Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Choose Happiness

This week I happened upon a blog entry of a friend of mine.  In it, she described and then decried the culture of positive thinking that has become so pervasive in modern society.  One point that she passionately fights for is that people have been trained to hide or lie about their natural responses to tragic or unfortunate circumstances by putting on a happy and joyful face. 

I won't go into all of the details on the post (I will send you a link for it, though, if you ask), but I did respond to her in disagreement.  I think the positive thinking movement has empowered people to take control over the reactions to external stimuli, allowing them to choose happiness even in the direst of circumstances. We commented back and forth for a while, when I wrote:

I have to personally reject the idea that my life is simply a pawn of external forces.  I believe that people do have control over their lives, and to think otherwise really is a reason for despair.  If we are not in control, what hope is there for real change, personal achievement, or inspiration?

My friend's response was stated simply, "Ah, but I disagree.  We don't have control over our lives.  We really don't.  We have control over our perceptions, true, but that's it."

Those were the last words we shared over her post.  I couldn't respond.  I don't know how to respond.  We are at fundamentally opposite places in our worldview and personal philosophy. The two of us could have gone back and forth all day on this topic and never reached an agreement.

And, while I find our disparate viewpoints fascinating and would be intellectually curious to see how they each play out in the real world, I must admit that the most profound element in our discourse was one of grief.  I grieve her answer... the idea that someone or something else controls my life would indeed create despair and I cannot imagine otherwise.

I do believe that we have control over our lives.  I believe that I can choose a different direction at any time. Moreover, I believe that I always have the choice of happiness. 

Yes, bad things are going to happen.  People are going to get sick and hurt, and we all will eventually die.  Watching our 24-hour news will give you a first-hand glimpse into tragedy. 

At any point in my daily life, I can find something to be unhappy about.

At any point in my daily life, though, I can also find something to be happy about.

I fervently believe that anyone, at any time, can find at least one thing in their lives to help them create happiness.  You don't have to be rich or privileged in any other way... you just have to recognize the power to choose. 

You also don't have to deny yourself anger or grief, which I believe are qualitatively different than unhappiness. These emotions can be empowering in their own way and naturally lend themselves to some sort of process.  I get angry at a perceived injustice , which leads me to find a resolution, either internally or externally.  I grieve the loss of a person, requiring I adjust to a life without the physical and emotional presence of that person. 

These emotions are active ones, and, yes, there could be the possibility for unhappiness paired with them.  However, I don't believe that remaining in the unhappy state helps anger or grief find its resolution.  A person has to choose to move the process forward, and, by foregoing the unhappiness for something more positive and productive, a person can.  It doesn't have to be happiness right away, but it should be a step in that direction, perhaps by simply finding small things for which to be grateful or appreciative.

I have actively spent the last year trying to identify the things in my life that conjure happiness, and, honestly, I can say the list is now innumerable.  Despite this list of options, I usually just find myself gravitating towards the simplest, communing with my garden.  Spending time with plants and watching them develop and fruit brings me great perspective and has not yet failed to make me happy.

I believe that most people (if not all) can list a few things that make them happier.  The challenge is to make the choice to indeed be happy when events are not going your way or bad things happen.

Not easy, no, but definitely doable.

I still find myself becoming unhappy like everyone else.  I have discovered that when I choose and work at it, I can let go of the unhappiness and bring myself around to fostering happiness.  After all, since I have the choice, why in the world would I choose unhappiness?


  1. I'm glad I found this, Charlie. I wondered why you hadn't responded. See, I think you and I are saying the same thing. Let me list where I think we agree:
    1) happiness is a choice
    2) gratitude helps me get through difficult times
    3) I am in control of my perceptions
    4) acceptance is the answer to my problems
    5) joyful living is almost always an option and I choose it.


    My point was that there is a movement in our society, perpetuated by the mega-Churches and corporations, to fool people into thinking that when bad things happen, it's their fault. If I think negatively, bad things will happen to me. That's the dangerous realm I was trying to discuss.

    Am I hearing you/reading you right? Am I being any more clear about my position? Or, does it still feel as if we are totally different?

  2. Your five points are definitely areas where we agree. I didn't "get" what you were trying to convey in that blog, so I should probably read Ehrenreich's book.

    I agree that the emotional manipulation perpetuated by political figures, corporations, mega-churches, etc is a growing problem... and a power that seems to have become quite extraordinary in the last ten years. I guess that is partly why I hold so strongly to my own ideology. They cannot make me unhappy or afraid when bad things happen, I am responsible for my own reactions.

    I think we do agree on quite a bit of this. Both of us are trying to escape from emotional manipulation. My own stance on this became much stronger during Bush's terms, where fear was such a strong "motivator" for change. I don't want to fear the unknown or different... it's paralyzing, and, frankly, exhausting.