Yes, I know the title is a little too cute and seemingly paradoxical. But the truth is that happiness is a choice as much as it is a response to external stimuli. Give me a moment to explain how emotions work in humans vs. earlier organisms, and you’ll understand why the title is not a paradox nor a tautology but rather an explanation of—and a prescription for—how to feel better in and about your life.
Early life forms evolved to be able to respond effectively to stimuli in their environment. The ones that were able to respond appropriately to environmental factors survived, and the ones that responded inappropriately died. Therefore, organisms evolved a stimulus->response structure where environmental changes would cause an organism to change its behavior accordingly. In single-called organisms, we’re talking about simple changes like moving away from harmful environmental conditions and moving toward beneficial ones. In complex organisms, there are more advanced relationships like animals burrowing to hide from predators or keep warm in cold weather and humans inventing the lightbulb to see better at night and prevent house fires. In any of these cases, the environment caused the behavior.
Now, enter emotions. Emotions are part of a human’s primal “lizard brain” that allow it to respond appropriately to a given situation. Fear, for example, causes blood to flow to the extremities for a “fight or flight” response. Love releases chemicals that foster bonding between family members, friends, and mates. Feelings, therefore, are both a response to a stimulus but also an intermediate step in the process between the stimulus and the physical response. It’s that last part where the title of this blog post comes into play.
Humans are advanced enough where they can factor in the past, the present, and the future into their decisions and actions. As a result, emotions are factoring in much more than just a simple stimulus->response. If you get a job offer, for example, you might feel good about the offer or bad about it based purely on it. However, that is not the only factor in your emotional response. Do you have any other job offers? Do you anticipate other job offers? Do you think that you could get a better offer if you kept searching, or do you think that you might lose out on this best offer if you wait? Every single factor makes your emotional response more and more nuanced, which can cause you to behave in different ways.
So, what does, “If you want to be happy, then you have to be happy” mean knowing this? Well, from what we discussed above, much—if not most—of your initial emotional responses to new situations are very much stimulus->response in nature: good events make you feel good, and bad events make you feel bad. But, over time, your emotional response and your overall outlook on life is more of a factor of your beliefs and perception more than the actual events themselves. For example, is your life good or bad? Well, with that big of a question, you can point to every bad thing in your life and say that it sucks: your spouse left you, your dog died, and you didn’t get the job you wanted. Alternatively, you could point to every good thing in your life: you live in a house that you own, you have indoor plumbing, you don’t have to spend days hunting for your food, and you have a group of friends who are always there for you. Therefore, your emotional state is really as much—if not more—of a factor of what you’re thinking about and how you choose to feel about it as a result than your actual, current, physical reality.
So, if you are not happy with your life, then it is as much on you as it is on external factors. Your external factors might cause you to temporarily feel a certain way, but your own thoughts and beliefs cause you to have a certain mood, attitude, or temperament. So once you do everything within your power to directly address whatever it is causing you to feel an acute emotion, it is almost completely within your power to then focus on all of the things in your life that should make you feel happy, grateful, blessed, or loved. By choosing to be happy, you will be happy. So if you want to be happy, then you have to be happy.
One final point: I know that the number one response when people say, “Why are you happy?” is an external factor: you have a wonderful wife, wonderful kids, a great job, etc. But the truth of the matter is that you likely have that wife, job, etc. because of your temperament, and you also are happy because you choose to focus on those things and have that temperament rather than focusing on what one or two things aren’t exactly the way you want them and being miserable as a result. So it might seem like happiness is mainly caused by external factors, but it’s just as much caused by your willingness to have a positive attitude that makes your life better and the fact that you focus more on things that make you happy than things that don’t.
So stop giving up your power to be happy. You are happy because you choose to do things that make you happy, because you choose to focus on good things, and because you simply choose to be happy. External factors will almost always influence your feelings in the short term, but in the long term you have more control than you are likely giving yourself credit for.