Is Happiness a Choice?

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

Moral Positivity 

I often hear from the people with whom I consult in therapy that they're told by their loved ones that they must choose to be happy. The lesson that one walks away with is that his or her experiences of sadness, fear, anger, or shame (disgust) are of his or her own design rather than a response to what is happening around them. The idea that one chooses his or her emotions is problematic because if one 'isn't happy all the time' he or she fails in some way. We then feel helpless when we cannot maintain a joyful emotional state. We end-up feeling broken and or defective. 

Disney's Inside Out (2015) is a perfect illustration of what happens when we reject sadness. In absence of sadness, the main protagonist was unable to respond effectively to the changing circumstances of her life, because her remaining emotions could not respond to the moments where sadness made the most sense. When Sadness attempts to make things better by running away, because she believes she is a burden, the protagonist's psychological landscape becomes endangered.

Dr. Susan Davis of Harvard University argues as a society we have constructed the idea of that there are negative or positive emotions. She suggests that we are in a time of moral positivity, which means that if we are unable to maintain a joyful attitude that we are somehow maladaptive. Dr. Davis goes on to argue that whether an emotion is positive or negative depends on the context in which occurs. The self-help and positive psychology movement has asserted that with a growth mindset, a fierce sense of self-efficacy, and effective self-regulation (e.g. habits of highly effective people) that we can respond to adversity and stress with optimism and equanimity. I believe that these assertions are noxious to the psyche and spirit because we disown, reject, and or suppress a whole range of emotional states. 

Emotions Are Necessary 

Dr. Brene Brown asserts that we cannot selectively numb. When we numb negative emotions, we reduce our capacity to experience positive emotions - like love and joy. Mounting research on emotions has shown that each emotion has an evolutionary purpose as they each have an associated action tendency that motivates adaptive behavioral responses. For example, when we are sad we need connection and soothing. However, when we are sad most of us retreat inward for fear of expressing vulnerability or weakness. The consequence of acting in opposition to our emotional action tendencies is that our emotional needs go unmet. 

Therefore, the emotion lingers thus causing distress. Given that we are neurobiologically wired for connection as social animals, our emotions are our internal compass that enables us to respond to our base relational and physiological needs. Emotions become problematic only when we fall outside our window of tolerance and or our emotions do not fit the context. Think of a time when you've made a significant decision in your life, such as changing a job; what motivated this decision? Likely, displeasure motivated by an insight that you'd be happier engaged in a different kind of work more aligned with your passion. 


The emerging research on self-compassion has illustrated that when we turn toward our suffering with curiosity, kindness, and warmth it downregulates the amygdala and supports emotional learning and integration. Turning away from our suffering keeps us stuck in emotional distress and undermines our ability to cultivate things like a growth mindset. Therefore it is important to remember that the next time we feel the pull to rescue someone from a negative emotional state or ask them to just be 'happy' we are undermining their capacity to grow not supporting it.

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