Q. ‘Some experts say we can choose to be happy. Is that true?’
No. We don’t choose the emotions we feel. We cannot ‘choose to be happy’ and as a result, become happy. 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. 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 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.
‘Are you saying we have no control over our emotions?’
I’m suggesting that instead of pretending that we are happy, we can embrace what we are actually feeling and deal with that. We may not be able to choose our emotions, but we can certainly choose how to manage them. That’s why there are anger management courses, not anger avoidance courses. We cannot choose to not be angry, but we can choose to express our anger in healthy ways, and when we do, often our anger evaporates. It’s the same with happiness: we cannot choose to be happy, but we can choose to deal with the emotions that are prompting us to feel unhappy. And if we deal with them well, the unhappiness can evaporate. (I am not referring to depression.)
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.
This post comes sometime later after this article was written, but I wanted to express my gratitude for this because I was struggling with this exact issue when I talked to a peer support specialist today as I struggled on a lonely Christmas Eve by myself. She told me that happiness is a choice. I tried to explain that it was not at all a choice and further told her that it would be like me trying to change my belief system that I have in regards to religion or the like. I believe what I believe, and I also feel what I feel. I can’t just change my feelings at will based on a decision or on a whim. I am honest with my feelings. I embrace them, good or bad, and I can’t help but sit in my feelings no matter how uncomfortable they might be because they are my experience in my present moment. I wish others were as comfortable in embracing their own feelings even if they are “negative”. And I wish that I wasn’t pressured to get out of my negativity because it makes me feel unacceptable which further fuels more negative feelings. Acceptance in my current state with no pressure to change is what I need from others.
Wow! What a shame the peer support specialist is not as insightful as you are!
You express the situation well – we cannot change our emotions, like we cannnot change our belief systems. And yes, we need to embrace the negative feelings, because they’re there, and because it’s the best way to deal with them.
Good work, Emmett’s Mom!
What I’m wondering is: So what does equal happiness, in your opinion? You’re saying we have no control over our emotions whatsoever, that the tail wags the dog?
Apologies for the length in advance but I feel like this all needs to be said.
I personally think it’s destructive to think you have to be a slave to your emotions-if something made you sad, that’s it, you have to stay sad for as long as that sadness wants to stay, you have no say in the matter. What kind of life is that?
Before I continue I want to be clear that I am not catering these ideas to people with depression/grief etc, pervasive mental issues like that obviously require further treatment (therapy, medication if necessary, etc). I think the idea you can choose to be happy is for those without these mental illnesses, and for it to be marketed to the wrong audience is harmful and would frustrate the hell outta them when they don’t get results.
But for people who aren’t currently struggling with those kinda things-
I think something can happen that will naturally make you upset-but you have a choice to make an effort to do something that will cheer you up/take your mind off it. That’s your response that will inspire a different emotion in you. You didn’t choose to feel sad in the first place, but you can make decisions for it to be gone. You should get it out of your system and experience it, but never dwell/wallow in it. Are you saying if I were to be sad because I missed the bus, am I forced to be confined to that emotion, because no strategies will work because I can’t choose to cheer up? Therefore, if that sadness that I have no control over wanted to stay in my brain forever, leaving me sad forever, I’d have no choice at all to make a difference? If I make a difference and it works, I feel happier, it’s a completely random occurrence?
I also believe thoughts (as someone who struggles with intrusive thoughts) are just thoughts-we think far too many each day. You don’t need to take every one of them seriously. Only the ones you choose to entertain will become your mindset, influence how you see the world and your actions (and thus, how you feel) long term. It’ll be hard at first, I feel like people assume “it’s not that easy” at first, it will always be. Personally I found changing my mindset very hard, took my about 2 years to be happy/accept myself etc. it’s a long hard road but u gotta start somewhere. If you assume it won’t ever work just because it wasn’t an instant fix (which it can be one day because after a while it will become an automatic response that your subconscious mind will believe) well, of course it won’t.
My point being, I’m not saying happiness can be achieved at the switch of a button (not for a while after doing this like I did, anyway) but that you have the choice to do things to cheer up, and this is possible, because people know what they like, they know what makes them feel happy and will cheer them up. You don’t have to be confined to that sadness you feel. You don’t need to entertain negative thoughts just because you thought them and not every bad emotion needs to be embraced-sometimes, sure, but if you don’t like it you don’t have to think “oh well, I have to feel like this cause there’s no hope of being happy as that’s not my choice”. I also believe happiness is a choice (unless you have the chemical imbalances of depression etc) because if it wasn’t, wouldn’t I have felt it wasn’t a choice already and not needed you to write these things, for me to see them and feel like I can’t be happy like I was prior to reading them, because I’m being told I don’t have a choice?
Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. Much appreciated.
No, I am not saying we have no control over our emotoins. When I say ‘we can’t choose to be happy’ I am saying we cannot decide to be happy and as a result, become happy. Otherwise, we would all choose to be happy. Further, I suspect that the people who think they can choose to be happy will suffer in the long run, because they are not dealing with the emotions they actually have. I recommend that we embrace our dark emotions and stay with them, as my chapter ‘Charlotte and the Creatures of the Dark Forest’ suggests.
By staying with our emotions we learn how to deal with them. But when we “choose” to be happy and avoid our dark emotions, and don’t learn to deal with them.
By the way, you say things like, ‘something can make you upset’. I disagree with that too, in my chapter, https://mrbashful.com/2019/05/25/what-makes-you-angry/
Yes, if you become upset then it can be a good idea to make an effort to cheer yourself up. That’s fine. That’s different to ‘choosing to be happy’. Yes, you can make decisions that will help you deal with your sadness, such as taking your mind off the problem. I support that. So no, I am not saying that if you miss the bus you are confined to the resulting disappointment; I am saying that if you miss the bus you cannot choose to feel happy, but you can employ ways to deal with the disappointment you may be feeling. Big difference.
As for you changing your mindset, I heartily commend you for doing so. It’s a difficult thing to do. My hat is off to you. But I don’t think you ‘chose’ to be happy. Rather, I suspect you chose to change your mindset, and put in the hard work of doing so, and as a result, became happy. I think my book is about doing that: changing one’s mindset and as a result, becoming happier. You did it on your own. I am impressed.
That said, the complexity and countless combinations of humanity means I am bound to be wrong for some people. Perhaps some people can simply ‘choose to be happy’ and become happy as a result? The thing is, such a person is rare. The point of my article was to take umbrage with the cheery happiness gurus who claim happiness is a choice, and that all we have to do is ‘choose to be happy’. I think that’s a bad message to tell people, especially those who are struggling. I say, ‘choose to change your mindset’ and you will, after time, become happy. The chapters in my book are about doing that. Your comment prompts me to add some clarification to my article, and in a few days I will make those changes. Thank you!
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.
Yes, it’s a myth we can do without.
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.
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.
Thanks Mark! I hope it does help someone, best wishes to you too. 🙂
Thankyou for sharing. This is truly helpfu.
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.
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.
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!
Thank you for making me smile, Marie!
And good luck playing with those cards you have been dealt. Keep figuring them out.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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,