Monday, November 1, 2010

Choosing Happiness

With the authority of a sage texting from a mountaintop he wrote, "I hope you understand, and realize, that sometimes in life, choices are made for you, and it does not matter what you are busy with."

Rarely am I at a loss for words, but when I am, it's usually because I've encountered a statement so rich in beliefs assumed to be truths that I simply don't know where to start. It reminds me of sitting down to lunch our first day back in Myrtle Beach not being able to decide among the fried ocra, the black-eyed peas or the greens simmered with bacon fat. I want'em all.

Where to start? The confusion of coincidence and causality? The assumption of truth? Fatalism? The need for justification? The side-effects of inauthenticity? (OK, I know a bit more about the author's situation than one might derive from the statement above.)

Hmmmm... No, let's start with choosing happiness.

A first principle held by many of us who participate in this little blog is that our emotions and feelings are not involuntary reactions to external stimuli or biochemical phenomena, but instead, choices that we make based on the beliefs and assumptions we hold. In any situation, you can choose happiness, you can choose unhappiness, or you can choose something in between. In this case, I'm using happiness as a proxy for all "positive" emotion (from serenity to deep joy to unassailable strength to giddiness) and unhappiness as a proxy for all "negative" emotion (from chaos to regret to fear to anger to depression).

Assume for a moment that this very simple assertion is true; the implications are profound.

Changing You
How would it change your life if you could choose happiness (strength, joy, inner peace, courage) at any moment and in any situation? When the boss calls you into her office to explain that global economy has forced the company to implement force-reduction procedures? When the police call to inform you of your son's latest attempt to merge two automobiles into the space formerly occupied by one? When the doctor hesitantly begins to explain that he saw something amiss in your chest xray?

What would happen if you could really choose to be happy? I'm not talking about pasting on a smile or feigning emotions you don't feel. I'm talking about completely transforming your emotions and corresponding physiology into that of bliss.

When we're happy, when we're attitudinally strong, we become centered and focused, we think clearly, we don't easily fatigue, we become productive and effective.

When we're unhappy, when we're attitudinally weak, we become distracted and scattered, our thinking gets muddied, we stress and tire, we fall behind and don't deliver our best work.

Despite its rap for being uncool, happiness has its merits.

Changing Them
Of course, if you could choose to be happy, that would mean that anyone else could also choose to be happy. Your mom... your kids... your boss... your partner... You would no longer be responsible for their happiness; they would.

What would happen if each person in your life suddenly took ownership of his or her happiness? If you knew that your employees weren't going to blame you when you laid them off? If you knew that your dad wasn't going to scream at you for the accident you couldn't have avoided? If you knew that your patients were thinking, "OK, doc, give me the straight scoop so that we can move on to what we're going to do about it!"

Think about all the obfuscation and lying done in the name of protecting someone else's happiness, all the shallow relationships filled with inauthenticity because each one is "protecting" the other.

A Bad Idea?
Besides not being cool, we have many reasons for not being happy. Many of us find our "humanity" in our unhappiness, in being able to empathize with others in their misery and suffering.

The use of negative consequences as a motivator can be so ingrained that you might fear ceasing to function altogether if you were happy all the time. Happy people lack depth. Happy people only think of themselves. Etc... etc.. etc...

We could spend hours discussing whether or not being happy all the time would be a good idea. However, at this point I'm only suggesting that you can choose to be happy at any time; happiness is not mandatory.

In defense of happiness, I'll note that the most productive and effective people I know are the ones who seem to be most frequently happy; they've managed to replace negative reinforcement with simple desire to do the things they love. I'll add that the people who seem most likely to actually do something to help others in need are the ones who are upbeat. Others are so exhausted after bouts of empathy, that there's little energy left to actually effect positive outcomes.

But It's A Physiological Thing
If you'll grant me that there are at least some times when being able to choose happiness would be useful, then question would be "can you really choose to be happy despite circumstances?"

