Can I Choose to be Happy?


People often have an acquisitive view of happiness —  that happiness comes from getting or achieving things. The word “acquisitive” has some pejorative undertones which I do not intend. The things sought can be “base” like pleasure, or they can be “noble” like a desire to help others.

Unfortunately, this approach  is not completely in our hands. For example, if we seek love, those we love may not reciprocate. Or if we seek money, opportunities for making it may not arise.  The result is failure. This failure can cause suffering like sorrow, anger and frustration. What’s more, even if we get what we want, we can lose it which also causes suffering. This is especially nasty because we often take what we have for granted, meaning we no longer get any pleasure from it, but we still suffer if we lose it — a no-win situation. Worse still, the possibility of failure and loss also cause suffering, like worry or stress.

This problem was long known, and many responses were developed, most based on the belief that happiness comes from within. Yet many of them are curiously roundabout. For instance, Buddhism tries to transcend desire by transcending identity. Stoicism treats the will to virtue as the sole good. What about a direct approach of simply willing happiness?

If happiness is biochemistry, then can’t we engage in practices to manipulate our state to a happy one?

Sonja Lyubomirsky did some studies that suggest happiness is in smaller intentional activities, rather than accomplishing big life goals..  She provides several such strategies, one of which is especially interesting: act happy.

Fake it ’till you make it? Does it work? If so, it may offer another perspective that ties emotions with acts. In fact, this might explain why even mental paths like Buddhism have action components.

This also ties in with the Two State Theory of emotion which suggests emotion is an interpretation of bodily state and environmental cues. This seems to restore intentionality to the mix.

Maybe I have to act happy until I believe it?  Maybe I have to tell myself I am happy until I believe it? If happiness and unhappiness are voluntary states that seem involuntary due to habit, then maybe they need to be approached as habits, to be created or altered through repetition and awareness of cues? In fact, the role of awareness in disrupting habits is interesting, given its role in paths like Buddhism.

If happiness is tied to belief, can I will a new belief? Maybe I cannot, but maybe i can choose my belief policies. For example, Buddhism’s teachings on dissatisfaction can be seen as an attempt to install a new belief policy by looking at all experience through this lens and thus building the right belief. After all, one can see happiness in life if one looks, but one can also see unhappiness — it depends on how one chooses to see it. Glass half empty or half full? Life supports both interpretations, we choose the one most conducive to our goals.

So why didn’t ancient philosophies try this? After all, if happiness is mental, and if the mind is under our control, the first thing to try is to will happiness. Why work on undermining desires, reactions, and smaller acts? Stoicism seems to have tried, as one of its strategies is to wish for things to be as they are, but even that is a bit indirect.

Also, why do I resist? A part of me does not like the idea of intentionally reprogramming myself for happiness. Is this another meta-belief that happiness must be out there? Is reprogramming open to all, but is subject to the one underlying belief that happiness must be found? Is our challenge to really change this belief about happiness?


  1. I highly disagree that happiness is programmable. I find the ‘fake it ’till you make it’ just another sort of goal in life that is based a lot on luck, like getting money and love. Thought of another way, willing happiness means that nothing is making you happy and you’re going to pretend that you are. And what sort of life is that?

    I once sprained my ankle in middle school. I was extremely unhappy because I had no friends to help me out. As a studybug and band member, I had cumbersome books and a trombone. I became depressed, and did reckless, desperate things to get my ankle back into shape. People told me to shake it off, and try no to worry about it, relax. But I did not like it, and there was no reason to. It would have been silly to try to pretend I was happy over a bad situation.

    There are times to be unhappy and discontent, to better yourself and the world. Realizing unhappiness, the big and the small, shows there’re some things unlikable, big and small, out in the world. I think that’s important.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I’d like to hear more on why faking it til you make it would rely on luck.

      Do you believe happiness comes from getting what we value? How are these values set? How much control do you think we have in setting these values?

      • No prob! I’mma start from the bottom. To be honest, I find most words are those that which explain something rather that are something concrete in themselves. Colors follow what I explain the best. Though we are pretty precise of what can be, for example, red, to explain its exact wavelengths and why it occurs in some situations and not others takes a certain expertise.

