How to Choose to be Happy

ChoiceEveryday I see sunset pictures with one variation or other on “Happiness is a choice”.  And for people who aren’t happy, this is a cruel taunt because it says their misery is their own choice, their own fault.  If happiness were simply a choice, why would anyone not choose it? I was chronically depressed for 22 years, and then in my mid 30s I changed.

For a long time I wondered what had changed.  How could I talk about what had happened without making the same cheery demand that people choose happiness?  (Or being guilty of inadvertently practicing medicine, which I would argue the sunset memes do equally).

For a while I wondered if I could only help people who were unhappy for the reasons I thought I was unhappy.  Interestingly, those reasons all came down to who I thought I was: my race, my religion, my gender, my physique.  I felt I didn’t fit in, and that was a constant source of perplexity.

What Makes One Happy

One thing I was certain had to do with the change was involvement in 12 step recovery, except that unhappiness is not the aim of anonymous organizations, and happiness is not really the promise.  They do offer more honesty in your life, and it may be that I’m someone who needs truth to be happy.

I think there are a number of other things that people need to feel happy.  Some people need freedom, some need caring relationships and some need to feel in control.  There may be others, but these at least cover the 4 houses of Hogwarts.  For a lot of my life I sought happiness in the things that made other people happy, and that may have been part of my trouble.  12 steps might make you happy, but so might any other number of institutions.  Positive psychologists conclude that money, food, weight loss, square footage seem like they should make us happy but don’t directly*.

What are we Choosing?

If it seems you lost the manual that explained where your happiness switch resides, it is because it is not an issue of switching from one feeling to another.  The switch is between feeling and thinking.  One study that illustrates this involved interviewing college students about their apartments.  When the interview was held in a clean, comfortable office, students reported feeling better but also being less satisfied with their own apartment.  When the interview was held in hot, stinky laboratory, students reported feel worse being being more satisfied with their own apartment.

This result was produced by looking at emotion vs. judgment, but there are several other choices one could make rather than feeling, like offering support to someone, moving the body, learning something, or seeking out some entertainment.  (These line up with the neurocognitive domains I frequently yammer about).  None of these involves burying a feeling, just looking at a different aspect of the thing causing it, until you find an aspect of it you can feel better about, do something about, or if necessary distract you.

Dealing with Feeling

I’d heard that journaling was supposed to help mental health, and since the age of 12 I journaled faithfully.  I probably journaled more than anyone I know.  If a correlation existed, I seemed to be proof that it was negative and not positive.  I continued to write and journal a great deal before and after my depression remitted.  I figured that if journaling helped, and I stopped doing it, I might wind up even worse off than I was.  But it turns out that journaling may indeed have been worsening my mood, as I was using it to ruminate on disappointments and unfairness, simply reinforcing my negative feelings.  **

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, or CISD, was a technique where emergency workers shared details of the trauma they experienced, which some people found helpful, but actually made some people feel worse.  It turns out that the helpful aspect of sharing may have been if the sharer is able to explain or reframe an experience.  But it turns out all those manly guys who don’t see the use in rehashing problems may have been partly right.  Simply reliving emotions is worse that saying nothing, but processing emotions into explanations is most helpful.

Thoughout my life I had people to validate me, telling me I was beautiful, smart, and worthy, but I never felt it until I was 35.  But it’s not like anyone who isn’t those things doesn’t also deserve happiness.  It’s not about results, but about the following processes:

  1. Understanding what makes you happy, which varies from person to person.
  2. Knowing happiness is not a choice of what you feel, but whether to feel or think (do,learn, move etc).
  3. Sharing is a two edged sword, so we have to be aware of processing vs. rumination.

Choosing to be happy is finding a space between “Don’t worry, be happy” and “Keep calm, carry on” where you take care of the things you can control, and let others take care of their stuff.  Including God in others is pretty helpful.”

*For quantities to translate into happiness, they have to be put into the service of some domain of quality of life like relationships, accomplishment, or a cause greater than the self.  For more see Authentic Happiness.

**Ullrich PM & Lutgendorf SK.  2002.  Journaling about Stressful Events:  Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression.  Ann Behav Med 2002, 24(3):244-250


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