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Can happiness simply be a choice?

Smiling woman giving thumbs up sign

Memes on social media assure us that happiness is a choice. But is that really true? Often we see this as a glib cliché. For someone whose life is affected by stress, anxiety and depression, those words can seem like a cruel joke. When you're in the depths of depression, saying you can simply choose to be happy can seem downright insulting.

But can you get to a point where it is possible to choose to be happy?

Few people are naturally happy. Our brain is not wired for happiness, it's wired for survival and that means stress and fear. Most of our thoughts are automatic and most of them are not happy or positive. But if we make fearful, negative thought patterns automatically, can we learn to be happy, and how do we do that?

Happiness is usually a multi-faceted project and not a quick or easy fix. You need to work on it.

Here are some steps to developing the ability to choose happiness and to organise our lives to give us the maximum chance of happiness.

Learn to relax

The opposite of being saturated with stress is being saturated with calm and peace. The brain chemical GABA replaces adrenaline and cortisol. Then the brain will allow us to relax and be happy. So in order to be happy, we need to reduce fear and stress.

This requires good stress management. There are plenty of ways on this site to relax and reduce stress.

Happiness doesn't involve having no stress, but it does involve a different kind of stress.  Good stress is called Eustress (as opposed to Dystress). It's the difference between a thrill (Eustress) and panic (Dystress). As I always say "One person's rollercoaster is another person's anxiety"

Increase your feel good brain chemicals: Endorphins, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Dopamine

Here are some simple ways:

  • Exercise equals Endorphins
  • Reward equals Dopamine (even the smallest achievement, like crossing a little thing off your 'to do list' will do it for you)
  • Self-care (diet, sleep, rest, security, love) equals Serotonin
  • Physical touch and bonding equals Oxytocin - find someone or something to hug

Remind yourself of happiness and happy feelings

Remember the brain is not wired for happiness, it is wired for survival and to keep you safe by reminding you of negative (unhappy) things so you will avoid them, even if they are in the past and you can't change them. You don't choose these things, they are automatic.   You can increase your brain's tendency to think automatic positive thoughts by wiring up strong feelings of happiness you have had in the past through visualising them. For example, visualise:

  • Holding your baby for the first time
  • A thrilling moment in your life
  • An inspiring person who raises your consciousness to another level
  • A fabulous holiday moment or your favourite place to travel

When you imagine these things, remember to include all your senses and focus on how you felt at the time. Our brain wires things that we fire strongly, so you need to feel the memory very strongly.  The more you fire positive thoughts and feelings, the more you will have them.

Limit your exposure to toxic and negative people, things, places and ideas

If one of these places is at work then you might need to think about your attitudes to work (are your expectations of others, or the workplace too high?), or practice radical stress management. Ultimately you might need to question whether your current work, job or profession is one that can make you truly happy, and decide to make a change. 

If you need to limit your contact with people who you think are negative or toxic, accept that they may not understand why you are avoiding them. You can love someone that makes you unhappy, but you don't have to spend a lot of time with them if it brings you down. Explain to them in a kind, assertive way that you don't blame them for your unhappiness, but that their negativity or judgementality is not good for you, and that you need to take a break from them until you are in a better space. Be ready for a reaction because they in turn  might feel blamed and judged even though you are being honest and kind. If you are serious about not wanting them in your life, accept their anger and hurt and insist that you love them and that you will spend more time with them when you are in a better space.

This is best done in person. However, if this person has violent tendencies, you might be better off doing it by email, or having a third person present when you say it. Don't do it via text message, it is a very poor way to communicate. Writing a letter in the old-fashioned way is far superior. You can say all the things you want in a letter.

Eliminate negative thought patterns, behaviours and attitudes

If you have unhelpful thoughts or behaviours it might take a long time to eliminate them, but it's truly worthwhile.

Do this by being constantly mindful and when they crop up, don't judge them, just note them as "interesting" and let them go.

Be radically honest with yourself about your attitudes. Do you have an attitude that is not sderving you, or holding you back?   Does an attitude in others, (for example being judgemental or rude), constantly irritate you? This could mean you have that attitude in yourself and are projecting it onto them because you don't want to recognize it and own it. If you discover you have an unwanted attitude, don't beat up on yourself. Instead, commit to changing it.  Watch out for it, note it and let it go.

Learn how to be responsive and not reactive

This is where you actually can make a choice;  a choice to be happy, instead of reacting with fear, negativity, resentment or anger.  Instead of reacting decide instead to respond, and be happy. This can be a step in the process after you have noted the feeling, thought, behaviour or attitude and let it go. Take a deep breath, mentally step back, and  say to yourself

"No, I'm choosing not to react. Instead I'm choosing to respond;  to let it go and be happy." It may or may not work immediately, so remember to have patience and persevere.

Can you make someone else happy?

Bearing in mind the ways in which you can help yourself to be happy, the same applies to how you help others to find happiness.

  • Give them reassuring physical contact
  • Talk to them in a reassuring way
  • Be encouraging … help them see their good points and successes
  • Manage your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours to minimise their exposure to your negativity (you might do yourself a favour too).

Exercise for inducing happiness

Find a comfortable place (not driving or working); close your eyes and breathe gently and evenly into your tummy. Let go of past fear, hatred, resentment or anger ... see these negative thoughts and emotion as spiky red balloons floating up into the air. See calm pink blue or lavender balloons float down to fill you with calmness, peace and happiness.