        I figure red and happiness to be on the same boat, but rather happiness comes from experiencing things we like, and simply that. I can’t really say value, for I value gems and I’m sure my sisters has value- but receiving or having either wouldn’t be something I like. On the other hand, having a lot of books is completely valueless, especially if you don’t read them, but I like collecting them all the same, and they bring me happiness.

        I figure these likings are set as arbitrarily through personal experience, and take the evolutionary standpiont that it helps for survival, and we have little control in it, but- and this seems against what I got from David Yerle- I also think it helps for the happiness we experience.

        Since what we like is set arbitrarily, and we have little control over our minds and how we feel about our experiences- in my opinion, all- faking it ’til you make it will rely on luck. I’ll be a bad person and make the regressive argument that faking happiness will perhaps have to make you happy in the first place, and that’ll be based on luck. Sorry for the long reply. This is fantastic!

      • Thanks! I think I understand.

        Would you mind telling me more about how things we like are set arbitrarily via personal experiences? For instance, what experiences would form these likings, and why those experiences? Are there any ways these likings could change? If so, under what conditions could they change?

      • Sure thing! For example, I started collecting books because they weren’t as easily able to be thrown away as my homework, which was my pride and joy, examples of my intellect and of my past truly existing.

        But as a the best child out of six- not to brag, it was simply a matter of fact- I was the one to turn to for getting rid of stuff for when we moved because our parents were in the army. Add in the fact that I had no friends to hang with, and siblings who weren’t interested in me, and bouts of bipolar-induced depression and I did like to read an enormous amount, and books became something tangible and stable to hang on to and collect.

        Now, if I wasn’t the best child, if I wasn’t second born, if I wasn’t a girl, if I was born prettier, or if my siblings born nicer than I- all those things that I had little control over helped with this one characteristic of mine, slowly working into my being, into one of the things that makes me happy.

        Why those experiences? Well, only in conjunction could they have truly worked. People with the same conditions may not collect books, and some with none may be even bigger bibliophiles than I. Genes and chemicals in the brain work for those differences, I believe.

        I do believe these likings could change with the right experiences. For example, in accordance with past experiences, if my collection of books were all destroyed by fire or sold or something, I may feel the pain of losing them when I try to collect more, and may stop collecting altogether.

        I may also experience Englightenment and I’ll be just happy to… to exist? XD

  2. Great post! Interesting question: can I choose to be happy?

    I think a lot of unhappy feelings are derived from thoughts about the past or about the future. That kind of suffering may be unnecessary. Most of it, anyway.

    I’m not so sure about acting happy. It might work, from what I know about suggestion it even seems probable. But the first thing that springs to mind is people who act too happy. It seems strange that I could be the judge of another’s happiness, but I’ve seen stuff that seemed artificial. People faking it for some reason (like communicating to me what a happy place their church is).

    I wonder what would happen if David’s enlightenment machine could be used to inhibit ‘unhappy’ feelings and thus reprogram us to be happy. Would you try it?

    • Thank you!

      I agree that most unhappiness come from past and future. In fact — technically speaking — perhaps all do.

      So if you think it’s probable to be happy by acting happy, would you do this? If not, why not?

      As for David’s enlightenment machine… I’d like to think I would try it. It’s funny you ask because for a while I used to imagine what I would do if there were an enlightenment pill. For a long time, I decided I would not take it, that I’d rather reach it by myself which showed I valued something more than happiness, or perhaps just couldn’t get out of my mindset. I’ve recently decided I would take the pill.

      • Interesting thought! An enlightenment pill. What made you change your mind (if that’s not too much of a personal question). I take it there would be no side-effects to complicate matters 😉
        I would certainly try out a machine. I don’t think temporarily exposing the brain to TMS would damage it. I would be interested to experience enlightenment or non-self. It would also be very interesting to see if this would change our experience for the long term. I don’t know if this kind of experience would be like breaking a barrier that could never be put back into place.

        I’d have to think a bit more about the acting happy. At the moment I don’t really know where the discomfort comes from…

      • I’m not sure why I changed my mind… I think the problem was that originally I was attached to practice or the concept of practice or me as someone who was “spiritually elevated” rather than simply being happy. I think as I’ve come to drop a lot of that baggage, I’ve found the idea of a pill less bothersome.

