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.
here are many reasons for this unhappiness, whether real or
But, barring a difficult-to-correct chemical imbalance (which is a
relatively rare condition), most of this unhappiness is unnecessary.
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.
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

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
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, t
he 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!

Visit Holly's Author Page or email her at HollyWhitman@housewifemafia.com

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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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If you try to describe water in a general way, you may find your words
sounding strangely spiritual. It’s all around us, yet also deep within us,
sustaining every cell of our bodies. It cleanses and heals us. All life
depends on it. Is this really the same stuff with which you brush your teeth
every day, with which kids fill their squirt guns, with which you scrub your
sticky dishes? Maybe we need to see water with
a new appreciation.