No, You Can’t Choose to be Happy

The people who say that you can choose to be happy are almost right. But happiness is an emotion, and emotions are things that we don’t exactly control.

Just think about it for a minute. Let’s say that later today, someone calls you on your cellular telephone and tells you that your dearest family member has just died in an accident. You know what happens next. You feel an overwhelming wave of sadness and grief. These feelings, like happiness, are emotions. They will probably cause you to cry uncontrollably. Try choosing happiness in that moment of shocking sadness. You can’t. But those painful emotions will fade as time passes and you progress through a grieving process, and happiness will gradually reappear.

That’s an extreme example, but it makes the point clear: We don’t control our emotions. All of us encounter ordinary situations every day that provoke all sorts of emotional reactions, whether we like it or not (bad drivers, anyone?). So, if we can’t control our emotions, how can you choose to be happy?

Happiness can’t be chosen, but it can be encouraged.

There are so many factors that play into happiness that I don’t have the time or, frankly, the knowledge to explain even a fraction of them. But here are two complementary happiness-encouragement strategies, which you can employ simultaneously.

First, reduce the likelihood of negative emotions through acceptance and mental preparation.

We typically experience negative emotions like anger, annoyance, anxiety, and frustration when things don’t go our way or other people make decisions we don’t agree with. The trouble is, that sort of thing happens all the time because we don’t actually have much control over, well, anything really. How do you cope with that reality and avoid those emotions?

Accept it.

Actively accepting that life is going to happen how it happens, regardless of your plans or personal preference, frees you to enjoy it as it is.

You can certainly try to make things go your way, and you should, because many times they will. But often, they won’t. Traffic will be terrible. Your plans won’t work out. Your lover will leave you. Your bladder will decide it must be emptied right at the climax of the movie. Expect these things and see them for what they are: Just another part of life.

You can also prepare yourself for life’s most difficult moments through the practice of negative visualization. Taught by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, negative visualization involves spending just a few minutes a day (or week) imaging that you have lost something that you care about deeply or think that you really need. It might be your spouse, your children, your house, your job, your sight, your good health, etc. The reality is, any or all of these things could be gone tomorrow. By vividly imagining the loss of your spouse or partner, for example, you prepare yourself somewhat for the day that you actually experience that loss. Hopefully that day will never come, but you can’t be blindsided by a tragedy that you have fully considered. In addition, this practice increases your appreciation for the things you have (your loved one is still here!), and that gratitude increases feelings of happiness and contentment.

Second, increase the likelihood of happy feelings by practicing mindfulness, expressing thanks, socializing with positive people, and taking care of your health.

That might sound like a lot of work, but most of these things require just a few minutes in the average week. Controlling your diet and exercising regularly may take a fair amount of effort, depending on your current habits. But writing down a short list of things you’re thankful for once a week, or taking a few minutes to focus your attention on the present moment — these things cost nothing and require almost no time at all.

Mindfulness, as mentioned above, is the practice of focusing your attention on the present and acknowledging and accepting your current feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations (whether comfortable or painful). The traditional practice of mindfulness meditation may take a bit more time and effort than you are prepared to dedicate right now. I find, however, that simply reminding myself periodically to relax for a minute and refocus my brain has a similar result: Replacing stress with calm peacefulness. This might sound obvious, but happy feelings are more likely when you’re calm and peaceful than when you’re stressed out.

Spending quality time with people that you love can be challenging when everyone seems to have such busy schedules. If, like me, your evenings are often filled up with family obligations, schedule lunch or morning coffee dates with friends or extended family members so you can enjoy those positive relationships. Or, kill two birds with one stone by inviting a friend to exercise with you. You can also make some of that obligatory family time count by scheduling some of it as time to socialize. Take an hour a week to play a game, eat some ice cream, or go for a walk together (or, you know, wine and Netflix).

Ultimately, it all boils down to this:

Prepare to be happy.

At the end of the day, that’s all that you can do.

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