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A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be
– Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865

On my birthday, in December, I spent time reflecting on how much life
has changed since I was a child. Things are far more complex now,
with amazing technology, many more things to do, and practically
unlimited choices that were once nonexistent. You would think that
with all of this, people would be happier and more content than ever.
Yet, the opposite is often true.

In fact, the level of unhappiness I see almost daily is a bit startling to
me. There are many reasons for this unhappiness, whether real or
imagined. But, barring a difficult-to-correct chemical imbalance
(which is a relatively rare condition), most of this unhappiness is
unnecessary. People always have reasons for being unhappy, of
course, and many seem to harbor a fierce attachment to it – sort of a
possessive “it’s my unhappiness, by golly, and I WILL have it!” kind of
thing. But regardless of whatever reason they may have, most of the
time it just comes down to this: to be or not to be (happy) – that is the
question. I firmly believe that, in most cases, happiness is a choice.

I once knew a woman who had several young children. She told me
that she used to get up in the morning, overwhelmed by her roles as
wife and mother, her moods unpredictable and variable throughout
the day. She was often unhappy, passing that feeling on to her
husband first thing in the morning as he got ready for work. Then one
morning she woke up with a startling realization. She knew that being
happy was as simple as a daily decision made immediately upon
awakening. From that point on, that is exactly what she did. Her family
thrived under her new policy.  

My dad used to tell me to never talk about religion or politics; these
volatile subjects may produce responses from defensiveness to rage.
I’ve noticed that the suggestion that people control their own
happiness can do the same thing. Regardless, I stand by what I say.
Happiness is a choice.

People respond to difficult childhoods in a variety of ways;
depression, blaming others, turning to a life of crime, abusing others,
etc. Lawyers create defenses to soften consequences for criminals
by appealing to the pity of the jury for such past experiences. There is
a lot of support for those who wish to absolve themselves of
responsibility for their own feelings and actions, so being “helpless”
and “pathetic” is “in” these days. But there is another way, for those
who decide to create a more meaningful, productive, and happy life.

One of my favorite books is
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor
E. Frankl, first published in Austria in 1946. This remarkable book,
written in two distinct sections, describes Frankl’s experiences inside
concentration camps in Germany during World War II, followed by a
description of a therapy he developed, inspired by his own ability to
find meaning and contentment even inside a concentration camp.
How on earth, you might ask, could a person find meaning in life and,
thus, happiness, while being starved, overworked, and abused, under
the constant threat of death, in a concentration camp?

According to Frankl, the key to happiness is through finding meaning
in life. I have noticed that when I actively pursue happiness for the
sake of happiness itself, it eludes me. Almost anything we pursue or
try to hang onto is like that. True happiness is actually a by-product; it
doesn’t happen when it is the goal. In his “logotherapy,” Frankl
outlines three different ways to find meaning in life: “(1) by creating a
work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering
someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable
suffering (Frankl, 1985, p. 133).”

When we create, or we do something that helps others in some way,
we tap into a side of our being that rewards accomplishment with
good feelings. In doing these things, we are able to transcend
ourselves, elevating our usual experience of life to a different level.
We forget about ourselves in these moments, releasing us to
experience an unselfconscious sense of joy. At times like this we
become more real; instead of thinking about how we are feeling, we
simply feel. For me, this is the next thing to pure bliss.

Frankl’s second path to finding meaning in life, by experiencing
something or encountering someone, provides us with yet another
unselfconscious experience. Going to Bryce Canyon in Utah, for
example, can give us the experience of something much greater than
ourselves, infusing us with a sense of wonder and amazement;
another formula for happiness. Connecting with another human being
on a deeper level than usual, again, lifts us out of ourselves, enabling
us to step into someone else’s world where we forget about our own
thoughts, feelings, and worries for awhile. When we reach out to love,
understand, or help another person, we can forget our own cares and
worries for a time and make a difference in someone else’s life.
Thus, we feel better about ourselves, which makes us happy.

The last, and most difficult path, has to do with attitude; how we view
the things that happen to us, especially those things that are very
difficult, or even terrible. Suffering is an inevitable part of life. We may
experience suffering on many levels – humiliation or embarrassment,
disease, loss of a loved one through death, poverty, torture,
deprivation, abuse, etc. No human being alive can avoid periods of
suffering. What elevates us is how we deal with it. If we can
appreciate personal growth or a new inner strength that may occur as
a result of our suffering, our lives are further enriched, even in the
worst of times.

Frankl points out that we can find meaning in life, even in a hopeless
situation. He says that this is human potential at its best, “which is to
transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s
predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able
to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as
inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves (Frankl,
1985, p. 135).”  Ah, what a concept! Change ourselves. Nothing
incites human resistance faster, but it is one key to liberation from
unhappiness.

The quote, above, by Abraham Lincoln was inspired by 30 years of
failure and disappointment. Yet, Lincoln recognized that no matter
what outside events transpire, personal happiness is not contingent
on winning or not winning. The process and effort involved in striving
toward his goals gave him the strength he needed to achieve great
success; when he finally won, he won the Presidency.  

There are many ways in which we can find happiness. Certainly if
Viktor Frankl was able to find meaning in the midst of such a hellish
situation and, ultimately, happiness, we should be able to, as well. It
isn’t always easy to find the way, and it sometimes requires a lot of
creativity, hard work, and positive self-talk. But the effort is absolutely
worth it.

Choose happiness. And have a wonderful, Happy New Year!

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Happiness is a Choice

by Holly Whitman


Copyright December 2006 Holly Whitman
No reprints without written permission
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