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Putting on My Happy Shirt
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2017
We choose happiness by the way we live not by constricting reality to only recognize happiness.
"Happiness is a choice," we hear; the accusatory finger pointed at the sad. We are told, "If you suffer, struggle or feel sad, it’s a choice." Happiness, they explain, is a simple decision, like choosing which color of shirt to wear. I disagree. Moods don’t always change by simply declaring, "Today, I am going to be happy." Our moods and our emotions have evolutionary purposes—survival implications. We can, to a certain degree, manipulate emotions through mind games, discounting biological warnings, dismissing guilt, and convincing ourselves wrong is right. Defense mechanisms, an unconscious version of this distorting process, do just that—change the perspective to soothe disruptions. Emotions guide behavior in response to experience; being happy all the time disrupts the purpose of emotion.
Scientists during a 1954 experiment stumbled on an interesting finding. They implanted electrodes on the medial forebrain bundle of rats, then hooked the connection to a small pressing bar that enabled the animals to fire the electrodes. By pressing the bar, the rats stimulated a pleasure center in the brain. Stimulating pleasure took precedence over all other rat activities. The rats would press the bar to excess, foregoing food or sex. The implanted electrodes bypassed normal emotional drives, creating pleasure, but interfering with normal survival behaviors. (John C. Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, publisher: Routledge, London 1989)
Severe drug addiction creates a similar disruption. The intoxicated state relieves anxiety while interfering with better adaptations to escape, ultimately, creating more problems than the original anxiety ridden moments that induced pleasures covered. Living requires exposure to adverse happenings. We grow through the challenges, disappointments and losses. We shouldn’t hide from the world, convincing ourselves to smile, finding relief in an apathetic sleep of happiness.
I do agree, however, that happiness is a choice; not a choice on how to feel but determined by how we live; similar to choosing to be intelligent. We don’t become intelligent from deceitful poems declaring knowledge; we must choose activities that educate. We gain knowledge through reading, attending school, and engaging in challenging discussions. Through effort, we become educated. We can fain knowledge by limiting experience, avoiding explorations, and conversing with other shallow minds that agree with our simple premises. We may feel smart; but stupidity remains.
"Happiness is a choice, not a choice on how to feel but in how to live."
Choosing happiness, real happiness, requires more than manipulation of the emotional system. The emotions direct behaviors to escape danger and pounce on opportunities. We shouldn’t feel happy if we are doing the wrong things, violating trusts, sacrificing the future, or damaging our health. The body warns of these deviations from wisdom with guilt, shame, or sadness. We must be responsive to these feelings, not a happy zombie oblivious to reality.
We need to quit stimulating pleasure zones through deceptions, pushing levers that feel good but serve no purpose, convincing ourselves things are alright when they are not, dodging responsibility when we are responsible, and avoiding explorations that reveal our limitations. Instead, we should choose happiness by creating happiness, developing skills that improve our lives. Some avenues to pursue may include: optimism, compassion, integrity, following passions, enthusiasm, patience, kindness, and healthy relationships. This is not an exhaustive list. We can do much to improve our experience. Healthy behaviors, when integrated into our lives, create happiness. We must purposely work to develop a healthy environment. Slow down, quit pushing the happiness lever and start making proper choices, knowing what you want, learning how to get it, and moving towards those intentions.
By making healthy choices, we choose to be happy. So yes, my dear friends, "Happiness is a choice."