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Is Happiness a Choice?
I was texting with one of my oldest friends recently after she got back from a trip to Italy and at one point in the conversation, she asked whether I was happy. “I’m grateful, but I don’t think I’m happy,” I responded. “And maybe that’s just the way I’m wired. I’m not generally unhappy either, although there are moments of each. It’s just not consistent.” There were a few moments of onscreen silence and she came back with, “Maybe don’t ask yourself if you’re happy (and neither will I—sorry!) and just be. Did you ever read Siddhartha?”
Honestly, that question came so far out of left field that in the moment I didn’t have a response. I remember reading it in high school—probably as an assignment—but that was decades ago and any details beyond the basic plot have long been forgotten. From what I remember—and quickly verified from the back of the book—Siddhartha decides to leave his family and wander the countryside as a beggar in search of enlightenment. Surely that can’t be what she’s suggesting I do? Regardless, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been chewing on the “…and just be.” part of the text. And just be? As in “and just be happy”? If it was the former, is happiness really a choice? Growing up, my mom used to say, “we’re all at choice.” But if that’s true, if happiness is simply a choice, why doesn’t everyone just choose to be happy? Or was my friend’s intention more abstract—maybe something more akin to an idea expressed by Lao Tzu, who wrote: “Search your heart and see that the way to do is to be”?
Before we dive into what it takes to be happy, I think we need to consider what happiness is. A search for “happiness” on BrainyQuote yields more than 20 pages of quotes from Buddha to Seneca. Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment: Joy.” Wikipedia is almost the same, calling happiness “a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” According to Psychology Today, happiness is “a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life, one with a sense of meaning and deep contentment.” That’s an interesting one because while it mentions contentment, it also suggests that happiness is tied to something external: “living a good life”—the definition of which I think would vary wildly depending on who you ask. Regardless, living a good life requires input or action on our part, rather than simply a conscious choice. So, is happiness a result of our actions, as in “do good, feel good?”
According to psychology professor David T. Lykken, each of us has a “happiness set point” and we tend to move away from it only slightly, which really resonates with me. My friend Doug and I have had a running joke for years that on a scale from one to ten, each of us lives our lives between four and six—and for us, six is actually a good thing! Because that scale is both personal and relative—a six for me might be an eight for one person and a three for someone else—I’d actually love to see research connecting Enneagram scores with perceived happiness. It seems that many psychologists who study happiness think of it not a destination, but rather as the result or byproduct of our behaviors, activities, and beliefs. Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
I know this is a huge topic and I have no illusions about being able to define what happiness is or isn’t, much less how to achieve it. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about for years and will continue to research through books and websites and just wrestling through it with a few close friends. I’ll also keep tracking and refining what works to help get me out of the emotional and existential rabbit holes that, while much less frequent than they used to be, still happen and can still derail me if left unchecked. What I do know at the moment is that there are a few things I can do that pretty consistently put me in a better state and closer to what happiness looks like for me.
The first of which is by making and getting my hands in motion. My mom used to say that I could draw before I could talk. While that may be an exaggeration, as far back as I can remember, I was happiest when I was drawing, painting, and later on, printing photographs in my darkroom. When I go downstairs into my studio, put on my apron, close the door, and turn on some music, time stops. There is only that place and the work I make in it. That’s my happy place.
A close second to my studio is the forest behind our house, which became an absolute necessity during lockdown. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons we bought our house. The trailhead to the park is literally a three-minute walk from our front door and though it’s only a mile from a metro station, a shopping mall, and multiple local restaurants, it feels like a different world. The forest is teeming with life and filled with the smells and sounds of someplace far more remote. When I’m stuck on a project or just feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed, a twenty-minute walk in the forest is like an existential shock to the system and the perfect way for me to reset. I could go on and on about how happy it makes me, but suffice to say that watching the light and the landscape change throughout the seasons has become one of the great joys of my daily life.
I also get a massive amount of joy and existential fuel, despite being an introvert, from talking to people—all kinds of people. I love hearing stories and re-sharing them with others, which I why I love podcasting so much. The art of conversation has largely been lost in our tap-to-like, swipe-to-the-next-piece-of-content lifestyle and taking time to just be present and interested and listen is the antidote for life moving so fast—at least it is for me.
Maybe it’s not about consciously trying to be happy—although that may work for some people—as much as it is trying to minimize the situations or behaviors that make us unhappy (or stressed, anxious, or lost). I think the biggest challenge for me is recognizing when I start to get out of balance or start to spiral and being present enough to catch myself before I get too far down the rabbit hole.
What do you think about happiness?
When you feel yourself slipping, is there a happy place or activity that helps you reset or pull out of it?
On a friend's recommendation, I’ve recently picked up a copy of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Just reading through some of the comments and reviews, it looks like it will be a very inspiring read.
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