

Uncle: 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’, heaven forbid, we may even begin to feel that.

Nephew: And if we act as though we love ourselves, we may start loving ourselves?

Uncle: That’s the thing: no. That’s a long-term emotion you would be trying to manufacture, not a short-term one. And, you’re aiming to fool yourself.  So it won’t work. We know ourselves too deeply. As we go through life we adopt the perceptions people have of us and internalise them. If we don’t already love ourselves, acting as though we do won’t make a great deal of difference. We “know” the truth.

Nephew: How do you know this?

Uncle: For many years I have acted as though I love myself, and yet, I don’t. And that’s fine, because despite what the happiness gurus tell you, to love yourself is not necessary for a happy life.

Nephew: No?

Uncle: No.

Nephew: In what way do you act as though you love yourself?

Uncle: I respect my body by looking after it with quality food and exercise. I respect my mind by filling it with good stuff. I refrain from insulting myself. I take care of myself. But I can’t simply choose to love myself and succeed.

Nephew: Some people can.

Uncle: Can they? I suspect they’re either kidding themselves, or they are already able to love themselves and assume it’s because they made the choice.

Nephew: So, you’re saying it’s okay to fake a short term emotion, like confidence, to get a short term benefit, but we shouldn’t try to fake a long-term emotion to fool ourselves?

Uncle: Correct. We can’t fool ourselves.

Nephew: Not even happiness? We can’t fake that until we make it?

Uncle: There’s a difference between projecting an image to fool someone and manufacturing an emotion to mask what we ourselves are feeling. Core happiness is not a short term emotion and it can’t be so easily manipulated. It’s our default emotion. It’s what we feel when nothing in particular is happening. It’s the lubricant to the life we lead. If we have low core happiness – if we feel miserable in day-to-day life – something is wrong in our life, and masking that misery by acting happy won’t work in the long-term. It can even cause problems.

Nephew: Such as?

Uncle: If we pretend to feel happy while feeling miserable we can end up feeling resentful and shortchanged. Worse, we can lose touch with the misery we really are feeling. How then can we deal with it?                                                                                        

Nephew: Alright.

Uncle: We need to label the glumness and search for the reasons why we are feeling it. Trying to act happy will only hinder that process.

Nephew: Right now I’m faking interest.

Uncle: Then clear off.

 ‘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.’

Adeline, reader.

‘I don’t think we choose the attitude, I think we’re steering.
 If I play a video game for an excessive amount of time, I may think and dream thoughts of that game. I may not have chosen the thoughts, but I did choose the course of action that led to those results, and I CAN choose differently in the future.’ 

Barxalot Howler, reader.

23 Responses to Myth: We can choose to be happy.

  1. joshua says:

    I’m sorry if this is coming off as rude but a human being can’t choose to be happy. choosing happiness is bullshit. we don’t have control over our feelings thats what makes us unique as human beings.

  2. Shashi says:

    Good one.

  3. rachaela1978 says:

    Q. ‘Mr B, I choose to not be happy. I am 14 and suffer from depression, but can see the good and bad in any situation, the positives and negatives. I know how to be happy, and how to not be depressed. I could change my whole life around. But won’t. I choose to stay sad, and don’t know why.