        Yes, there would be no side effects. With enlightenment pills, magnetic pulses, experience machines, etc… always assume no side effects, loved ones would be taken care of, etc…. 😀

        I’m with you on the discomfort. I’m a bit more ok with the idea of acting happy, but there’s still something there. I wonder if that something is significant…

      • I really like what Shinashi said on the other thread about it being arbitrary what makes us happy. Apart from that, it’s subject to change. I remember adapting to all kinds of different things to eat and finding myself enjoying them at some point. Often these experiences are related to a specific place as well. I am somehow never tempted to make rice, aduki beans, soy sauce and gomasio for breakfast where I currently live.

        So maybe if you fake it ’till you make it, you would lose out on some subtle experiences of adapting to circumstances?
        On the other hand, it might make me feel dishonest and I might value it more to think of myself as honest. Which brings me to your point: isn’t it amazing that you could find yourself attached to the path, to the practice, even to the point where you might say no to an instant-result-pill?

        This really is a fascinating discussion. Wherever I look, things crop up. 🙂

      • That captures some of what’s been going on in my head. Our desires were formed. They changed. What is this mechanism. How much control did we have over it? Can we channel it, and if so, how?

        I’m delighted you find the discussion fascinating. It’s been something that’s been in my mind for a long time. I mean, I’ve seen the effectiveness of at least one philosophy (Buddhism) but was struck by how it didn’t go for happiness directly. That’s what started it all.

  3. There is some research that says the “fake it till you make it” approach seems to work (i. e. smiling causes joy.) However, there is also research that says that this “positive approach,” which is closely related, is counter-productive. I personally don’t like the idea, but I think it’s because every time I think of it this I get an image of a really depressed blond American woman (don’t ask me why she’s a woman or American or blond) desperately trying to smile in front of the mirror. So it’s probably just a visceral reaction.
    On willing beliefs, I have mixed feelings. There was a moment when I was, I don’t know, 12 or so, when I was really unhappy: what made me unhappy was the constant realization that I would either die or see everyone I cared about die. One day I decided that, should I keep doing this, I’d jump out the window, so I created a whole belief system that effectively neutralized the fear of all of those things happening. I knew I was making it up, but I forced myself to believe it, while on the outside acting like my usual rationalist self. I split my mind in two: the rational self and the irrational one that came to the rescue when things got unbearable. This kept me from despair for many years and sometimes still does. I also never let the two sets of beliefs mix.
    However, it has lately stopped working as well, so I’m not sure about the effectiveness of the approach. Maybe it worked for the suggestible,magical mind of a child/teenager, but works less well with an adult. A little like a drug, I’ve had to up the dosage for it to have any effect.
    So maybe you can will your beliefs, but only during certain stages or for certain periods of time…

    • Could it be the image you get is because the unfortunate stereotypical image of the phone person is unfortunately the White American Blonde Woman, usually young and often involved in some kind of entertainment industry like acting or modeling? The latter would also explain the mirror and the depression… I almost imagine there being pills and booze somewhere nearby…

      How you affected your beliefs is interesting… so you never let the two sides mix, yet there was a “higher” you that organized them? In what ways did you prevent them from mixing?

      Maybe that’s another factor. As children we are suggestible, yet what makes this suggestibility and how can it be undone? I imagine experience is a factor. Maybe suggestibility is a function of our interlocking webs of beliefs?

      • The image I get is definitely because of what you said.
        Regarding my beliefs, yes, there was a “higher” me organizing them. I didn’t allow them to mix, meaning I wouldn’t let my rational side question or analyse the rest. The idea was to keep separate compartments. When I really needed the belief, I would just really concentrate on one “side,” completely suppressing the other. I really don’t know how to explain this well, I’m afraid.
        About beliefs and suggestibility, I’d say that, more than suggestibility, the feeling I have when I think about my childhood (and well into my early twenties) is that I lived in a movie or a novel: everything that happened to me had some sort of higher significance and I kept learning these “deep lessons” about life every two weeks, which of course I would later discard for some other “deep lesson” that sounded more awe-inspiring. When I think about it I can’t help but think I was terribly naive and, at the same time, I feel really jealous that I am not able to feel that any more. I may have been deluded, but it was a beautiful delusion. In fact, I’d love to experience that delusion again and I’ve tried, but I just cannot manage to make myself believe it. I think it’s partly hormonal, since it has nothing to do with my desire to see myself as an honest person or anything like that. I honestly, truly can’t.
        Maybe our beliefs are on some instance determined by our hormonal state?

