Is It Possible to Choose Happiness?

Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness to just be happy. – Guillaume Apollinaire

Do you pursue happiness? No? Me neither! I just float around on a cloud of bliss all day, because I’ve chosen to just be happy instead.

Ha! As if it was that easy.

March 20th is International Day of Happiness, so some of us in 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion are already thinking and writing about happiness. I loved Michelle Grewe’s post, I’d Be Happy If…

In that post, Michelle says:

People say happiness is an attitude. A state of mind. A choice. I can see that, to an extent, but faking happiness is not the same as being happy. That’s all you’re doing by “shifting your attitude,” is faking it, and it’s probably unhealthy to do for long lengths of time.

I agree with Michelle that to an extent, happiness is a choice. I also agree with her that faking it is not the same as being happy, and that faking for a long time is unhealthy.

Most of us fake happiness some of the time. Actually, most of us do it several times a day.

Someone asks, “How are you?”

We know they don’t really want to hear about our sore head, and the argument we had with our brother last night. They’re just being polite. So we smile, and say, “Fine thanks.”

And maybe we are fine, really, because the argument is over, and the headache would probably ease if we let go of the thoughts and feelings we’re holding about it. But in that moment, we don’t feel fine, and so we lie, cover up. Maybe the person who asked us would even be interested to know how we’re really feeling, but we assume they wouldn’t be, so we lie.

There’s nothing really wrong with that. It wouldn’t necessarily help us to tell every person we met about our list of troubles. It would just keep them in our minds, and ruminating is widely recognised as a main cause of depression. According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, even when rumination brings a potential solution to a significant problem, the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard to move forward.

So yes, dwelling on your worries and letting your mind run off into scary futures isn’t such a great idea. The argument with your brother is over. Running it through your mind, whether to feel sorry for yourself, figure out how to get back at him, or to try to work out what you did wrong, all keep your mind from enjoying what is here right now.

I had one of those moments yesterday. It wasn’t an argument exactly, just a teenager who was tired, grumpy and didn’t appreciate my “wisdom” or the help I’d given. I noticed my mind churning a bit, imagining things would keep going wrong, berating myself for not handling it differently. (Because you see, I didn’t follow the book for Perfect Parenting correctly and I should have done.)

Well, I’ve been down that old route a few times, and nowadays instead of staying on for the duration of the journey, I like getting off at the first stop.

So off I hopped, and gave myself a little self-compassion. I let myself feel the churned up emotions and I noticed how they felt familiar. I’d felt this way, many times before, had been feeling it since I was a kid. These were old, old thoughts that used to come into my mind with monotonous regularity, and what’s more I used to believe them.

“I’m not good enough, got it wrong, said or did the wrong thing. I get anxious when other people don’t, blah, blah, blah.”

Yeah, right.

That thing about other people. Have you ever heard the saying, “Don’t compare your inside with someone else’s outside”?

You have now!

We all do this, we think that what we see of others is how they are, but we mostly have no clue how they really feel inside. (With a few people, I can tell; at least I can tell if they are very tense, because I can physically feel the tension around them. But even then, I can’t see the thoughts going through their minds, and I can’t tell their exact emotions.)

And if someone is putting on a happy face, we truly don’t know what’s going on inside.

Fear drives the vast majority of people. Sometimes it drives me, though less often than it used to do. I used to feel ashamed of “my” fear. It seemed as if it was “me.” Some people didn’t like my fear; they told me I was stupid for having it, blamed me for it. And yes, I’ve done the same thing to other people. I’m not proud of that, but it’s just how it is.

We aren’t just afraid of our own fear; we are terrified of other people’s too. If someone’s fear reaches massive proportions, we call them crazy and medicate them. Sometimes we even lock them up. Instead of allowing our own uncomfortable emotions, we try to stop other people feeling theirs.

So we have a massive culture of “positive thinking.” Many of its proponents blame other people for being “negative” and try to “cut them out” of their lives. I frequently see rants on Facebook from people who “…will not tolerate any negativity on my Timeline. Anyone indulging in it will be unfriended. You have been warned!”

