There might be affiliate links on this page, which means we get a small commission of anything you buy. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Please do your own research before making any online purchase.
Is it a simple yes or a quick no? Would you pause, uncertain how to answer? Do you even know if you are happy or not? Or, do you need to follow up with a question (or a few like I would): “Do you mean, am I happy now, at this moment?” or “Do you mean in general?”
You’ve probably heard that happiness is a choice. But is it really? Is feeling happy that easy?
You simply choose to be happy, right? And like a magic wand you wave over yourself, you are happy. All the sadness, anger, grief, and other non-happy emotions simply disappear as if they never existed in the first place because you are now happy.
Life doesn’t quite work like that. While you can choose to be happy in some instances, you can’t always be happy in every instance.
But let’s dive into the research to see if happiness is a decision you can make. I’ve also got the best strategies to improve your overall long-term happy feelings.
Is Happiness a Choice?
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
Initially, it sounds wonderful to hear that happiness is a choice. Like Abraham Lincoln says, you are as happy as you think you are (and want to be).
Like a switch you flip on and off, you can decide to be happy or you can decide to be unhappy. And who wants to be unhappy, right? So if happiness is a choice, you’ll keep that switch on, from now until eternity (or your last moment).
When you dive deeper into the “happiness is a choice” statement, you have to wonder how exactly it becomes a choice. In her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor, states that you have a happiness set point.
This point is determined by your genetics (50%), while 40% of your capacity for happiness is in your power. The remaining 10% depends on your life circumstances.
So while you have some power to choose happiness and how happy you are, research also indicates that when you are positive (and happy) to the point of being toxic about it – and dismiss how you really feel because you have to be positive, good, and happy – you experience negative mental health and physical effects.
When you have a crappy moment, and you try to always reframe that in a positive light, you are denying what you are feeling.
Sometimes you just have to be angry, sad, or disappointed, and telling yourself that you have to “snap out of it” isn’t being loving, compassionate, or kind to yourself. Your self-chastisement comes from a place of shame.
So when you believe that you should always think happy thoughts and choose happiness, you buy into the idea that you can always control how you feel.
An emotion is meant to be experienced, so when you are truly happy (because you got the job), you experience joy while if you are sad (because your dog died), you experience sadness.
However, you can control what you think but how you feel is dependent on various other factors like your mental state and circumstances (which are often out of your control).
5 Reasons Why Happiness Isn’t a Choice – Most of the Time
Here’s why I don’t believe that happiness is a choice (most of the time):
1. Your Mental Health Influences How You Feel
If you could choose to be happy, you’d do it in a heartbeat and that would be your permanent mental state. But no one is ever 100% happy 100% of the time. Why?
For one, your mental health has a significant influence over how you feel. Your mental health works on a continuum, and at any given moment, you are somewhere on that line, whether it’s ecstatic with joy in this instance and down in the dumps the next.
Of course, it’s not always this extreme, and if it is, please speak to a mental health professional.
If you are dealing with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, a simple “pick me up” like choosing joy will feel like an impossible mountain to climb. And at the end of the day, you are setting yourself up for failure trying to find this elusive happiness cloud.
Trying to choose happiness is unrealistic and unhelpful, and honestly, it can make anyone who is unhappy feel even worse.
When you can’t be happy (even though you desperately want to feel happy), you can feel like it’s a personal failure and that there’s something wrong with you because happiness isn’t something you can succeed at.
It’s far healthier to validate your feelings and experience all your emotions as you are feeling them.
2. Happiness Isn’t the Only Emotion We Experience
Choosing happiness is such an oversimplification because we experience so many emotions.
We experience eight basic, universal emotions: sadness, anger, surprise, anticipation, disgust, joy, fear, and contempt. However, depending on the source, there are anywhere from 27 distinct emotions to 34,000 emotions.
Plus, while we often use the terms “emotions” and “feelings” interchangeably, in the world of psychology, these are not the same. Feelings are what we experience at a conscious level while emotions belong in our subconscious.
As such, while you can identify what you feel, you may never be able to pinpoint exactly what your emotion is.
And at the end of the day, you can only lead a fulfilling and meaningful life when you understand and experience a range of emotions (and feelings).
3. Happiness Is Unique and a Complicated Emotion
What does happiness mean to you? If you ask your best friend, child, family member, colleague, or significant other what happiness is, do they have the same view of the emotion as you do?
Just like we see colors and the world uniquely, so too do we define and experience emotions differently.
It’s no surprise that the 2023 World Happiness Ranking has found Finland to be the happiest country – for the 6th consecutive year – while countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe rank at the bottom.
So while some elements of being happy are in your control, others aren’t. And since happiness is a unique and complicated emotion that’s the result of a mix of elements (and emotions), how do you choose happiness when it isn’t universally the same?
4. Happiness Must Be Experienced
You can’t choose to be happy and then simply be happy. It is an emotion you have to experience. For example, you can learn or choose to be positive, and when you practice including more positivity in your life, you get better at it.
With happiness, you can’t really learn to be happier (but what does that mean exactly?) and you can’t force yourself to be happy when you aren’t. While you can fake happiness, that isn’t true joy.
Furthermore, emotions are fleeting – they come and go. You can feel a burst of happiness when you get a new job, pass your exam, or move to the next level of your game, but this happy emotion fades until you hit the next happiness high.
