To be happy, you have to choose to be happy, regardless of your life situation. You need to choose happiness as if your life depends on it because, in reality, it does. If your ability to live a more successful, longer and healthier life depends on being happy, then you always need to choose it. Even if your life is not what you want it to be, and it seems irrational to do so, you still have to choose happiness.
Sure, if your situation is not satisfactory, then choosing to be happy may not make a lot of sense. However, being unhappy because life is not what you want it to be does not make sense either. If you can be happy only when your life is perfect, you can never be happy. Face it, life will never be perfect. The image of the kind of life we want is always a moving target. No matter how much money we have, we need just a little more. No matter how great a spouse or partner is, that person needs to be a little better. There is always something to be dissatisfied with.
If you can be happy only when your life is perfect, you can never be happy.
Also, life is usually never as bad as you think. The mind-body has an inherently negative outlook. It evolved to see a lot more bad than good in the world, and it evolved to remember the bad longer. We carry a lot of negativity around with us.
To make the happiness choice you often have to ignore what your mind-body is telling you about how to feel. I believe that our purpose on Earth is to be happy. If that is true, then our journey through life involves overcoming the mind-body’s natural tendency to look on the dark side.
Luckily, each of us has the power to choose how to react and what to feel. We do not have to be unhappy just because things are not the way we want them to be, or even if they are actually bad. The well-known therapist, Viktor Frankl, said:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Most of us act as if we do not have this power. We just allow ourselves to react automatically to life. We often go along blindly with whatever our mind-bodies tell us needs to happen before we can be happy.
Instead of the mind-body leading you by the nose to a life of unhappiness, or at best boredom, you need to choose to be happy. You need to choose it regardless of your situation in life. There is an ancient myth that I am going to use to illustrate this idea.
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According to legend, Sisyphus was a man who loved life and sought to live it his way — a way that greatly angered the gods. To get back at him, the gods inflicted on him the perfect punishment: a life of misery and hard work with no purpose. They made him push a boulder up a mountain, only to see that boulder roll back down the mountain, over and over, forever. The tragedy is that while he was pushing his boulder up the mountain, he knew it would always roll back down. Faced with this situation (which may be a metaphor for many of our lives) it would be irrational if Sisyphus were happy. But suppose he was?
Let us look more closely at him, as he moves slowly up the mountain, straining against his burden. I imagine that he is an athlete in his prime. His focus is complete as he forces maximum effort from his muscles. He cannot think of himself or his predicament. If he does, he will lose his footing and fail at his task.
As I think of Sisyphus, I think of a marathon runner, focused on movement, with no attention left for him/herself. If the runner loses focus, he or she might miss the pile of leaves, wet from the morning dew, and slip. Long-distance runners report the joy (the “high”) they get from racing. Even though their muscles may be “screaming with pain,” they push themselves to the limit. After the race, exhausted, they begin thinking of their next challenge, and the way they can go just a little faster.
I can easily imagine that Sisyphus, like the runner, would experience the same “high” that comes from pushing oneself to the limit.
Let us picture Sisyphus at the top of the mountain. Just as he completes his task, the boulder thunders back down the mountain. NOW FREEZE! Look at the face of Sisyphus as he stands there, exhausted. He sees the boulder rumble down the mountain and knows his toil will never end. Look into his eyes. What is he thinking?
We have now frozen Sisyphus in the space between the stimulus (the boulder rolling down the mountain) and his response. As Viktor Frankl said, his freedom lies in his power to use this space to choose his response. His freedom to be happy lies in choosing how to feel about what has happened. What will he choose?
He can choose to feel triumphant, having succeeded once again in making it to the top of the mountain. He can start thinking about the next journey up. He can start wondering how to coax just a little more strength from his body to make the journey a little faster and a little better.
Or, he can give in to despair. He can curse the gods who sit laughing at him as he drags himself down the mountain, once again, to face his endless task.
As I see it, Sisyphus has only one choice: to be happy in spite of everything. This may seem an impossible choice, but it is a choice that is his to make. Choosing happiness gives him a life worth living. Choosing despair is not an option because that is the choice to live in Hell.
Choosing happiness gives him a life worth living.
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Reading this story, you might have many reactions. The obvious one is he is crazy if he is happy. Is he? Given his situation, exercising his ability to choose happiness is the only sane thing to do. If he uses this power he has a happy life, if he does not he has a miserable life.
Another typical response is the idea that once someone has chosen to be happy that’s it, the person stays happy. We all like to believe in the happily-ever-after myth. However, it does not work that way. In the case of Sisyphus, he has to keep choosing happiness. The natural tendency of the mind-body to react badly to a situation like his will reassert itself. Again and again he has to make the choice to be happy.
Like Sisyphus, to be happy you have to choose to be happy again and again. Each time you make this choice it may seem irrational – and your mind may tell you it is not the right thing to do. You have to choose anyway. The good news is, once you have taken the first step to choosing happiness, the next time is easier, and the next and the next. Ultimately, it will become a habit and a way of life. You still have to choose happiness, but it will become your automatic reaction to whatever life throws at you.
What to do
The way you choose happiness is to emotionally accept your world as it is, right now, whether it is what you want it to be or not. When you emotionally accept things, happiness automatically arises in you. You say to yourself, “I accept the way things are right now, and I choose to be happy. I can always work to change the way things are in the future, but right now I choose to be happy.”
Another way of saying this is you loosen your emotional attachment to the way you think things should be. Your desires for things to be different can still exist, but you just allow them to be. Your emotional well-being and happiness do not depend on attaining these desires.
Choosing happiness may be a radical act from the point of view of the mind-body. However, remember that the mind-body did not evolve to make you happy, so who are you going to listen to — your mind-body, or the feeling of happiness that you know is inside of you?
Here is an exercise:
This exercise should last less than a minute.
Bring to mind something that makes you unhappy. Perhaps it is a problem relationship, something that happened to you in the past, a personal characteristic you do not like, or a habit that you would like to break.
As much as you are comfortable doing, hold this thing in mind, and experience the unhappiness that comes with it. Once again, do this only to the extent you feel comfortable. If it is too uncomfortable, try this exercise with something else.
With this thing in mind, choose to be happy. Just choose it. Do not try to give yourself reasons for being happy, do not try to justify your happiness, and do not try to think of something else that would make you happy. With this thing in mind, just choose to be happy.
Now let go of the thought.
In this exercise, the object is not to dwell on the unhappy thought. What we are looking for is that split second of awareness where you know you can choose happiness. At first, this awareness will not last long. However, if you can get only an inkling of your ability to choose happiness you have taken a big step. As you keep practicing this exercise, your awareness should grow.
During this exercise don’t try to resolve the thing you were thinking about. We are not trying to resolve anything here. What we are trying to do is awaken and strengthen your power to choose. That power, by itself, will ultimately be the thing that resolves your problems.
Posted by D.E. Hardesty
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For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.