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Is Happiness a Choice?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Christopher Furlong
*Updated 2020
Traveling, falling in love, watching SNL, getting a dog — all of these pursuits stem from humans’ basic desire to be happy. But do we truly understand where our own happiness comes from? Which circumstances, if any, dictate our ability to consistently feel joy? These questions are particularly relevant in today’s unprecedented times, as people worldwide are striving to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.
Below, we’ll explore three arguments supporting the idea that happiness is a choice, and three arguments against it.


Happiness Is a Choice


We survive the worst through choosing to find meaning

Throughout history, disaster has struck humankind with varying degrees of force. While it’s too soon to tell the health and economic implications of the current coronavirus pandemic, we can take comfort in looking at past outcomes to tragedies: The outcomes have always been the same: We are adaptable, and we can survive against all odds. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankl quotes Nietzsche’s perspective on resilience: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any how.” Frankl argues that our ability to choose to find meaning within suffering is what keeps us alive. This can be achieved through finding loved ones, a sense of humor, and even nature; as long as we choose to find purpose and positivity, we can make it through any pain, even in today’s times of prolonged self-quarantine and social distancing.


A push-up a day keeps depression away

Happiness stems from chemicals in our bodies, which we choose to increase by proactively exercising, eating chocolate, and achieving small goals. Exercise causes us to release endorphins, a chemical responsible for alleviating depression and pain; those who spend free time doing physical activity experience higher pleasant-activated feelings than those who don’t. Meanwhile, eating chocolate means eating literal happiness, as chocolate stimulates serotonin in the brain, which then produces feelings of joy. Also, when we set short-term, achievable goals, we choose a one-way ticket down happiness lane by releasing dopamine, a feel-good chemical that motivates us to succeed. In our day-to-day lives, we can consistently choose to act in ways that nudge our brains to make us feel happy.


Gratitude attitude

Many find Thanksgiving to be one of the happiest U.S. holidays of the year, and it turns out there’s a science to that: Happiness is all about the gratitude attitude. According to psychologists Alex Wood, Jeffrey Froh, and Adam Geraghty, habitually focusing on the positive aspects of life is strongly related to all aspects of well-being. We can proactively practice behaviors that make us happier. This includes doing things to increase gratitude, such as keeping a list of things you’re grateful for (a “gratitude journal”) or writing a letter to someone who has changed your life for the better and delivering it in person. These actions increase feelings of happiness and optimism among people compared to those who don’t do them. So, the next time you’re drooling over a Thanksgiving turkey, remember to be grateful for it!


Happiness Isn’t a Choice


Our brains search for problems

Part of the collection of survival skills we’ve amassed over the millennia includes defending against environmental threats. We are constantly, subconsciously scanning for problems in our immediate surroundings to recognize potential threats and avoid danger, and we release cortisol when we find these threats. Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that our bodies automatically produce when we’re faced with warning signs that our needs are in danger of not being met. Because of this, we can and do consistently feel pain and discomfort by simply going outside and interacting with the world. This is especially the case in our era of 24-hour news cycles that constantly show and tell us of school shootingsnatural disasters, global pandemics, and ongoing political discord.


Money buys security

While the phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness” slides easily off the tongue, it forgets to include “but it does buy time.” Using money to acquire services that allow people to have more free time, a recent study suggests, increases life satisfaction and promotes emotional well-being. While that’s quite convenient for those able to afford au-pairs, cooks and personal secretaries, the average person doesn’t rake in enough money to have the choice of affording such services. As a result, people with less money may feel stressed, pressed for time, and less satisfied overall.


Not all people are happy

If happiness were truly a choice, wouldn’t it be the obvious one? Yet, there are external factors at play which affect happiness levels and are out of our control. For example, an OECD-administered survey asked countries to rate their overall life satisfaction on a 0-10 scale. It found that countries with relative wealth and security had an average score of 5.5 or less. As life satisfaction is the average degree to which people are content with their lives, it seems as though there are whole countries that are lacking the ability to select “happy” on their list of consistent moods. Happiness, or depression for that matter, is often not a choice; this is exemplified strongly in people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which causes winter blues that don’t budge until the spring comes around. No one enjoys suffering, but unhappiness may just be an inevitable part of the human condition.


The Bottom Line: There are methods through which humans can choose to be happy, yet our physical and material limits may automatically cause us to have a negative disposition. Are you able to choose happiness, or is your temperament naturally decided for you?

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