Is happiness really a choice?

10 Mar

About 10 years ago, I picked up a copy of “7 habits of highly successful people” by Stephen R. Covey. I loved the book, and, though I didn’t strictly implement all of its 7 habits, it changed my “paradigm” and helped me adopt a healthier, more proactive world-view.  One of its most powerful messages was a passage from Victor Frankl‘s book, which I interpreted as saying:

“Happiness is a choice. If you’re unhappy, it’s your fault.”

Since then, I have personally lived by that motto, and have considered myself mostly free from excessive worry, guilt or stress, putting on a happy face regardless of my circumstances. After all, I often reason, there’s so much in life to be happy about, why get caught up in the misery of a moment?

There have been moments when I have wondered whether my habit of smothering my negative feelings was really beneficial to me, but generally I didn’t pay much attention to these thoughts.

Only today have I realised that this belief has been harmful to me and, more importantly, to my relationship with the people that matter most in my life.

As part of my study of clinical psychology, I’ve been reading an excellent book by Edward Teyber, called “Interpersonal Process in Psychotherapy: An Integrative Model”. This book is teaching me that what I have been doing is invalidating genuine feelings, my own and my wife’s, by always expecting a happy face in all circumstances. Whenever Anne-Marie has expressed frustration, I would “counter” it by giving her reasons not be frustrated. Whenever she appeared “grumpy”, I would ask her “what’s wrong?”, with the implicit message that it was wrong to feel anything else than happy (especially since she’s married to me, the best possible husband she could have!).

Basically, I have been telling her that whenever she feels unhappy, it is her own fault and she should just “get over it”, that she has no valid reasons to feel any other way, at least not for any long period of time (more than a day). To show her a good example, I would strive to look cheerful and care-free through my own trials and challenges, to show that, if I could choose to be happy through my problems, so could she.

I am now realising that this way of thinking has established a problematic pattern in our relationship. She rarely discusses her feelings with me, because she has learned that I would not validate them and probably just give her a lecture about why she should feel good, not bad.

So, what have I learned?

I’ve learned that, if happiness really is a choice, it is a long-term choice. It doesn’t work for in-the-moment tragedies, fears, stresses and disappointments. These feelings are important, they are valid, and they must be acknowledged before one can “move on” from them. It is OK to feel miserable sometimes, to feel angry, frustrated, confused, betrayed, jealous or annoyed. All humans have these emotions. By denying Anne-Marie the right to have these emotions, I have unwittingly told her that she is not normal, that she is not in control enough, that she is not learning to be happy.

Something has gone wrong. I have misunderstood Frankl. When you lose something precious to you, you can’t just “think yourself happy”, or you’ll never grieve properly.

No one should ever feel guilty for having an emotion.


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2 responses to “Is happiness really a choice?

  1. Brian Hoover

    March 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Whoa, slow down there racecar driver. I can’t keep up with all your publishing. Why is this on now?

    • nicolasconnault

      March 11, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      LOL Yeah I’m trying to get back into blogging after nearly a year’s absence! I’m glad I’ve got at least one reader left! I’ve moved to because I couldn’t justify paying $15 a month to just host my blog, since my wife was no longer using the hosting for her own site. It’s just simpler that way.


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