Wow, what happy, positive behaviour! I guess the irony is lost on them.

Okay, I get it. People who write these things feel weighed down by their own struggle with emotions and trying to deal with someone else’s darker feelings and thoughts seems more than they can manage. It’s a hard, sad place to be in.

Fortunately, there is another way. While there is evidence that being around people who are feeling negative emotions affects us, it is possible (if not always easy) to be around them and retain our equilibrium.

How? Not by “choosing” happiness and ignoring their feelings. Not by trying to think happy thoughts instead or to pretend they didn’t say or do what they said or did. Not by ordering them to change (so we don’t have to.)

But by noticing our own feelings, and giving ourselves compassion for that.

Say you’re in a state of panic, and I think I have to help you feel differently. If what I say or do doesn’t change how you are, I think I’ve failed and I start to feel panicky too. But if I notice that I feel anxious about you, I can let myself feel that, be kind to myself and that kindness helps me feel calmer. At least one of us is calm now, more able to listen to the other. I might not solve your problem, but at least I don’t join you in it, and because I am more able to listen, you might just feel a little better, more understood.

So now I’m going to return to the quote from Michelle, the part: “shifting your attitude,” is faking it. Yes, it can be, if we’re doing it because we think we should. When I tried to have a have a happy attitude because I thought I was too fearful, my motivation was to get approval, to get other people to think I was okay. (I was trying to control myself to control how other people saw me! How tangled up we get when we try to get from others what we can only get from ourselves.)

In those days, nothing really changed inside me. It’s as if I had a cart full of rocks I carried around (rocks labelled: Not Good Enough, Loser, Idiot, Scaredypants, Own Worst Enemy, and so on.) Then I piled another rock onto the cart, one labelled: Trying To Be Happy. Actually, I shoved a ton more rocks on, and several of them were labelled: Not Good Enough. A few more were labelled: Fake, Imposter, and Nobody Would Like The Real You.

Instead of lightening our load, trying to fake happiness just makes it heavier. We need to empty out our carts first. We need to notice that actually we aren’t idiots, just people doing the best we can to get by. We need to realise that we are no worse or better than other people, and that everyone feels this way sometimes. We need to see that feelings like fear aren’t enemies we have to push away, but neither do we need to cling onto them and believe they are who we are.

Unless we do that, any attempt to shift attitude or choose happiness is faking it. When we do start emptying our carts (in my experience at least) it’s damned hard work at first, but after a while we start to notice that without even trying to, we are choosing “just to be happy” more and more.

I’ll end with a photo of my kids, from many years ago. We were on a beach in Maine, and as you can see the weather wasn’t exactly optimal for July. It didn’t bother them one bit. I felt happy because they were so happy and and I still remember it as one of our happiest days of the holiday.

happy-beach

Now, it’s over to you! I love comments, so please drop me a line to let me know what you think. Do you pursue happiness and is it possible to choose it instead?

Comments

  1. I love it. You made me think of a friend with this too. See, I’m the type who will listen to other people’s problems. I have a natural knack for being able to separate someone else’s emotions from my own and deal with each with a different set of energy, like my problems are my dinner, but my friends’ problems are my dessert, and I always have room for dessert. But one friend I have is a very negative talker by nature. She is rude, crude, honest, unapologetic, and hurtful, borderlining abusive sometimes. One time she messaged me that I was being ridiculous, and a few other insults because I don’t think Beyonce is comparable to Jackie Kennedy. That message turned into a 50 message debate on how she talks to me and how I can’t be around that right now. I’m too fragile to hear my best friend reassure me of all the negativity I worry that I am, like being ridiculous. I really hurt her feelings with it. That’s how she talks. That’s how she cares. We have since forgiven each other over the fight, a little bit at least though I’m sure there’s going to be some untold resentment for a couple years, but I never realized how I could be wrong for that until this post. You are right. I could have been kinder to myself in that argument with my friend, and had I been kinder to myself, I would have been kinder to her. And maybe it’s time I let go of some things I swear are truisms about myself, like I’m fragile in this healing phase and need more understanding from my friends and family, Maybe I’m not fragile anymore. Maybe I’m stronger than ever. I’ll never know if I keep babying myself. In retrospect, I think my friend was thinking I was strong and was worried she wasn’t strong enough to argue with me, which is why she came across so aggressive. It just never dawned on me until this comment that someone might see me as strong because I don’t feel strong.

