‘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. 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 as 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 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.)
I 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:
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
‘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.