Ask Amit #1 – Is Happiness a Choice?

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Each week, I get about a dozen e-mails from my readers asking me all sorts of questions about happiness, positive psychology, and self-improvement. Some questions I turn into full-fledged blog posts, but most I answer with a few sentences and a helpful link here and there.

Today I’m trying something new – I’m sharing my response for you all to see, but I’m not turning it into a full blog post.

If some of you find this short-form useful, I’ll continue doing it.

Michelle Gray from Ohio asked,

1. Why do I sometimes feel like I have to try to be happy?

I’m not sure in what context you’re asking that question, so I’ll try to answer it in all ways that it could be interpreted:

1) You feel like you have to force yourself to be happy, even what you aren’t.

America is like that. In most circumstances, it’s socially inappropriate to be unhappy. When someone asks you how you’re doing, you can’t respond, “I’m bad.”

2) Sometimes you’re unhappy and need to apply effort in order to change that.

Bad moods have a biological origin – you can’t always be in control. Perhaps you got bad sleep or are subconsciously stressed about something.

Thankfully, the stronger your happiness foundation (e.g. good health, good relationships, etc…) the less often bad moods will show up.

2. Is happiness a choice?

Yes, absolutely. A video from my course, The Gratitude Hack, explains it:

However, there is some subtlety to keep in mind.

Thought suppression doesn’t work. Research suggests that trying to stop yourself from thinking about something, like certain negative thoughts, backfires.

First, thought suppression takes energy. In one study of soldiers with PTSD, those in the thought suppression group ended up worse off – it took them so much mental energy to keep their thoughts under control that they didn’t have energy for other things, like making new friends or learning new things.

Second, thought suppression can be counterproductive. In order to suppress a negative thought, say anxiety about physical appearance, a certain part of your brain needs to constantly be checking, “am I thinking negative thoughts about my physical appearance?” The process of checking itself brings the negative thoughts to mind.

So when a friend tells you to look on the bright side, that may or may not be successful. If he’s able to redirect your attention to more positive thoughts, then it’ll work. If he isn’t, there’s a problem.

To avoid worrying him, you might put on an outward display of happiness, but still have the problem weighing heavily on your mind. In this case, your friend either needs to try harder, or he needs to give you the space to talk about the problem and receive emotional support.

For example, telling someone with cancer that they should stop thinking negative thoughts and focus on the positive… can be a bit unrealistic. Admonishing them for expressing negativity can have the effect that they keep it in to themselves, which is not at all productive.

3. I have even found myself telling my kids to choose happy. When their fish died, I said, think of the times you saw Mike swimming around and it made you laugh and smile. Don’t be sad. Does that work to choose happy?

Absolutely, don’t be sad can be as simple as moving from negative thoughts to positive ones. That you helped your kids do so is wonderful.

But keep in mind the caveat mentioned above. Did thinking of Mike swimming around make them happy? Or did they continue feeling sad, but just not mention it to you because you’d indicated you didn’t want that? On the other hand, just because their fish died doesn’t mean they ‘need’ to feel sad. Different people have different responses to tragedy – grief is not a requirement.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve

That’s interesting that trying to make yourself stop thinking about negative thoughts can backfire on you. I guess I can see why. All you’re really doing is covering up the problem instead of addressing it.

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Denver

It’s a pleasure to find such ratoanility in an answer. Welcome to the debate.

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