Myth: We can choose to be happy.

‘Mr Bashful, many people say we can choose to be happy. Is that true?’

Of course it isn’t. We don’t choose the emotions we feel. If we could simply choose to be happy then everyone would be happy. We all want to be happy.

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

Yet they still want to be happy. Believe it or not, they are trying to be happy, but their method doesn’t work, and is even counter-productive. Those people are not choosing to be unhappy, but they do have habits of thinking they can’t relinquish. They know no other way. To assume miserable people want to be unhappy is naive and simplistic. No-one chooses unhappiness.

When people say ‘we can choose to be happy’ it could mean they themselves are happy, and mistakenly assume it is because they made the choice to be happy. They ignore the possibility that 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. Jan 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 be happy. Jan can’t 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. So, it would be unfair, naive and simplistic to assume Fran is happy because she chose to be, and Jan is unhappy because she chose to be.

   ‘But why is Jan choosing to see things in a negative light?’

Jan 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 instead feel comfortable being optimistic and positive.

That is why much of this book is about how we can acquire that feeling of ‘Whatever happens, I’ll handle it.’ The book is not about simplistically expecting people to ‘choose to be happy’, or choosing to have any other emotions. I’ll leave that mistake to the happiness ‘experts’.

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

Fran would understandably feel miserable. 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 she will know that she will recover at some point, and in time her life will be okay again.

Q. ‘Mr B, if you don’t like the term ‘we can choose to be happy’, what would you say instead?’
With a reader’s assistance (his name is Barxalot) I suggest:
“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.”

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 have tried being happy a couple times before, but I just go back to not being happy. Can you think of any possible reason someone would choose to not be happy?
   (The above is an edited version of a letter sent to me. My edited response is below.)
don’t know. . . .  I claim that we can’t choose to be happy, so it might follow that we can’t choose to be unhappy. Your unhappiness might be the result of your depression, in which case it is not a choice. It might just seem like a choice to you. You say that you know how to be happy and know how to change your life around, but choose not to. I don’t believe we have such choices. We all know the benefits of having a positive attitude, but as I point out in this book, that doesn’t mean we can simply choose to adopt positive thinking. If it were that easy, everyone on the planet would be a positive thinker. There are more complex issues at work.
  So, please don’t be harsh with yourself, or perplexed, for ‘choosing to be not happy’. You might not have made that choice after all, it just seems that way to you.

Q. ‘You said some people have habits of thinking they can’t relinquish. What habits?’
I have mentioned that some people don’t have the confidence to feel that they can handle life. But some people have a ‘victim mentality’. That doesn’t mean they are conciously choosing to be a victim, and choosing to be unhappy, and it doesn’t mean they can simply choose to be happy. It’s far more complicated than that, as this article by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries explains.

Is it any wonder why I am critical of some happiness gurus? In 2012 I read an article written by a ‘happiness guru’ claiming she had chosen to be happy. She suggested that we make the same choice. Puzzled, I wrote to her:

(Slightly edited.)
Dear Ms XXXX. (Name omitted for fear of being sued)
I’m baffled. I found your article about choosing to be happy . . . .   I claim that people can’t simply manufacture an emotion by choice – emotions don’t work that way. And if we could choose to be happy then most of us would be happy. Yet, your article suggests that you can manufacture that emotion. I am writing to ask: what is it about you that allows you to choose to be happy and succeed, while other people make the same choice but fail? Can you choose to have other emotions too? Can you choose to not have certain emotions? 
 I don’t want to mislead my readers, so I look forward to your responses. I am prepared to change my mind.
Thanks,
Mark Avery.

Here is her response, unedited:

‘I believe we absolutely can create and choose what we feel , think and believe. That’s why we have free will.’
Warmly,
XXXX

I wrote to her again with a follow-up:

Hi Ms XXXX,
thank you for responding to my email.
So, you could, by choice:
1. feel angry when a pet wants a pat, feel jealous when riding a roller-coaster, and feel elated when burying a beloved pet?

2. Could you choose to think, for ten minutes, that homosexual people should be persecuted?

3. Could you choose, for ten minutes, to believe in the existence of the tooth fairy?  

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do those things. That’s why I don’t understand how or why you have those abilities.
   I’m not trying to argue with you. I am just trying to explain why I still don’t understand. Nor do I understand why you have the ability to choose to be happy and succeed, while others who make the same choice don’t succeed in becoming happy. Your answer reiterated your point rather than explained it.
Warm regards,
Mark Avery.

I received no reply. My conclusion: She was peddling piffle to promote her ‘university’. My concern is that someone reading her piffle might believe it, and blame themselves for not trying hard enough to choose to be happy.

 ‘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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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