    Really amazing post. I loved reading it. Thank you for mentioning me too.

    1. Author

      Michelle, thank you so much for your comment. I am so glad to see that you found the post helpful and that you see you could be kinder to yourself – and that that means you would also be kinder to your friend. That’s been my experience – the more I am kind to myself, to more it’s possible to be kind to others.

      I love that you make a distinction between self-kindness and babying yourself. It’s easy for people to confuse the two, and I think at times I have babied others instead of being kind to them.

      I love your processing, both here and on your own post about happiness. It’s wonderful to see your insights! Thanks again so much for your comment – knowing that what I write makes a difference to even one person makes it all feel worthwhile.

  2. Judging our happiness from what we feel on the inside by comparing it to what others show us on the outside (or what we see of it) is such an important concept to embrace and remember daily. At least, I need this daily, as I think about how happy and put-together the moms at the bus stop are, or are not, and the fact is, where they are has nothing to do with me, and I appreciate the reminder. Super post, Yvonne. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Kristi, yes, it’s so common to compare ourselves to others – and we really don’t know how they feel. In a way, that was a lot of what your kryponite post was about, wasn’t it? (The co-worker who looked like a supermodel.)
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. I really liked the imagery you used of the rocks in the cart, and how piling on attempts to be happy just adds more rocks rather than reducing the pile. I’m learning, very slowly, that the rocks I have in my cart are mostly put there (or kept there) by me, and that I need to ’empty my pockets and float’, but also that it’s a process which takes time, and sometimes I put rocks back rather than getting rid of them. But I think I’m also learning that it’s okay to not get it right all the time, and that I won’t necessarily be rejected or cast out just because I’ve done something wrong.

    1. Author

      Lizzi, I think a book I read years ago came into my mind as I was writing and in it the writer described likened onto resentment to carrying about a boulder, and the rocks in the cart are the same kind of idea.
      I like your point about keeping them there yourself – I think when we are little we don’t have a lot of choice about what rocks go in, but we when we start to be aware of them, then we have some choice about whether to keep them.
      I’m so pleased that you are learning it’s okay not to get it right all the time! That is wonderful. You are blossoming for sure!

  4. Love your exploration of happiness, Yvonne. Your children dancing in the wet sand really brings your point home. 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks Fiona. That day on the beach wasn’t just one of the happiest of that holiday, it was a lesson to me in how to be happy, whatever. I feel happy just remembering it!

  5. i think PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS is a misnomer. a person’s happiness is a natural thing by default according to one’s personality. everyone knows one’s personality is influenced by parenting and environment in which they were brought up. so one’s happiness is what they really are and trying to be happy for sake of others is cheating self.

    one’s behaviour should be more substantial when interacting with others,i never ask little known people ‘how are you’ cuz it sounds very superficial or half-hearted to me without knowing one’s emotions or what he/she is going through. i do ask ‘how are you’ only if i know the person’s history and he/she thinks that they can confide without second thought. so manners or etiquette must be substantial and we can’t follow rules for the sake of it.

    for me happiness is transparency,when you look at a person ,they should be crystal clear coz the greater the transparency the greater the happiness. transparency or down to earth or being simple is pure human nature. pursuing human nature is abnormal thing ,so is pursuing happiness.happiness always lies within when you live without a mask.

