Happiness is not a choice


Coffee art

The saying that “happiness is a choice” is extremely common. There’s a book by that title, as well as a gazillion articles. They all say that you can choose to be happy.

It’s not true. Happiness is not a choice.

Or at least it’s not strictly true that happiness is a choice. There’s a grain of truth here; we can influence our happiness. But happiness is a feeling, and we can’t directly choose our feelings.

What is true is that happiness is the result of our choices.

We can choose actions that will bring long-term happiness. We can choose what we say. We can choose our attitudes. We can choose to have thoughts that increase our happiness.

You might be thinking, “So, tell me what these choices are, so I can go and make them and then be happy!” as if they were major life decisions, like choosing the right home or the right job. But it’s more fine-grained than that. It’s a case of looking at what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and making choices about the nature of each of those actions. It’s a question of making moment-by-moment choices, not big, once-in-a-lifetime choices (although those can be important too).

We need to be aware of what we’re doing physically, and how that makes us feel. So, for example, when I’m chopping vegetables I often find that I’m clenching my jaw for some reason. When I’m working on the computer I often find that my breathing is a little tight. These things contribute to a general sense of emotional tension that inhibits my happiness. As soon as I relax my jaw or let my breathing go back to a normal pattern, my being moves more in the direction of happiness. Relaxing promotes happiness.

I’ve often recommended that people watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our posture influences how we feel. Stand or sit in an open and expansive way, and you’ll feel more confident. Confidence leads to happiness. Stand or sit in a hunched, defensive, closed way, and you’ll feel more fearful and unhappy. This is a great illustration of my point. We choose our actions, and those actions change our level of happiness. We don’t just simply “choose to be happy.” If you try to choose happiness without changing the conditions that are undermining your happiness, nothing much is going to change. You’ll probably just get depressed.

We’re always going to have thoughts arising that contribute to our unhappiness. When you make a mistake it’s natural to think, “Man, that was stupid!” You can make a choice not to buy into and believe such thoughts, however. When we buy into our thoughts we magnify them. We take “Man, that was stupid!” and elaborate and expand it into a story about how useless we are and how we’re never going to be good at anything. And that proliferation of thought makes us unhappy. Simply letting the thought “Man, that was stupid!” pass through the mind without engaging with it makes us happier. Encouraging a more realistic, honest, and skillful thought, like “It’s OK. We all make mistakes,” helps us to be more at ease with ourselves, and thus to be happier. We’re not choosing happiness. We’re choosing how we think, and that can lead to us being happier.

We can choose to pay attention to our feelings, and that will make us happier. When my attention is caught up in my thoughts, I sometimes lose touch with my feelings, and my experience becomes kind of cold and hard. But when I pay attention to my heart (an area of the body innervated by the emotionally important vagus nerve) I’m more emotionally open and sensitive. I feel more connected with myself and with others. That’s enriching, like a black and white movie suddenly turning into color.

We can choose how we speak. Connecting honestly and kindly with others builds up bonds that lead to happiness arising in the short term (saying kind things to others makes both them and us happy in that moment) and in the long term (having positive connections with others gives us support when times get hard, and make the good times better). Again, we’re choosing actions, not happiness. But those actions lead to happiness.

Happiness arises from a million momentary choices. This is why we need to cultivate mindfulness. Without the ability to monitor our actions moment by moment, the mind will habitually and automatically default to decisions that make us unhappy.

Feelings like happiness are, according to Buddhist teachings, not actions. They’re not things we do. They’re the results of actions. They’re the consequences of our actions. You can’t choose happiness. But if you want to be happier, you can make choices that allow happiness to happen.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Would you distinguish between feelings (vedana) and emotions (mental formation / sankhara) like the Buddha did? And if yes, is what you call “happiness” a feeling, an emotion or something else?

    • Hi, Robert.

      Sorry for the very late reply! I tend not to use the word “emotion” because it doesn’t correspond to anything in Pali or Sanskrit. It’s too broad a term to be useful, and it’s confusing to try to repurpose it. And I prefer to pair vedana and cetana (intention) rather than vedana and sankhara.

      Vedana is internally generated sensation intended to heighten awareness of something as a threat or benefit. So when you’re standing by a sheer drop you’ll experience strong sensation in the body, which you’ll likely interpret as anxiety. Most people would call anxiety an emotion, but I think it’s a vedana.*

      If you’re thinking of an upcoming interview, you may experience anxiety (again it’s perceived as a threat). But your mind also worries — a quite different thing from anxiety. When we worry we have the intention to fix or escape the potential threat. So I see worry as a cetana, or intention.

      While a vedana identifies something as a benefit or threat, a cetana tells you what to do about it.

      The English word emotion includes both how we viscerally feel about things and how we cognitively want to respond to them, so I think it’s a pretty useless category.

      So, metta is a cetana or intention because it has the desire to make beings happy. It’s an attitude of cherishing.

      Happiness is a feeling (vedana) because it’s simply a signal that your present circumstances are perceived as beneficial rather than threatening.

      Cetanas of course engender feelings. So a desire to help beings may well feel pleasant, because connecting compassionately with others is perceived as a benefit to us. But the intention itself is not a feeling. It’s a desire.

      Does this help?

      * You may well have cetana/intention telling you to back away from the sheer drop, but that’s a step beyond the raw feeling.


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