      • I hear you. I think back when I was a child and while I think I’m wiser and in some ways happier, there was something in my youth that I lost. I wouldn’t mind going back either. Maybe we can and we just choose not to? Maybe we can’t go back because we wrongly believe we can’t?

        I think our mental state is subject to a variety of factors, and I’m sure hormones and environment play a role. The studies on the “Two Context Theory of Emotion” strongly suggest that.

  4. Very thought provoking and informative. Really enjoyed this. It is my belief that happiness should not be something we should strive to attain. It is at the core of our dualistic mindset and as such the very idea of it can cause enormous suffering. The reason is that when we want to be happy, it must mean that we are not. And then what if you find happiness? It is fleeting. Impermanent. Better to strive for an inner state of peace and presence. From there, we see the dualistic nature of things. We see that happiness is just another trap leading us into suffering. When we know peace, that is true happiness, which I like to refer to as bliss. My definition of bliss is calm, born of peace. It has no opposite. It is not excited. We do not cling to it for dear life the way we do when we experience moments of happiness. It is a buoyant, loose state of being. It is knowing that there truly is nothing to hold on to. It is allowing oneself to float down the river of being.

    • Thank you, and beautifully put!

      I think one challenge many people face is they think their choices are happiness or unhappiness. If they acknowledge a third possibility, they think it’s indifference (or boredom) which they regard as undesirable. So the challenge is to convince them of the value of the third option.

  5. I agree that the challenge is recognizing the “third” possibility- contentment, peace, bliss. My observation suggests that happiness/unhappiness is often derived from comparing what “is” to what we “want”. If your expectations are met or exceeded, happiness ensues. If not, unhappiness- to the degree that the two situations differ. Growing up my mom always emphasized that of those two, I only have control over what I “want,” not what is happening. The ability to adjust expectations, to not identify with expected results and negatively experience results that don’t meet expectations, is the heart of contentment. To me, contentment denotes “happiness” which is not oriented on external results, but relies on a deeper understanding of one’s role. This is usually tied up in one’s religion or philosophy. Which one is less relevant than whether it can become a basis of contentment when external factors for happiness are stripped away.

    When my mom was sick, I was intially extremely unhappy due to the discrepancy between her terminal illness and the fact that I wanted her to live. She taught me, at the time, that for some things, “it is what it is”- in a situation you cannot change, you have to let that tension go. In other words, you have to base your happiness on something more fundamental and constant if faced with an unchangeable negative situation. My expectation then became to accept the love of family and friends, be strong for my dad, and appreciate my memories of my mom from the time we got to enjoy together. I found a level of working contentment that allowed me to accept the negative aspects of the situation and expect/accept that this was something I would always be working through. I was sorrowful, sure, and I won’t pretend there aren’t times I wish it had never happened. In those times, I am unhappy. But when I experienced sorrow and allowed myself to feel the gravity of the situation and accept it, I found that I was not unhappy. The experience continues to challenge and redefine my definition and expectation of happiness.

    As hard as it is, I wouldn’t trade it for an “enlightenment pill”, personally. For me, enlightenment seems to only be possible through deep, enduring experiences that, as I mentioned above, strip away dependence on external factors and situations and allow a person to glimpse fundamental Truth underneath- enduring and unchanging. Without that experience, would it really be possible to achieve that state? And if it was, would it matter in any meaningful way? Maybe it would make you immune to the tides of life, able to maintain perfect bliss and pass this peace to others. But I feel like that would be like reading conclusion of a book without reading the rest, reaching the overlook without taking the strenuous hike to get there. It would be like dying peacefully in old age, without having first lived a long life.

    Just my two cents, sorry it’s kind of lengthy! I see this topic as very fundamental and relevant to everyone on the everyday level and the level of philosophical discussion, and those are my favorite kind. I enjoyed the post and the comments thread!

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