Happiness is much more than a choice

by | April 8, 2013

Imagine I had an “experience machine” that could stimulate your brain and give you any positive feeling you desired at the click of a button.

Feeling low and want to feel wonderful? Click. Whirr. Ahhhh, bliss.

Feeling discontented, dissatisfied, empty? Sit down, plug in, instant happiness. All your worries melt away, all is right with the world.

Feeling bored? Strap yourself in, because you’re about to be overwhelmed with excitement.

The experience machine could be yours today. Low payments. Ninety days same as cash. For a limited time only.

Any takers?

Psychologist Martin Seligman reports in his book, Authentic Happiness, that, strangely, “Most people to whom I offer this imaginary choice refuse the machine.”

Huh? Why?

“It is not just positive feelings we want,” explains Seligman, “we want to be entitled to our positive feelings.”

Ah.

He continues, “We have invented myriad shortcuts to feeling good; drugs, chocolate, loveless sex, shopping, masturbation, and television are all examples.” (I’d add pornography to that list.)

And here’s the earth-shaking takeaway:

“The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually.

“Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.”

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” says Aristotle. “A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy,” says Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

I beg to differ with these intellectual giants.

Yes, happiness is within our control. Yet experiencing true happiness is much more than a simple matter of choosing to feel it, regardless of any other factor.

Happiness is not an end to pursue, but a byproduct to enjoy. It is the result of flinging ourselves into a magnificent obsession — something worthwhile and meaningful that creates value in the world, improves the lives of others, and serves a greater purpose than meeting our own selfish needs. The deepest joy comes after the hardest, most meaningful struggles.

Happiness is the consequence of compassionate service; we are happy to the degree that we make others happy. Taking the garbage out for your elderly neighbor will do more for your happiness than reading a dozen books about choosing happiness inside.

As Viktor Frankl revealed,

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Happiness is the satisfaction we feel when we live with integrity — when our actions align with our core principles, deepest values, and highest ideals.

Yes, happiness is a choice — but not exactly the simple internal choice we’re often told it is. It’s a choice to do those things that generate happiness — to live and act with passion, courage, compassion, and virtue. We can’t just choose and feel happy; we have to do happy.

A man out of integrity with himself will never find true and lasting happiness, no matter how earnestly he strives to choose it. Genuine, enduring joy is simply not an option for the selfish little clod who seeks naught but personal satisfaction, or for the fearful soul who stifles his passion and hides his talents in the petty box called “security.”

If that were possible, then an “experience machine” — or drugs, for that matter — could give us everything we ever wanted.

Feeling happy is much more than a simple mental and emotional choice. It’s something we earn.

(For tools to earn your happiness by living your purpose, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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