Happiness is a Choice

choice happiness self-control self-discipline

I firmly believe that the purpose of life is happiness, at least on some level. Humans are wired to seek out things that make them happy. We dedicate our lives to something because doing so makes us feel fulfilled (or we think it will/ought to). When we are happy, we like ourselves, we are more helpful, more productive, and life in general is good, by definition. So I firmly believe that we have a duty to ourselves and to whatever power or whim created us to seek our happiness.

Apparently, however, most people do not believe this, at least according to the 80/20 Principle. There seems to be a world full of people who feel crushed by the dictates of a society that has no concern for their happiness. There are two elements to exerting control of your happiness. The first is deciding to detach your sense of well-being to circumstances outside your control.

One Person's Vacation is Another Man's Exile

People have lots of reasons to be unhappy. Their loved ones are far away, or have passed away. They are lonely. They have to make money, and they are in a job that makes them unhappy, so they simply accept that they are not meant to be happy. They live somewhere they don't want to be. They have mean friends. Their cat leaves hairballs on the expensive furniture. Their kid does not get straight A's. Their favorite coffee is no longer made. The list for reasons to be unhappy is pretty much endless, and yes there are people out there who are seriously dissatisfied with their lives because their kid doesn't want to be a doctor.

You'll have noticed, however, that my examples went from generally serious to fairly trivial. For most people, the loss of a loved one will leave them mourning for months if not years. These same people may not be affected in the slightest if their son or daughter didn't get into an Ivy League school, while I am acquainted with parents who might consider their lives a failure if little Johnny went to UConn but hardly bat an eye at their mother's funeral.

And while you might question the moral fiber of an individual who didn't feel much remorse at the loss of their family, my point is that the things that make people happy and unhappy vary from individual from individual. Most people I know would tell the Ivy-obsessed parent to let go a little, expecting that it is possible for her to change her views on the necessity of a Princeton-educated son. So I say that same about more serious blows to one's well-being. Let go. Do not tie your happiness to things that you cannot control, or if you do, accept that they will change and be ready to let go. (This idea is expanded in the book Choice Theory).

Of course, some things are too deeply ingrained in us to easily let go. I've made a decision not to base my happiness on the whims of employers and business settings, partly because I've never been very good at controlling those things. On the other hand, I do base my happiness on my health, which is not something I have 100% control over either, but which I am better at managing.

This brings me to the second element of self-direct happiness: a willingness to take responsibility for your life and make changes.

The Willingness to Take Control

A big part of The 80/20 Principle was that certain experiences in our lives have contributed a disproportionate amount to our happiness and well-being, so we should identify those situations and seek them out more often. At the same time, we owe it to ourselves to notice what things make us miserable and cut those things out too. Sometimes the things are within ourselves, and that requires changing ourselves, which is hard, but it is the same concept.

Most people just sort of bounce through life like a pinball. They have no control over where they are going. Sometimes they hit the right bumper and get pushed into a great score, and sometimes they fall through the cracks because God/society/their family/fate forgot to hit the levers. If they took note of the fact that every time they hit the red bumper their score went up, maybe they should try to lean into the red bumper more often. But nobody does. They just cross their fingers and hope.

I used to get really, really upset when friends cancelled plans with me. I'd question my worth as a human being, assume they didn't want to be my friends anymore, and being preparations for life as a hermit. Now, I cross flaky friends off my address book and limit myself to loyal ones. That is a behavior modification that has made me much, much happier. When my friends flake on my anyway, I simply choose not to get upset over it. I've decided to take control of my emotional response to situations, or at least my actions. Instead of pacing the house in despair, I go read, or exercise, and pretty soon, the emotions follow the actions.

I'll admit this doesn't work with everything, but the decision to be the one dictating my happiness and behavior as helped me manage stressful situations much better than I had in the past. So much of it was simply the decision that I am going to be happy and balanced in the face of stress. Sometimes it's a struggle and sometimes it's better to just cry, but more often than not, I am happier because I've decided to be.

Your Life is Your Fault

I think that a lot of people don't want responsibility for their happiness, because it means they must also take responsibility for their unhappiness, and nobody wants to admit that their suffering is their own fault (actually, it's almost taboo to suggest that in this society; you'll get tagged as an ultra-conservative).

But let me pose a question. Which situation is better:

  1. You are not responsible for your happiness or unhappiness. Any suffering you experience is not your own fault (therefore not deserved), freeing you for culpability, but also freeing you of any ability to better your circumstances.
  2. You are mostly responsible for your happiness and unhappiness. If you suffer, you probably brought it on yourself, but you also have the ability to get yourself out of it instead of waiting for life to get its act together.

Unless you really enjoy being a martyr, I'd hope you picked the second option. Because if you are the one who caused your misery (or chose to respond with distress when life threw lemons at you), you are also the one who can bring about your own happiness (or smirk slyly at life when the lemons bounce harmlessly off you and settle down to making something sweet and refreshing).

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