5. Falling into the Happiness Trap
Does it benefit you to believe that happiness is a choice? Dr. Russ Harris doesn’t believe it does, and focusing on always being happy only leads you into what he coins the happiness trap.
Harris states that being perpetually happy is not realistic or desirable, and like I already said, we all experience a range of emotions (of which happiness is merely one).
His book, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT, explains how pursuing happiness merely makes you miserable, more anxious, and depressed.
Following the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) based steps Harris outlines in the book, you can rather mindfully accept what you experience and then choose actions that align with your values.
Instead of chasing happiness (and not finding that pot of gold at the end of the imaginary rainbow), you can live a rich and meaningful (and real) life (and call that happiness).
5 Simple Strategies to Improve Your Long-Term Happiness
While pursuing happiness isn’t a great idea (as it sets you up for failure), you can work on experiencing more happiness in life.
Whether you live a comfortable life with many opportunities for happiness or you have days laden with challenges, you can choose to feel happiness when it crosses your path.
Like watching a butterfly flitter across your path with absolute pleasure, you can also stop and savor happiness when it wings past.
Here are the best strategies to identify and enjoy happiness daily (and it’ll improve how happy you are in the long term too).
Strategy #1: Practice Gratitude & Count Your Blessings
If you look for something, you will find it. So if you focus on bad things in life, you will see more bad things. You can train your brain to focus on better things, which will make you more aware of great things around you.
All that remains is to practice gratitude (which is about enjoying the happiness you’ve found or made) and count your blessings. Being more aware of great things and seeing the possibility for joy in life is what will attract more benefits to you.
Awareness can be practiced with intentional gratitude and journaling to count your blessings.
How to be grateful?
- Journal daily to record happy moments
- Use neuro linguistic programming (NLP) to remind you when you see or experience joy and happiness (tell yourself you are happy right now)
- Keep a gratitude jar
- Volunteer as an expression of gratitude
Strategy #2: Smile
Smiling brings a release of feel-good hormones, which help shift your mindset from “down and out” to “ready and happy to face the world.” As the quote by Thích Nhất Hạnh states: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
Make smiling part of your day and feel the way your curved lips can lift your soul. Even better, find things to smile at least every 15 minutes.
How to smile more?
- Start each morning with a smile
- Focus on making others smile and you will too
- Choose a quote daily (or a meme) to make you smile
Strategy #3: Find Your Ikigai
When you live your best life, you live with passion. This passion is what gives you purpose, meaning, and ultimately, happiness. Look for your passion or ikigai, which is Japanese for the meaning of life.
It’s not something grand and huge. Instead, it’s the reason to get out of bed in the morning, to smile, and to be happy.
Your ikigai can be anything, from helping kids in the neighborhood safely cross the big intersection and doing crafts with your community elders to brighten their day to a freshly brewed cup of tea (enjoyed on your balcony or window seat).
How to find your ikigai?
- Take time to write down what you love doing and identify a common theme. This is your ikigai
Strategy #4: Love and Care for Yourself
When last did you give yourself some TLC? Happiness is often found in a bath filled with sweet-scented bubbles or a quiet morning in the car with your favorite music.
It’s not about doing a big thing like going away on a month-long cruise. Instead, good old-fashioned self-care is about taking better care of yourself, meeting your needs, and nurturing the garden that your joy flowers in.
How to self-care and self-love?
- Set aside time at least once a week to do some introspection and self-care
- Follow some of our handy self-care templates and don’t forget to keep to a self-care checklist to ensure you are really nurturing yourself
Strategy #5: Adopt a Growth Mindset
If you only focus on what you lack, you will feel like you’re on the short end of life’s stick and always need to guard what little you have, while squabbling for what you can grab. This is not a healthy mindset and it leads to negativity.
Instead, cultivate a growth or abundance mindset. Start seeing all you have (yip, the first strategy of gratitude), and gently remind yourself that there’s nothing you need. (Nope, you don’t need that winning lottery ticket.)
When you focus on what you have and how you can use it, you will ignite your ikigai and live with greater self-awareness and thrive. There’s nothing you can’t achieve if you believe in it.
How to adopt an abundance mindset?
- Use affirmations to counter negative thoughts that can hold back your growth
Final Thoughts about “Is Happiness a Choice?”
Unhappiness can’t be the departure point of your journey to happiness. It’s like chasing a butterfly – you may eventually catch it, but it will only die.
Instead, focus on this moment, the beauty around you, the will in you, and the passion you can explore, and before you know it, the butterfly will be attracted to land on you.
Remember, you can choose actions like being grateful, focusing on your ikigai, and loving yourself, but you can’t choose how you feel. Experience your emotions (whether that’s happiness or sadness), let it be, and let it go.
Happiness can result from daily decisions. Choosing to experience joy and happiness isn’t about forcing it on yourself but rather to develop a mindset where you experience these feelings as they happen.
Decide each day you will focus on seeing happiness and joy-worthy moments. Learn more about why happiness is important so you can find your motivation to live each day aware of the blessings in your life.
And if you want more articles about happiness, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- Do Pets Bring Happiness? A Simple Answer
- 43 Best Songs About Happiness and Good Times
- What Is Hygge Living (And Is It the Key to True Happiness)?