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Is Happiness A Choice?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE].

You've probably heard that it is. "Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be," said Abraham Lincoln, circa 1914. There are hand-crafted chic plywood signs for sale on Etsy espousing the same general sentiment, "Happiness is a journey, not a destination," etc, etc, etc. We've heard it all and lived to hate the cliche that happiness has become. I've grown to dislike the notion that happiness is a choice, because simply choosing to be happy seems too easy. Just choosing to be happy entirely ignores all the difficult, shitty, unsexy work involved in actually making that choice.

We make choices all day, consciously and not. Side salad or fries? Wake up, or hit the snooze button one more time? Answer that stack of emails or push them to the side? Watch another episode of Friends or some other equally irrelevant television series/movie/YouTuber/WHATEVER. When we make choices, we're not always aware of what we're doing. If happiness is a choice, it's probably not a choice we're always thinking about, and it's certainly not a choice we only make once.

One of the first blogs I ever published (read it HERE) was about acting happy but being very sad. It was inspired by a coworker who saw some pictures I'd hung in my office and said, "You live a very happy life," as if a few scattered photos are enough to gauge happiness. At the time that I wrote that post, I was still struggling mightily with an eating disorder that once threatened my life. Now, when people tell me that I seem happy, it's because I made the very difficult choice to not be sad, sick, or depressed anymore.

What nobody says about choosing happiness is that it isn't always an easy choice. I didn't wake up one day and just decide to change my mind. I first had to endure the long, slow, agonizing process of realizing that where I was was worse than whatever I would have to do to change it. The prospect of remaining in my eating disorder (sad, sick, etc) was far worse than the prospect of changing. And changing is, quite obviously, the hard part.

My decision to be happier was first and foremost, a decision to live. It was secondly, a realization that I didn't have to look outside of myself for happiness. Other people can't make you happy. Things can't make you happy. Situations can only make you unhappy if you usurp your own power to change them.

The downward spiral to realizing I was unhappy was just as long as the path to finding genuine joy. Loads of therapy, self-reflection, heartache, and backward steps were all necessary for forward momentum.

Nobody ever tells you this either: happiness is an emotion and emotions are never perpetual. Even people who are mostly happy are not happy all the time. We still feel sad, angry, hurt. We still feel the bad shit. But allowing yourself to feel the bad things and let them pass will lead you back to happiness. Dwelling on anger, hurt, or sadness, will cause you to stay there. It's best to feel the feelings and let them go. Worse case scenario, you'll feel okay, and sometimes, feeling okay is pretty damn good. When I was deeply sick with my eating disorder, feeling okay felt like a revelation.

I'd also like to point out that the contentment bred from living a comfortable, safe life, is antithetical to happiness. Being guarded and safe isn't really living-we need to feel and be in the dark in order to appreciate and bask in the light (put that on a schticky Etsy wood board). It's akin to the phenomenon of the rich and entitled children of billionaires feeling directionless and hopeless because they've never had to work for anything. If you've never worked for anything, you probably won't be happy because you won't realize that happiness requires work.

Just saying that you choose to be happy isn't enough, either. I can say, "I'm so happy!" all day and it not be true; people say things all the time that aren't true. Lately, people have been saying that the earth is flat and that's definitely not real. It's bullshit advice to say we can all just wake up, decide to be happy, and it'll come true.

But wait: isn't it true that if we say or hear something enough, we'll start to believe it? Yes and no. In advertising, the term “effective frequency” describes the number of times a consumer must be exposed to a message before the marketer gets the desired response, whether that be buying a product or remembering the message. While it may be easy to sway or influence others, it's much more difficult to influence or lie to yourself. In other words, if you know that you're unhappy, no amount of effective frequency messaging is going to change your mind.

Making the choice to be happy can be fucking terrifying. I didn't want to leave my eating disorder because it granted me the illusion of control, safety, security, and comfort. Stepping outside of that was very scary, and reconciling your own unhappiness might be scary, too. However, we do things all the time that don't feel good but have high rewards. Moving, taking a new job, pushing your physical limits, public speaking, etc, etc, etc. Once you do something that seems daunting, you usually realize it wasn't so bad.

Choosing happiness is similar: sometimes the road to the best things in life feels really shitty for a while. Any fear that is holding you back, and the steps you'll have to take to get through those fears, will (I promise) be worth the joy that's on the other side.

P.S. I'm not a self-help guru, or even a consistent consumer of self-help stuff because it's usually redundant and obvious and annoying. But the self-improvement market was worth $9.9 billion in 2016. If you're looking for that kind of help, it's out there. Check out this list of the best self-improvement podcasts that won't make you roll your eyes.


Sarah Rose

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