Happiness Isn’t an Idea, It’s an Experience
The idea that happiness is a choice seems to be just that, an idea, and one that doesn’t apply to you. How can you choose to be happy when someone has treated you so badly, when circumstances beyond your control are bombarding you with pain?
Many people feel this way.
Each year, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases the World Happiness Report.
This measures the overall happiness of different countries. The 2018 report finds that residents in Finland rank first place, while the residents in the United States are all the way behind in 18th place.
Despite the fact that Americans’ incomes have more than doubled since 1972, we’re not even in the top 10 of happiest countries.
Understand the Easterlin Paradox
Americans have continuously made more money, yet we’re not reporting an increase in happiness. This disparity between income and happiness is called the Easterlin Paradox.
Chances are you see more money now than you ever have in your life, yet you’re still trapped in the paradox, struggling to understand why you’re unhappy.
What explains the paradox?
The answer to this question can help you understand what happiness is. Solving this dilemma seems complex — it is a paradox, after all. Yet the answer is a lot simpler than you might expect: happiness is a choice.
It’s as Simple as Choosing Happiness
Happiness is a state of being that you can seize, such as when a runner takes in air with her lungs. Each inhalation is essential, and with every inhalation, exhalation must follow.
If happiness is a state of being, then you could say that happiness is simply an experience, or a set of experiences.
Amanda Pinnock is a college student at Arizona State University who experienced this type of happiness without ever expecting it. To earn her degree in global health, she needed to do a study abroad program, but she was worried she was going to be disconnected from her group as a nontraditional student earning her degree online.
To her surprise, the other students in her group were inclusive and eager to connect. Then there were the locals in Fiji, the country she’d chosen for the program. They seemed to truly understand how happiness is a choice. According to Amanda:
“Fijians are probably the happiest and humblest people in the world. They welcomed us with open arms and made sure we were fed and had the accommodations we needed. It wasn’t until I talked further with the group leader and tour guide that I realized they were giving us more than what they have for themselves on a daily basis.”
Plenty of Fijians don’t have running water, but Amanda noted that they felt they lacked for nothing. She says:
“They live off the earth and they all help one another … They may not have had nearly as much money as an average American, but they are wealthy in their lives, and I think Americans can learn a lot from that. It really put into perspective what’s most important: family, loved ones and the environment.”
For the Fijians Amanda encountered, happiness isn’t a concept, it’s the act of supporting each other.
Happiness is the act of finding joy in everyday experiences with other people.
Communities of people who give to each other and share the value of generosity, the value of love—a love which expects nothing in return—are the happiest.
That’s why, according to the World Happiness Report, generosity and social support networks are two key factors that lead to happiness.
Every second you’re alive and conscious, you have choices to make. Amanda Pinnock chose to experience another culture even though she was worried about fitting in. She was happy to share the experience with the other students and the Fijians that welcomed them.
Each day of your conscious existence you can choose to support others, to accept their support, to engage in activities that are good for you.
All of these acts will bring happiness. You can choose to trust others and do things that help them to trust you. You can choose to build up the community around you and be a part of it.
The Art of Sisu Can Change You
In Finland, famine wiped out 9 percent of the population during the 1860s —hardly an event that would engender happiness. The Finns have made a point of recovering by embracing a philosophy called sisu, which is a shared value of grit, determination, and rational action, even when life is painful.
Sisu is also about powering through exercises that are challenging and uncomfortable, such as taking a swim in an ice-cold river, running a marathon, or biking to work in the rain.
According to This Is Finland, “Sisu is extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity … Sisu is embodied by people everywhere who defy the odds and hold on to hope when at first there seems to be none.”
Sisu is simple: seize life, do it with courage, and build your courage by engaging with the world in challenging ways.
Be Proactive in Your Happiness
You can be happy by being proactive. People who choose to recover from addiction choose to take proactive steps toward recovery.
You can think of choosing to be happy as choosing to recover from depression. As it turns out, exercise benefits recovery in a number of ways:
● Exercise imitates the effect of drugs on your brain (or rather, drugs imitate
the effect of exercise) by releasing endorphins.
● Exercise helps you sleep better and increases feelings of well-being.
● Exercise helps you cope with stress, structure your day, and improve your
This lines up very well with sisu, although sisu asks you to take it to another level and challenge yourself beyond your comfort level.
Even if you don’t take it to that extent, start small and exercise on a regular basis, then build up to greater challenges. Work on making connections with other people based around your exercise routine.
What the Buddhists Know
Buddhism is particularly concerned with cultivating happiness through constant practice.
First, Buddhists acknowledge that existence lends itself to pain and mental dysfunction. This is the wear and tear of the world that comes from desiring and expecting what you don’t have.
Buddhists follow a set of practices towards enlightenment:
● Clear the mind of negative thoughts: Recognize negative thoughts, redirect
them positively, and act on positive thoughts.
● Practice mindfulness: Without applying judgment, contemplate how your
body feels and pay attention to your breathing; pay attention to your own
thoughts; pay attention to “phenomena” — the world around you.
● Meditate and concentrate: Let random thoughts go while you’re sitting and
concentrating on one single thing, such as the sound of water, your breathing,
or a humming sound.
● Have compassion: Personal happiness is directly related to the happiness of others. Contemplation of others and their suffering leads you to a place of true compassion, and compassion for others is a simple path towards happiness.
Buddhists choose to live neither in the past or future.
Thoughts of the past can bring brooding and depression, and thoughts of the future can bring anxiety. Contemplation of the present and compassion for others in the present can help alleviate depression and anxiety, freeing your mind to accept happiness.
People choose many creeds, philosophies, and religions in the pursuit of happiness. In any situation, you can choose to concentrate on what makes you happy.
You can choose to accept the most excruciating challenge as an opportunity to be good now and to create happiness.
Make the Smart Choice of Happiness
Happiness is finding joy in everyday experiences.
When you choose to include other people in your happiness, then with it comes community—in both social networks and shared experiences.
Happiness is the smart choice because deep down it’s what your being strives for; it’s what other people want, too.
When we’re choosing happiness together, we’re choosing to care for each other, and the whole world opens up to infinite possibility.