Is Happiness a Choice?

Happiness can be a choice. Authentic happiness requires positive emotions, serving others, and to be in the flow of engagement with life. Pleasure, engagement, and meaning are the critical three when choosing this positive way of life. In the words of Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading positive psychology researcher, “happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, of positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.” And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” back in 1990, noted that happiness is not achieved through external means such as money, fame, influence, or material riches, but by controlling our inner, moment-to-moment experience of life. We create this positive emotion when we learn to control our inner experience of our external world.

“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude,” according to psychologist William James, dozens of contemporary mental health experts, evolving research and even ancient writings. As it says in Proverbs 4:23, “Be careful about what you think. Your thoughts run your life.” And Stoic philosopher, Epictetus taught, “When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves.” And as Thoreau said, "Man is the artificer of his own happiness.”

The science of neuroplasticity backs this up. The research in this field tells us that it’s possible to experience the positive emotion of happiness, and increase this feeling, regardless of what our genetic hardwiring may otherwise dictate. Between B, birth and D, death, comes C, choice. It is largely our choice as to how we fill in that space. Psychologist and author, Tom G. Stevens, Ph.D., tells us that people who live with happiness choose to make this positive emotion a goal in life.

Want to “AIM” for the positive emotion of happiness?

• A is for attention. You’ll be as happy as where your attention is directed. Focus on the good stuff, be optimistic, and you’ll feel good. Focus on the bad stuff and you’ll feel worse.

• I is for interpretation. We tend to think that the way we see things right now is the only way to look at them. Wrong.

• M is for memory. You don’t know what’s going to happen next in life, so thinking about the future can be fun or terrifying. Happy memories, however, are a safe bet. You can turn to those for a guaranteed boost when you need it. Take time to look back and savor those moments.

We can create pleasure, comfort, gratitude and live with more hope and inspiration, all elements of happiness. Wouldn’t it be lovely to simply sit back and wait for happiness to find you? Wouldn’t it be grand if people and things simply “made you” happier? Unfortunately, happiness doesn’t passively happen to people. Inertia and inaction will not lead, and likely decreases, our happiness.

The central path to happiness is mastering the art of not disturbing yourself and taking responsibility to directing yourself to experiment and discover what you find pleasurable and satisfying in life. This rests on unconditionally accepting yourself, others, and life. Seeing life as an opportunity to enjoy yourself is a central philosophical mindset to carry with you daily.

Albert Ellis, Ph.D. taught that to create happiness in life, one would wisely commit to being involved in absorbing creative pursuits and interests, and having significant relationships with others. By the way, in contrast to Sigmund Freud who noted, “The goal of all life is death,” Ellis observed, “The goal of all life is to have a ball.”

Walter J. Matweychuk, Ph.D. suggests that to increase happiness, begin by eliminating thoughts such as:

"1. I should not have to pursue personal happiness. It should find me. That is, real happiness should naturally occur.
2. It is too hard to think about what I may like and then experiment with new activities to see if I may find them pleasing to do.
3. I need a guarantee that my investment of time, energy, or money for an experimental pursuit will lead to real personal happiness. It would be awful to waste my time, energy, and money on goals that do not pay off in the ways I hoped they would.”

Happiness cannot be found. Happiness does not lie in changing your circumstances. And forget the idea that some people have happiness and others just don’t.

The 5 major mindset traps that will suck the happiness right out of you include doubt, emptiness, irritation, sluggishness, and restlessness. We need clear thinking and focused, harmonious attention for greater brain happiness. It does take effort. Steady and content moods equal a greater ability to absorb the frustrations of life and regulate your emotions. Freedom from needless worry, including worrying about worrying, leads to turning your wheels, not just spinning them. Energy to engage with others leads to a vibrant pursuit of all of life’s possibilities.

What we think, what we do, can increase happiness in our lives.

Make these 6 science-backed tools your daily habits for optimal, happier living:

1. Make positive emotions a top goal for you to pursue your life’s joys
2. Savor your positive moments using an optimistic mindset, free of your inner critic
3. Wake up everyday and open the “two gifts” you’ve been given, your eyes, with an attitude of gratitude and self-compassion, not self-judgment, or social comparison
4. See everything - everything - that happens as happening FOR you, not TO you, to allow more happiness into your life’s flow
5. Practice the pause and bring kindness with your wherever you go in your social relationships
6. Carry this coping thought with you daily, “I’m going to have fun rockin’ this positive ritual in my life TODAY: _____________________.”

Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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