The biggest hurdle to an affirmative response is the notion that our happiness is all bound up in biochemistry. My dad who is a strong advocate of the happiness-is-an-involuntary-response-to-things-over-which-you-have-no-control is quick to point out that there are measurable biochemical signatures for people experiencing various forms of emotional distress (depression, anxiety, fear) and that it is the body's biochemistry that results in the emotions.

However, his assertion confuses coincidence and causality. Let's go with the notion that there are indeed biochemical signatures that can be associated with any emotional state. The question remains: did the biochemistry cause the emotion state or did the emotional state leave a biochemical signature?

In reality, the answer to the question is probably: Yes!

Indeed, we can influence emotion through changes to our biochemistry. From exposure to sunlight to medication to exercise, changes in our biochemistry affect our sense of well-being and happiness. However, changes in our thought processes and beliefs can also lead to changes in our body's chemistry. Emotional changes are effected as a feedback loop that can start "mentally" or "physically".

The fact that we can measure emotional states biochemically doesn't say anything about causality; either can cause the other.

We can change our biochemistry through thought or we can change our emotions by directly influencing our biochemistry with diet, pills or exercise.

But How?
If you're still with me, we've laid out a several notions to ponder. Using happiness as a proxy for "positive" emotion and unhappiness as one for "negative" emotion, we've asserted that:
  1. You can choose be truly and sincerely happy at any time and in any situation.
  2. If you can choose happiness, then others can choose happiness.
  3. Choosing to be happy or unhappy is completely optional.
  4. There are times when being happy can be advantageous.
  5. While there may be a correlation between biochemistry and happiness, the causality model is circular, not linear.
  6. If it's advantageous to be happy, then it's not particularly important whether you get there by thinking about it or directly manipulating your biochemistry
The next question would be: OK, so how do I choose to be happy at any point in time?

We'll get to that in another post.

For now, I'd ask you to consider the notions above and invite you to share where you think I've got some good ideas or I'm full of crap.

How would it change your life if depression were a choice? If stage fright were a choice? If anger were a choice? If writer's block were a choice? If creativity were a choice? If being energetic were a choice?

Happy Monday! (voiced in the imperative),


  1. What happend to the man with the belief loated statement?

    I find at times that I get frustrated that some people insist on their right to be unhappy - so I get unhappy about other people insisting on being unhappy...

  2. I can tell you from experience that being able to run is a choice! To like running is a choice too! To be able to sing and play Jembe is a choice, to be able to be happy with my own sublime qualities is a choice!

    My life changed drastically because of the beliefs I changed and the actions that I took from that new place. It is my wish that the beliefmakers blog inspires others to look at their lives and beliefs, and that it will help them create the life they want...

  3. Joy, for me it is not so much that I do unhappiness because of other people's unhappiness, but I clearly do avoidance around those people. I was just thinking this morning about one person that clearly have been avoiding. I told myself during my run that I should get over this stubborn behavior. My happiness could be an inspiration to this person! I think it is my believe that it could take a long time for this person to choose happiness, that has me keep my distance. I tell myself that I rather spend time on other people instead... Hmm... it all goes back again to what we want to spend our time on...

  4. To me it's like:
    I'm pretty good at remembering the good stuff about people, and sometimes I tend to forget the "bad stuff" (= the things I do not want)
    If I know a person and I know that this person can be great to do stuff with - then I make up my mind to do stuff with them.

    But then sometimes the person is in the unhappy mood - and I feel the tension because they want me to buy into their unhappy beliefs and I want them to let go of the unhappy belief. Sometimes it works just to agree on disagreeing. Other times...I leave or change my plans, but often I start by being annoyed.

    I guess it comes down to my own inflexibility: In order for me to be happy with the unhappy person I have to decide
    a) to do what I wanted to do with the unhappy version of person
    b) decide to change my plans and do something else with or without the other person.

