Is happiness a choice?

I’ve had spirited disagreements with friends over the nature of happiness. I like to think it’s a choice: we can choose to be happy or we can choose to be miserable. One friend insists it’s circumstantial: if you’ve had terrible things happen in your life, of course you are miserable. It seems cruel to expect someone whose spouse has recently died to perk up. Another friend assures me that it’s a matter of genetics: we each have a basic temperament or “set point” of happiness. Some people wake up every morning feeling sub-par, and it’s a struggle for them to get to a mood that’s neutral, let alone happy.

I’ve done some reading on this topic, especially in the field of positive psychology, the movement started by Martin Seligman. Psychology researchers have determined that our general state of happiness (they call it “chronic happiness!) is about 50% genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% choice (or “intentional activity”). It’s fascinating to read up on the research of how they could possibly arrive at these statistics. But this makes sense to me: Yes, of course, terrible circumstances and inborn personality traits make it harder for some people to be happy than others. But there is an element of choice.

The nine women I interviewed for the book had widely differing opinions on this topic. Four of them describe themselves as glass-half-full optimists, and five have struggled with occasional depression. Here are some of their observations:

  1. The word “happiness” evokes a giddy, temporary state. Satisfaction and contentment may be better goals than “happily ever after.”
  2. When you are pained in body or deeply troubled in mind, contentment is elusive.
  3. Still, it is possible to choose not to live in fear or misery.
  4. Contentment comes from the inside; external things can’t make you happy.
  5. We can’t make other people happy. If someone chooses to stay in misery or fear, we can’t pull him or her out of it.

After the suicide of Robin Williams, a lot is being written about depression. Is it a disease? Or a natural response to the hopeless state of the world today? Is it best treated with drugs or with talk therapy? If Robin Williams could not choose happiness, who could?

What do you think? In your experience, does happiness come mostly from circumstances, inborn traits, or choices we make?

For more on the scientific approach to happiness, I recommend this article.

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