New Thought Editorials > Happiness: Is It Really A Choice?


Summer 2007

Happiness: Is It Really A Choice?

Is happiness really a choice that each of us can make? Abraham Lincoln famously commented, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." A host of authors have written books and articles with titles such as Choose to be Happy, Happiness: It’s Your Choice, and How We Choose to be Happy. The author of Psycho-Cybernetics, plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, wrote a little book titled Five Minutes to Happiness. The cover proclaims, "Only five minutes of concentration each day will teach you THE ART OF BEING HAPPY through this remarkable discovery." Maybe you have to choose to study the art. Then there’s psychologist Martin Seligman’s sequel to his famous Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, in which he explains that there seems to be a ceiling on how happy certain individuals can be, and he’s one of the ones with a relatively low happiness ceiling. Seligman reports that his irritatingly happy little daughter occasionally shames him into a happier frame of mind, so happiness—or the lack of it—isn’t entirely hereditary.

The latest upset to the choose-to-be-happy approach comes from Dan Baker, Director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, the spa where one retreats in order to become healthfully beautiful. In his book, What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, he challenges Lincoln head-on in his "Happiness Trap #5: Trying to Force Happiness":

Oh? If that’s true, why did Lincoln dose himself with a crude antidepressant, mercury tablets (which made him fly into rages)? Why was his wife suicidally depressed?

You can’t just decide to be happy any more than you can decide to be taller.

What we haven’t done so far is define happiness: it’s a state of mind, and a state of mind can be replicated by imagining oneself back to the last time one was in that state. Simple; probably not always easy, if one is currently up to one’s ankles in alligators. But it is possible to imagine yourself back into a state that you consider to be a happy one. Happiness has perhaps most usefully been defined as enhanced satisfaction, so if you are in a more-or-less satisfactory state of mind, simply fan the flames a little until your satisfaction is enhanced.

I wrote about happiness at some length in our jointly-authored book, Practicing the Presence of God for Practical Purposes, upon which my husband, philosopher Alan Anderson, left a few fingerprints. Philosophers are happiest when they are philosophizing about happiness, which isn’t much help to the rest of us. Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (Mike to his friends), in researching happiness, found that people are happiest when in a state of flow where they are so engrossed in a moderately challenging task that they don’t have time to think about whether or not they are happy. That tells us that we need to become involved in some activity that we consider worthwhile, and that couch potatoes are probably not happy. Even a truncated walk down a hospital corridor for a patient fresh from surgery can lead to a happier mental state, because it is an activity chosen as part of an effort towards a goal of high-level wellness.

Where does all this leave us? Baker supplies six Happiness Tools which, he assures us, will help us create a state of happiness if we make regular use of them: Practicing appreciation, making choices (unlearn learned helplessness), building personal power (take responsibility), leading with your strengths, employing constructive language, and living multidimensionally (integrating purpose, health, and relationships). Sounds like what New Thought has been teaching for well over a century.

But what New Thought also teaches, which the medical model or the humanistic approach omit, is the God-centeredness modeled best by Jesus Christ, whose teachings New Thought was founded on, even though we may have differing ideas about just who he was. He and the God he chose to call Father or Mother/Father are the way to happiness, that enhanced-satisfaction state of mind.

The newest wrinkle comes from science: ever-mounting piles of research in psychology harmonize with both New Thought teachings and the findings of quantum physics: the brain is plastic, changeable, as is the mind with which it interacts. You can teach an old dog new tricks, new habits of mind that lead to health, wealth, and happiness. I’ll be speaking about this neuroplasticity in the SSMR session at the upcoming INTA Annual Congress.