    So praciticing adaptability could be one way to more happiness for me....
    .. and maybe deciding that time I spend preparing myself to do something with friend is not wasted time even if we end up cancelling...hmmm

  5. Really, really interesting topic, and not just because I received the same email that kicked off your post.
    For me, choosing happiness is often about making the choice NOT TO CONTINUE WITH UNHAPPINESS (or depression, and I'm sure we could have a lively discussion on how (or whether) to differentiate between the two). Again speaking solely for myself, situations and events can be catalysts for the onset of unhappiness/depression, and the onset does indeed seem beyond my control. I might accurately report that, from a feeling/perception perspective, I FIND MYSELF DEPRESSED in response to situations or events, and that initial "finding" never feels like a choice. The power of choice comes in the decision to give over and indulge in the feelings (wallow?), or take steps I know will change my state of mind despite the situation or event that precipitated it. And damn if I don't sometimes choose a good wallow. Over the years, though, and with the help of conversations like these, I have become acutely aware that, whatever the genesis of the feeling, continuation and yes, wallowing, is a choice - and that has considerably shortened those periods of intense unhappiness that at one time seemed totally beyond my control.

  6. OOOOH it's comment Christmas! (I wrote so much that I'll have to break this up into multiple comments).

    I believe that to consider it "a right" causes you to maintain a judgment that it's bad. You wouldn't talk about someone's right to stand or someone's right to breathe or someone's right to think (OK, some people might). However, the only time we talk about someone's right to do something is when there's something questionable about it.

    My main point is that unhappiness isn't mandatory (nor is happiness).

    Iris, you touch on an interesting question which is the difference between preference and unhappiness. There are lots of people who I would place in the category of energy abusers; their moods and attitudes tend to drain all the energy from the room. Unhappiness can be a huge energy drain.

    There are clearly practical aspects of working alongside people who are energy suckers, especially if they're unhappy about decisions made by a group or resistant to changes or drag their feet on completing tasks. One may choose to avoid them simply for practical reasons and do so without ever becoming unhappy about it.

    On the other hand, one can also be unhappy about another person's unhappiness. In my personal experience, this happens when I feel somehow responsible to do something about it. For me, it's not someone's unhappiness that makes me unhappy, it's my feeling obliged to "make" them happy that leads to my unhappiness. And of course, feeling obliged is also a choice.

    To Joy's comment, I think that sense of tension comes when we not only feel obliged to help the unhappy person become happy, but we also want everyone else involved to be happy about his or her unhappiness.

    I remember being on a large corporate conference call one time, where one of the participants in a remote location kind of lost her cool and blew up. There was a long silence and then one of other participants forged ahead as though nothing had happened. I interrupted her and suggested that we not move ahead until we address the concerns voiced by the first person. The call became more than silent; it was as though all sound were being sucked out of the phones.

    I addressed the first woman saying, "Beth, it's clear that you're quite concerned about this matter. Perhaps a large conference call isn't the best forum to address your concerns. Could we talk about this later with a smaller group of people whom you think should be involved?"

    Silence. And then Beth responded saying, "Thank you. That would be great."

    It's amazing how uncomfortable we can make ourselves around the unhappiness of others, trying to ignore the elephant in the room as it were. So, discomfort and tension would also be choices within this paradigm.

  7. (Continuing my excessively long comment.)

    Mister Will, you touch on another really good question which is: when is it a choice and when is it not a choice? I believe that it "can" always be a choice, but there's an important prerequisite: awareness.

    Sometimes, unhappiness (sadness, depression, fear) creeps up on us and we're not aware that we're becoming more and more unhappy, like frogs failing to leap out of a pot of water slowly heating to a boil. Sometimes our awareness is only triggered after the fact, and then we have a choice to either wallow or wade out.

    At other times, the sensory overload of circumstances overwhelms us sweeping us so quickly into unhappiness that we completely miss any opportunity to choose otherwise. Someone jumps out of a blind alley on a dark night, you get scared.

    And then sometimes, we simply ignore the choice presented us like an alcoholic who after circling the block ten times "suddenly" finds himself sitting in the bar. The choices were being made while circling the block, not when he "decided" to walk through the doorway.

    I think the fact of choice and the awareness of choice are distinguishable. So part of becoming good at choosing to be happy would be improving awareness of when and where the choices lie.

    Thanks guys. This is really good food for thought!


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