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?
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.
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: 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?
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.’
‘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.