    I want to comment to this because I can completely relate to your reader. Since as far back as I can remember, I have suffered from general anxiety and bouts of depression. When I turned 19, I began studying personal development and psychology, desperately trying to find a solution to these life debilitating conditions. At the time, I understood them as character flaws and emotional weaknesses. It never felt like I was choosing these negative thoughts and feelings, it felt like they were just happening to me. But, I was taught that they were choices, and so I believed it. After years and years of study, I “knew how” to be happy, much like your reader. I was able to hear every thought in my head and knew that these thoughts lead to anxiety and depression. However, I couldn’t stop them from cycling over and over, no matter how hard I tried, I would just go back to thinking these things and feeling these things. I knew when I was personalizing, when I was projecting, when I was blaming, when I was catastrphizing, when I was downplaying my own skills and talents, and overemphasizing those of others. I learned how to set meaningful goals, I achieved them sometimes. I exercised regularly. I used music to lift my mood. I took natural supplements that are mood boosters. This is a small sample of what I learned and did in order to help myself. I also had the love and support of close friends and family.
    Logically I understood everything that was going on in my head. But that did not ever change the way I FELT. I was under the assumption that I should be able to control my thoughts, the things I paid attention to, and how I felt. I believed that I should be able to choose to be happy, and that if I wasn’t happy, that was my choice too. This made my depression even worse, because I felt like I was too weak to manage my emotions, and that I was a total, hopeless failure at this.
    Finally, a mentor advised me that seeking professional help was the responsible thing to do. It was hard to accept, but the fight had become exhausting, and simply could not accept that way of life anymore. I began seeking psychiatric help at the age of 30. After 4 years of off and on medications, doctors, and diagnoses, I found a psychiatrist and a combination of medicines that have helped me dramatically. I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and ADD. With Lamotrigine and meds for ADD, I was finally able to see that my brain had never functioned “normally.” My thoughts quit looping, and I was able to truly choose what direction I went with my thinking. I was able to quit over reacting to things, and gained the ability to mentally step back from a situation, and use logic. The negative thinking simply went away. With medication, and very closely following a diet that is right for me (I must avoid grains, dairy, corn- that’s a big one, gluten, and a handful of allergy foods), my brain finally allows me to apply all the things I have learned through out the years. It’s relieving to know that is wasn’t “my fault.” Instead of feeling like a puny little weak-stick, I can appreciate the huge amount of strength it took for me just to function every day. Medication, along with diet and the skills I have learned, have been absolutely life altering, have saved relationships that are dear to my heart, and allowed me to finally, truly, have a “choice” in being happy.

    I wanted to share this because your reader is so young, and hopefully they will see these comments and it will help him/her. It is a difficult road, but if someone feels they are choosing not to be happy, even though they are trying to be happy, it is my strong belief and my personal experience that there is something misfiring in the brain, and medications, personalized diet (look into an elimination diet), along with learning new skills are the only way for some people to be able to “choose” to be happy.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      What a beautiful, thoughtful reply! And so well expressed! The people who leave comments on this blog/book are so eloquent. Your comments are a strong reminder for me to ensure that people who suffer depression or anxiety should not feel obliged to follow my recommendations (in either book), and if they do, to not blame themselves if there are no changes. I wonder how many other people who are suffering depression and/or anxiety end up feeling even worse after trying so hard to be well, and being told it’s their fault they don’t improve. It’s awful to think about it.
      And your letter is a reminder to me that people are not just suffering, they are fighting, and applying a ‘huge amount of strength’. If struggling that way were an olympic sport, they’d have gold.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with that 14 year-old, and with future readers, and with me. Your words may well assist those who felt the same way you once did. They will console.
      My best wishes to you, Rachael. I hope you continue to find life even easier.
      Mark.

    • Preeti says:

      Thankyou for sharing. This is truly helpfu.

  4. Marie says:

    I have read through the other posts concerning this article, and am very glad to see that others believe it is wrong, and yes, alarming to suppress ” negative” feelings. I tried it for years…to ” speak” good things into my life, and ignore anything “negative”and only focus on the “positive”, and it led me further into depeession and eventually to a breakdown. There is nothing worse, and no lonlier, nor devastating a feeling than to hear someone tell you to stop being “negative” and to “choose happiness” when your heart is bleeding.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Yes, I suspect there are countless people who feel obliged to be positive, and when they fail to be positive they feel guilty for letting themselves, and others, down. A double whammy.
      Your last sentence is particularly moving.
      I don’t have the wisdom to know what to say to you, with regards to your bleeding heart. Not that you expect words from me. It’s just that I really do feel for you.
      I hope it’s not trite to say that I hope your pain recedes. But I am glad that you’re acknowledging the pain and allowing it to be.
      My warm regards to you, Marie.
      Mark.

