Is being happy a choice?
- According to the UN’s World Happiness Report 2020, Finland ranks as the happiest country in the world—for the third year in a row.
- Democritus, a philosopher from Ancient Greece, was the first on record in the western world to explore happiness. His theory was a subjectivist view that “happiness does not result from ‘favorable fate’ (i.e., good luck) or other external circumstances...[instead, it is] a ‘case of mind.’”
- Happiness and depression affect people physically and not just mentally. Depression can be associated with “insomnia or oversleeping, debilitating fatigue, increased or decreased appetite, weight gain or loss, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and unexplained aches and pains.” Happiness is correlated with a boosted metabolism, more energy, better digestion, decreased inflammation, better sleep, and a lower risk for heart disease, among other things.
- A 2020 NORC COVID Response Tracking Study at the University of Chicago found that “just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy.”
People often have good intentions when they share inspirational quotes urging readers to choose happiness, asserting that the feeling is available to anyone willing to shift their mindset. It’s a nice idea, but unrealistic. Happiness is not always achieved by making a choice.
Probably the most significant obstacle to experiencing happiness is in the case of mental health issues. Depression can hinder a person’s capacity to fulfill basic responsibilities due to overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and sorrow. It is a diagnosable disease that some struggle with their entire lives.
The problem is astonishingly common: in 2017, it is estimated that 3.2 million people under the age of 18 and 11 million adults experienced a minimum of one major episode of debilitating depression.
Regardless of whether depression or other mental illnesses are present, some studies suggest that up to 80% of a person’s ability to feel happy is dependent on genetics. Brain development could also be to blame; children who grew up in violent or unstable environments are less likely to have effective emotional control.
Life circumstances also play a crucial role. Someone experiencing starvation, homelessness, abuse, or other psychologically traumatic events may not resolve feelings of discontent with an elective shift of perspective. Such conditions perpetually overwhelm vulnerable individuals and can inflict a chronic mentality of worthlessness.
Ultimately, it’s unfair to make a general claim that a person can be happy if they simply choose to be. Positive thought alone can not transform oppressive experiences into feelings of joy and fulfillment.
People can absolutely choose to be happy, and the rewards are substantial. A positive state of mind is linked to boosts in creativity, productivity, engagement, performance under pressure, success in business, and various health benefits. These countless advantages are accessible through many established channels.
Efforts to intentionally be happier are scientifically proven. Mindfulness and meditation are sure-fire methods to achieve well-being. And mindfulness also combats ruminating, a common obstacle to happiness. Smiling, affirmations, acts of kindness, practicing gratitude and forgiveness, letting things go, avoiding comparisons, and counteracting negative thoughts and feelings are all shown to make a real, positive impact.
With simple physical and lifestyle adjustments, higher happiness levels can easily be attained. Changes to breathing and posture promote joy and self-confidence. Applying personal strengths, pursuing goals, and volunteering are all shown to make people happier. Satisfying relationships go beyond bolstering happiness, also improving overall health and longevity.
A neurological self-looping cycle of happiness is created when increased serotonin (the neurotransmitter most associated with the emotion) encourages engagement in situations that foster a greater sense of worth and belonging, which in turn ramps up serotonin levels. Since 'the neurons that fire together, wire together,' one could say that solidifying neural happiness pathways is achievable through practice.
Abraham Lincoln's observation that 'most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be' is echoed in the work of esteemed scientists and professionals, who encourage happiness improvement through strategies such as perspective shifts, re-learning habits, awareness of misconceptions surrounding how to acquire it, and reprogramming certain beliefs. Researchers, professors, even this Holocaust survivor all agree: happiness is a choice.