    1. Author

      Alex, Guillaume Apollinaire’s point is that most of us expend so much energy chasing after happiness, when it’s actually right there for us at any time. So yes, happiness does lie within us.
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. My Grandfather always used to say (and I believe he was quoting Abraham Lincoln when he did so) that a person is about as happy – or not – as she makes up her mind to be. It’s a powerful idea, really. I think the mind is an incredibly powerful thing and so much of our happiness, health, and more stem from what we think and choose. We can see so much evidence out there that much of how we see life has to do with perspective, attitude, mindset. Sure, there are things we can’t change or make happy no matter how hard we try. Those are the things we have to realize are beyond our control. Our own personal happiness? That’s entirely up to us. Emerson said “nature always wears the colors of the spirit” and how true that is! The same landscape, the same weather looks different to the person who is experiencing happiness in life than it does to the person experiencing sadness. What we think and feel within is projected to the world around us and affects how we see the world around us. And the truth is – and I think Kristi said this earlier – how other people seem to be really has nothing to do with us. We don’t know. And it does not change who we are. We can decide how to react to or interact with them, certainly, but another person’s happiness or unhappiness can only change our state of mind if we allow it.
    Great post – lots to think about, Yvonne!

    1. Author

      Thanks Lisa! And yes, what we think and feel is projected out. I like your examples of the landscape and weather looking different.
      I think that happiness is a decision, and at the same time, I think we need to be careful not to use that awareness to attack ourselves or other people, but to be kind. This is where the distinction Michelle makes between fake and real happiness is so important. We can decide, but our minds sometimes take a while to catch up with that decision and need gentle coaxing, rather than punishing to try to make us happy. (And I have done the latter, for sure! 🙂 )

  7. Hi Yvonne. I definitely believe you can choose to be happy (or not.) I have a friend who complains about everything. She chooses to feel sorry for herself and post the martyr role. She complains about having to take her mother to tge Doctor, but doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have a mother. Mine died 46 years ago. I could go on, but you get the drift.

    1. Author

      Doreen that sounds tough for you and for your friend. It’s not easy being around someone who feels so down and stuck, and being kind to yourself and acknowledging and releasing your feelings about it is the thing I’ve found to be most effective.
      Thanks for your comment.

  8. This reminded me of an early Simpsons episode where Lisa was feeling blue. Finally, Marge told her her mother always said you should put on a smile, even if you don’t really feel like smiling inside. Well, she did this, Marge watched, and kids talked to Lisa and it was all so forced that Marge changed her mind and realized that she needed to support her daughter and help her through her sadness.
    🙂
    Yeah, just with all this talk of happiness and how we become happy, I don’t really know the answers, but I know that being around kids, my niece or nephews, that makes me happy, if I’m having a hard day or if life seems particularly awful.
    I will think of the load of rocks though, the next time I am feeling weighed down. That’s probably why. I will try

    1. Author

      Good for Marge, Kerry. Many people would go on trying to make the sad person pretend to be happy. It’s great that the Simpsons’ writers had the sensitivity to create that storyline. I love the movie “Inside Out” because it shows the same idea.

      It’s lovely that you feel happy around your niece and nephew. And yes do let go of a few rocks!
      Thanks for your comment.

  9. Your comment about people being driven by fear jumped out at me. I have spent a lot of my life as a hostage to fear. I recently saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak and read her book Big Magic. She had some interesting things to say about fear. To paraphrase, you can’t shut it out, it’s part of the family and you have to take it on road trips with you, listen to it and acknowledge it, but you cannot let it drive the car.

    1. Author

      Kiri, you, me and 7 billion other people! I’d say most people are driven by fear, though some are more adept at disguising it than others. (Which I no longer see as a “good” thing, though I used to when I wanted to hide my own fear!)
      I like that idea by Elizabeth Gilbert, thanks for sharing it!

  10. Hi Yvonne. Your post is wonderful and thought-provoking. I thought I didn’t have any ideas on what to write for this month’s theme but after reading this piece I was inspired to do so. I have linked to your post in mine. I hope that’s ok. Thank you!

    1. Author

      Yamini, glad you found this thought-provoking and of course it’s okay to link to my post. Thanks very much!

I love getting comments and reply to every one. Tell the world (and me) what you think!