  5. Marie says:

    I love this article! I get tired of hearing all this nonsense about “choosing to be happy” and ” staying positive” when you’re world is falling apart around you! And I totally agree with the part about Jan mentally preparing herself for the worst case scenario. I my self have been accused many times of being ” negative” and not ” choosing happiness” when I’m just looking at the hand of cards I’ve been dealt and trying to figure out what to do with them. I also feel that many people confuse ” happiness” with “joy”, which is a much deeper emotion…I can be generally unhappy about a situation in my life, but still be able to appreciate and enjoy the little things in life like a rainbow or petting my cat. I believe that most people who say happiness is a choice are generally shallow, selfish people who just don’t want to hear about what someone is going through. I applaud you for this article, because it makes me, and others like me breathe a sigh of relief that there is someone out there who actually lives in reality!

    Marie

  6. Star says:

    This article is priceless and should be used in many mental health environments. The people peddling happiness like its something you can buy at Target are in fact part of the problem of growing numbers of “unhappy” people. It’s an unrealistic expectation in a society filled with environmental and psychological toxic aggravators.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Well said!
      Even without the aggravators you mention, we can’t simply choose to be happy. It doesn’t work that way.
      Thank you for your response, Lily.
      Warm Regards,
      Mark.

  7. Melissa says:

    Hello Mr. Bashful,

    The idea that we can choose our primal emotions is a dangerous one. I am so grateful for your work to bust this myth. There are so many terrible implications when people assert this idea. I encountered a person shoveling this toxic myth. Her words, “the world chooses to be sad.” I just lost my father tragically and unexpectedly. I am in the darkest depths of grief. I don’t get to choose my emotions! I am trying to process them and everything that shattered my world at such a young age.

    These emotions remind me I am human and I have experienced enormous loss. I am reminded through my emotions how much I loved my father. Recognizing my emotions allows me to process what happened. I am just trying to maintain the roller coaster of emotions that affect me daily. Ignoring and denying any negative feelings is becoming the average Americans way to live. This is very alarming. All the innumerable people who experience tragic loss in this world I know would agree with me. I feel what I feel. Thank goodness I am intelligent enough to know this idea is totally false and dangerous if it is regarded as fact. Thank you so much!
    Sincerely,
    Melissa

    • Mr Bashful says:

      What an extraordinary letter! It was a privilege to read such wisdom. Thank you! From what I can see, your response to your father’s death is a normal, natural, healthy one, and I’m guessing here, but despite the pain you feel, I imagine you wouldn’t have it any other way? I would bet Sydney to a brick your father was so proud of you. My warmest regards to you, Melissa.
      Mr B.

  8. Ammar Shahid says:

    I have done it. If I can somehow desire happiness then that desire brings the happiness about. I think desiring something is the same as making a choice. Thus, choosing happiness produces happiness because it focuses on the internal aspect of human experience instead of the external world.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Ammar,
      I don’t know what to make of that. Could you give us some details, please? Did you one day simply desire happiness, and as a result became a happy person? If so, what are the details of that moment? What was happening at the time. Did it take 30 seconds, or five minutes? Was it in response to something? Why didn’t you do it the day before? Or wait another day? What was special about that moment that allowed you to change your life in that way? How long ago was it? Can you please describe how you are happier. Do you need to keep desiring happiness? If so, once a day? Thrice a day? Once a month? Why do you think you could do it but others can’t? (After all, there would be many people who desire happiness, yet don’t get the results you do.)
      My questions are interrogative, not rhetorical. I genuinely want to know more about your experience, and so would the readers. If I am wrong I need to know why. Please give as much detail as you can. Include anything which might be relevant. I look forward to your response.
      Thank you, Ammar.
      Warm regards,
      Mr B.

