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Choosing to Reach for Happiness

I don’t remember the stated topic for the church lesson, but a tangent landed us in a discussion about the power of conscious choice in changing our lives for the better. I love hearing discussions like this. I like it when people are empowered in their lives. However the phrase “choose happiness” kept getting tossed around as part of the discussion. All the rest of the discussion was wonderful, but that phrase bothered me. As a person who wrestles with anxiety and who lives around people who get depressed, I know that emotions are not under logical control. They show up unbidden and making them leave can be extremely difficult. Telling a depressed person “Just choose to be happy” is about the worst thing you can say, because they can’t. Sometimes they can’t even believe that happiness exists even though they logically understand that it does. There is a huge difference between knowing and feeling.

I sat in the meeting trying to figure out how to retain the message that we have the power to choose without implying that we can do the impossible. Then I realized that “choose happiness” left out a few words: Choose to reach for happiness. We may not be able to grasp it for a hundred different reasons, but we can choose to reach for it. That reach may look like taking a brisk walk on a Sunday morning so that anxieties will not chase you through your dreams at night. It may be seeing a doctor to discuss mental health issues. It may be skipping a treat and paying down a bill so someday that crushing load of debt will be gone. It may be splurging on a small treat because this particular $3 purchase bestows hours of enjoyment. The answers are unique to each person, but each of us can reach for happiness, taking logical actions toward it, even if it seems that grasping it is impossible. That conscious choice–to reach for happiness–sets your feet on the beginning of a path to attaining it.

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4 comments to Choosing to Reach for Happiness

  • I also dislike that phrase for similar reasons. I suffer from depression and the idea that I can just “choose” to be happy when I’m in a depressive cycle is insulting. I like your adaptation of it much better. When you’re in a depressive cycle, forcing yourself to be active and try to find happiness IS a choice. And for me, at least, it helps get out of the downward part of the cycle. Choosing to help somebody, or even just go for a walk, is a thousand times better for me than wallowing about it. Wallowing is the worst–it’s too bad it’s so easy to do.

  • Yanni

    I, too, dislike the phrase “choose happiness”. Today, intellectually I know I have a great many things to be thankful and joyful for. Nothing I have done to convince or remind myself of these things has worked. People telling me to smile or asking me if I’m okay are only making it worse. I keep telling myself that this too shall pass, but today I want nothing more than to wallow in my depression and angst, because it is all I can see. Instead, I’m going to embrace your “choose to reach for happiness”.

  • KarenAhlstrom

    I like to remember that while our initial emotional responses to events are not chosen, our long term responses can be -as you say – reached for. Happiness is not the only thing we can choose. Anger, fear, resentment, frustration, resignation, acceptance, humor, love, excitement, etc are all emotions we can choose to dwell in long term. Learning that no other person has the power to *make* me feel any given thing was very empowering in my life. Also empowering was learning how to train my mind to recognize certain emotional states and automatically try to shift them into other less distressing emotions.

    When I talk about this, I always say that the training is hard work, and best done with professional help. I also want to acknowledge that doing it takes emotional energy. With depression and other mental illnesses, we are low on emotional energy, and high on emotional states that we’d like to change. We need to pick our battles and acknowledge that when you have to spend all day using your best coping strategies to get from weeping to coping and scraping by, there’s no emotional energy left to spend on dealing with a crisis the way we might wish.

  • KarenAhlstrom

    To take it a bit further, choosing to be happy is like choosing to climb a mountain, hard work, but rewarding for even healthy people. For those of us with mental illness, the journey up the mountain starts, not at the foot of the mountain, but at the bottom of a deep pit, and the entire climb is like trying to go up on a down escalator, and you have a broken leg. Sure, you’re better off for a while when you can get up the energy to climb, but you’re going to have to stop to rest at some point.