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 harshly or respond gently. You chose to be gentle. Don’t confuse the emotion with the response.
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. We can’t choose to have an emotion even for a minute, let alone long-term, in our day-to-day life. 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 power of positive thinking. 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: We need to love ourselves to be happy. We keep hearing that, but is it true? No, it’s not.
– Myth: We need to be loved to be happy This isn’t true either! At least, not after our teens.
– 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: We need to fake it until we make it. Supposedly, if we act happy, we will become happy. But it’s just not true.
– 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?
– Myth: We can earn our self-worth. How many of us live our lives trying to earn our self-worth? Might you be trying to earn your self worth?
– Myth: We should aim to succeed. Life-coaches want to tell us how to succeed, but we shouldn’t even try.