      • Ammar says:

        Thanks for the response B,
        From what i have learned is that in order to have a fair chance of being happy, a person needs to constantly strive to be happy. You can not strive to do something if you do not desire it. More importantly if you don’t know that you have the choice to be happy, you will not desire it in the first place. So, i don’t know whether choosing happiness is a myth or not but if one believes that choosing happiness can make you happy then it become a possibility and a desire blossoms from the possibility of choosing to be happier. It is not that you are wrong but that there are different belief systems. Doesn’t matter what you believe as long as it gives you satisfaction.

        • Mr Bashful says:

          Hi Ammar,
          Although you didn’t answer my questions you raise a good point: that there are different belief systems. Some philosophers argue that by striving to be happy we can make ourselves unhappy. For some people that may be correct, and for others, like you, it isn’t. At no point did I strive to be happy, or even make the choice. I fluked it. (I happened to apply enough of the keys, without knowing it.) But I can see that striving for happiness worked for you. I particularly like your line stating that if we don’t know we have the choice we will not desire it in the first place. Yes, there are people who have given up desiring it because they don’t believe it’s possible. Letting them know there is a ‘choice’ (I prefer the term ‘its possible’) is important.
          The fact that you have made the choice and it worked for you will give my readers another important point of view. Thank you for that.
          My warm regards again to you, Ammar,
          Mark.

  9. Ryan says:

    The ultimate in human freedom is our ability to choose our attitude in any given situation. Our attitude, then gives rise to emotion. Yes, we can absolutely choose to be happy if we are courageous enough to do so. While I fully respect the poster’s opinion, I know you are 100% absolutely wrong. 🙂

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hi Ryan. I am guessing that you are referring to Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning’. In it he wrote: ‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
      Firstly, those men were few in number. It would not be fair to conclude that everyone else in that concentration camp was not courageous enough. In the same way, it would not be fair to conclude that people who choose to be happy, but fail to achieve it, are not courageous enough.
      There are many courageous people who are not happy, and many happy people who have not needed to be courageous. So I don’t think it is simply a matter of a ‘courageous choice’.
      Secondly, even those ‘few in number’ who did manage to ‘choose their attitude’ would not have been happy in a concentration camp. They would still have been desperately unhappy in those circumstances. Frankl was not suggesting they were happy because they retained their ability to choose their attitude; he was suggesting that we humans have the freedom to choose our attitude, and by doing so, can remain undefeated. Big difference.
      Ryan, you might not be referring to Viktor Frankl’s book, but I would argue the same: that having the freedom to choose our attitude, and being courageous enough to make that choice, are no guarantees to happiness. Those qualities don’t allow us to choose to be happy.
      I am assuming that you are happy and that you believe it is because you have chosen to be so. You might be right, but I am not convinced. I think it is also possible that you are happy, but mistakenly assume that it has been your choice.
      Either way, if you are happy I am glad of it.
      The other possibility? That I am indeed 100% wrong. If that’s the case I hope I realise it soon. I’ve spent a lot of time on this book so if I am wrong, the sooner I figure it out the better. So thank you for your input. It might have pushed me one step closer to a disappointing realisation.
      Cheers,
      Mark.

  10. Anonymous says:

    On one hand, I can believe that we do have some control over our outlook. I believe that those who make efforts to give of themselves to others…to love others…gain a certain happiness as a result. The idea being that we reap what we sow.

    And yet, I believe we are limited in our ability to control our emotions. In fact, I believe that being in denial of our emotions can be unhealthy for ourselves and problematic for the people we come into contact with. There’s a lot of wisdom in the idea of “keeping it real.”

    Finally, anyone who believes that happiness is simply a matter of making the choice to be so, has not had a spouse die suddenly and unexpectedly. This, I know from experience.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Your points are thoughtful, Anonymous. Thank you. And I can’t begin to imagine what losing a spouse, and in that way, would be like. I’m sorry you had that experience. Yes, under those circumstances, to hear the words, ‘we can choose to be happy’ would be galling.
      We may not be able to choose to be happy, but according to my theory a thoughtful, insightful person like yourself will become happy again over time. I damn hope I’m right. My warm regards to you,
      Mark.

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