Recently a friend posted on Facebook that she had had a revelation about happiness. It was something along the lines of “happiness is a choice”. This thought, in the right place at the right time, seemed to have greatly helped her.
I know that that idea can be unhelpful for some and even infuriating for others. But I think I got what my friend was saying. By way of having a discussion, I went on to explain my own ideas on the topic, which she agreed with.
Interestingly, today I found myself quite a bit happier than usual, as I made a bit of an effort to follow my own advice.
It’s not hypocritical to give advice which I can still grow to follow more deeply: there are many times when we need to be reminded of things we already know. By explaining my ideas to others, I clarified them in my own head, and reminded myself of them.
Here is what I think about the concept of “choosing to be happy”:
I think you can’t exactly choose to be happy just like that. But what you can choose, is where you direct your attention. If you focus on negative things, negative things will seem larger. If you react negatively to negative things, negativity grows in both you and the thing (or person) you are reacting to.
I don’t believe you should never focus on negative things. And I don’t believe you can love negative things. But I think you CAN choose to put the least amount of energy into them as possible. Ask them their reason to be in your life, and focus on them just long enough to deal with them however they need to be dealt with.
Responding to negative things negatively (with anger, resentment, resistence) holds them in your life. Your energy goes out to them, and feeds THEIR negativity. Their negativity grows and becomes focused on you.
Moreover, you can lose so much energy with negativity. If only you spent that energy and attention on focusing on nice things, then you could have a very different emotional state.
Today I decided to focus on things I love in life. I looked up at a plane and thought how incredible it is that humans can fly. I savoured my homemade bread and felt wonder at the wholesome stuff which exists on Earth that can nourish us.
What perhaps standard self-help ideas don’t tell you is HOW to focus on the positive. It’s not just saying in your head, out of duty, “oh, there is a positive thing”. It’s having some kind of positive emotional response to it, such as wonder, joy, enjoyment, or appreciation. It’s kind of like being a child again (well, supposing you were a rather positive child).
If you frequently have thoughts which bring up these positive emotions, then of course you’re going to be happy! On the other hand, if you have thoughts that bring up negative emotions, there won’t be space for you to have positive emotions. Either sort of thought and feeling takes up a lot of energy and attention. There isn’t room for both.
Now, I don’t want to tell you to ignore the negative. I’ve seen aspiring positive thinkers who refuse to see injustices in the world. They might even shame each other for talking about negative things or for pointing out a problem. They want to see everything as beautiful even when humans are torturing and enslaving each other all around. Everything is not beautiful; but even as humans do horrible things to each other, you can admire the beauty of a flower or a sunset… or even the wonderous imperfection of the ever-striving human spirit.
You do need to focus on the negative in order to navigate the world. I personally believe that seeing injustice is important, as it lets us do something about it. But don’t stay there. Focus on it just enough, no more. Don’t hold onto it.
Even when responding to injustice, you don’t have to be negative. You can find something positive, constructive and meaningful to do which will honour you as a compassionate person in an unjust world. But you don’t need to struggle and hurt as you do that work. It’s much better to focus on the joy of it.
I’d like to just make an example from my life.
As a trans person, I come face to face with incredible amounts of injustice and discrimination, practically on a daily basis. Even many of my friends, or people who I previously considered friends, are not always above making occasional statements about trans issues which I consider absolutely not okay.
During a period of a few weeks, this caused me a low-level, brooding depression. That later lifted as I made a conscious effort not to focus on the negative.
Nowadays, I find I kind of expect a certain amount of discrimination from people. It doesn’t usually hurt me anymore like it used to. I don’t resist its existence; I just let it be.
After all, I don’t like authoritarian governments, or capitalism, or pesticides, or the practice of eating meat. But I have learnt that all of these things are a part of life here on Earth, and once I finished processing the fact that they existed, I didn’t need to hold onto that dislike.
In the same way, I don’t need to stress myself out over people discriminating against me. It’s yet another way that I find Earth less than ideal, but I can deal with it.
And pesticides and capitalism and trans discrimination all become kind of the background to my life, not pleasant but still something I can mostly ignore unless I need to focus on them. Instead, I can focus on doing constructive things, and use my attention to enjoy the many wondrous, beautiful, and enjoyable things here on Earth.
I’m not perfect at this. Things have been hard. I wish I were a bit more light-hearted. But I think I get the general principle, at least, which I’m now communicating to you.
I don’t think it’s a “choice” to focus on positive things, in that you can instantly start consistently focusing only on them whenever you decide to. But I think you can learn the skill or habit of focusing your attention in more positive directions.
I should mention, too, that we do need to process negative emotions. Being sad isn’t a failure. I think it’s a great success, when compared to so-called “positive” people who just bottle everything up and then think themselves superior to people who are openly sad.
I think the difference here is between processing a negative emotion, and feeding it. One causes it to gently disappear. The other, causes it to grow, and remain, and become distorted from whatever original positive purpose it had. The difference is in whether or not you hold onto an emotion, trying to find your sense of self in it.
I believe that a large part of what skill I have in choosing my focus comes from my work with meditation. I highly recommend Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, for anyone who wants to get an introduction to that practice, and the philosophy that goes with it.
Ever since I read that book, I’ve tried to use the energy of “Presence” in my life, as it described. And I think, among other things, that gave me a great deal of control over my emotional state.
So, perhaps it all sounds easy, but perhaps it isn’t – not necessarily. But I think we can make some real progress here, if we choose to. And I think that’s a worthwhile pursuit, so I do recommend you to give it a go.