What would you say if I told you happiness is a choice? Most people find this hard to believe.
We’ve been conditioned to think happiness is something we attain by accruing external things: professional accolades, job titles, houses, cars. Most of us carry around a mental checklist of what we need to have or achieve before we can be happy.
Have you ever noticed that the list never seems to shrink? You land a great job, but now you want to become a partner in the firm. You marry the love of your life, but now you need to think about having kids. You purchase your dream home, but now you need a fancy car to put in the garage. The list never stops growing.
Fortunately, happiness is an attitude, and we can choose whether to embody it. Research has repeatedly proven that happiness isn’t about attainment. It stems from within. There are a great many things we care about: love, money, achievements. But when we ask ourselves why we care about them, it’s because we believe they will bring us happiness. Paradoxically, it’s only when we choose happiness that we can truly appreciate these things as they come into our lives.
A Dedicated Practice
When you’ve spent a lifetime chasing happiness instead of experiencing it in each moment, the idea that you can choose happiness might seem counterintuitive. And the mental shift won’t happen instantly. Even if you accept that happiness is a choice, you’ll have to keep making that choice again and again until you’ve rewired deeply rooted habits.
Each time you find yourself caught in anxious thoughts about the promotion you want or the house you want to buy, you’ll need to guide yourself back to the present and say, “I will be happy in this moment.”
Cultivating this practice won’t just make your day-to-day experiences more enjoyable. Choosing happiness will also see you through the darkest and most trying moments of your life.
I should know.
Both of my parents passed away within months of each other. When they died, I was in the U.S., a world away from where they were suffering in India. Losing one parent is devastating; losing two in such a short period is world-shattering. People told me, “They’re in a better place now; be grateful for that.” But the grief weighed so heavily, I struggled to get out of bed, let alone find gratitude in my parents’ deaths.
However, I knew I couldn’t go on like that forever. I was a wife and mother. I had a job. People depended on me, and I didn’t want my life to stop just because my parents were no longer alive. If there was one thing they wanted of their children, it was that we work hard and be fulfilled in our families. Giving up would mean I had let them and myself down. I would not do that.
So even amid the crushing grief, I vowed to find one small thing that made me happy each day: the feel of the warm sun on my face, the sound of birdsong threading through a busy urban environment, the cup of hot coffee my husband delivered to me in bed. These may not seem like much, but as I struggled beneath the weight of my sadness, they were everything.
Over time, I found myself getting out of bed more easily, and I even started laughing again. Grief changes you, but it doesn’t rob you of your life if you refuse to let it. The greatest honor I could do my parents was living the rest of my life wholeheartedly. And that habit of finding something I could be happy about helped me do it. I wasn’t struggling to get through the day, but I was more in tune with the joys of my life.
The practice of seeking out happiness-inducing experiences helped me see that I could transform my perspective, no matter the circumstances.
In recent years, I’ve committed myself to a mindfulness habit that also helps me choose happiness. Mindfulness taught me to accept that some things are out of my control. Choosing happiness taught me that I can be OK, even joyful, under those circumstances.
That’s a powerful mentality to have — not just in your personal life but at work, too. How often do you find yourself frustrated when a manager fails to provide timely feedback or a colleague blows a deadline? Those situations are all the more frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it. You can insist that they deliver, you can file complaints, and you can even make snide comments. But you don’t really have the power to change their behavior.
These frustrations manifest in other ways as well. Before developing a mindful, happiness-focused attitude, I often became agitated during meetings. I would come in with a vision for how something should be done, and I’d become annoyed when I felt my proposal was sidelined for a lesser idea. Oftentimes, my ego was tied up in my ideas being selected. But sometimes, I was right, yet my boss would go in another direction. I’d be disappointed and anxious, even though there was nothing I could do to change his mind.
So why not choose to be happy in those situations instead? Why not shift your attention toward what you can control? Call up a favorite client to check in on how he’s doing. Take a new co-worker out for coffee and savor the experience of getting to know her.
There’s always a way to find happiness if you’re willing to choose it.
This approach will empower you to focus on what you can do instead of what other people are failing to do.
Now, when I’m in meetings that aren’t going the way I expected, I breathe deeply and relax. I know that I’ll bring my best efforts to the project no matter whose idea is selected. And I look for the positives. Maybe I get to partner with a colleague whose work I admire, so I have an opportunity to learn from her. Or I get to oversee a new hire who shows real promise, and I’m looking forward to mentoring him.
If a conflict arises, I welcome it — not because I’m looking for a fight but because it’s an opportunity to get to know my colleagues better and get on the same page about how to reach our shared goals.
Thinking this way has transformed my work experience. When you reframe negative situations through the lens of happiness, you find countless ways to appreciate your job and your teammates. Being in that mindset makes you more influential and effective and helps you stay in the present experience instead of worrying about what comes next.
How to Choose Happiness
As I said, choosing happiness isn’t a one-time decision. After years of anxiously looking to the future, you need to rewrite your mental patterns to default to happiness. You achieve that by repeating happiness-promoting behaviors each day, including the following:
1. Acknowledge the past, but don’t dwell on it.
Our past can teach us about what makes us happy, the types of people we enjoy, and the types of work that make us feel alive. But it can also drag us down into a stew of resentment and regret. When you find yourself lost in thoughts of the past, remember that memories are really just our imagination. Every time we recall an event, we remember it slightly differently from the last time we thought of it, so we can’t always rely on our recollections.
Therefore, we need to stay grounded in our present experiences. Our memories exist to help us make wise decisions today, not to stay lost in yesteryear. We need to learn from the past but not allow it to detract from the current moment, which is the only one that’s guaranteed.
2. Notice simple gifts and small victories.
Our lives happen a moment at a time. We miss out on so much when we ignore these moments because we’re so eagerly anticipating the future. Take time each day to appreciate everything you have going for you.
Did your child make you laugh? Your partner make you feel loved with a certain gesture? Did a boss’s praise validate your hard work? Or your favorite flowers begin to bloom in your garden? These are all causes for happiness, and we should celebrate them as such.
3. Practice gratitude and forgiveness.
You cannot be happy if you don’t actively experience gratitude and extend forgiveness. Remember, the past is a story. Holding on to grudges and hurtful memories will never make you happy. Find a reason for gratitude even when you’re frustrated, and release the negative feelings you have toward those around you. There are lessons even in pain, and when we take the lessons but leave the hurt, we allow ourselves to experience happiness.
The choice to be happy is the most important step you will take toward spiritual and emotional freedom. When your joy is no longer tethered to external achievements or the promise of future rewards, you can live in the present and experience your life for the gift that it truly is.