Happiness is a Choice — Or Is It?

@RickWarren tweeted this on Thursday:
Happiness is a choice. You are as happy as you choose to be.

I read that, sovaldi and my inner Eeyore cringed.

A Psychological Perspective:

Is it true? Considering there is an entire field of psychology, medicine called positive psychology, that looks at happiness, I thought I would ask my resident expert for his opinion. Here’s what Chuck has to say…

As is so often the case, this is… partly… true. Your level of happiness is influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are under your control, while others are not. Researchers such as Martin Seligman, David Myers, and Ed Diener have studied happiness extensively, and here is a summary of their findings:

Happiness variables that ARE subject to your choice:
1. Marriage. On average, married people are happier than unmarried people. The “choose”-iness of this is limited, however. I could choose to be married all I want, but unless someone else chooses to marry me, I’m out of luck.
2. Friends. Happy people spend a lot of time socializing with their friends. (This might be a large group or a small group, depending on whether you are an extravert or an introvert.)
3. Religion. There is strong and consistent evidence that the more religious you are, the happier you will tend to be. In the words of Cab Calloway, “You get wise. You get to church.”
4. Thought patterns. Seligman’s research on cognition and depression shows that, when bad things happen, unhappy people tend to explain them as resulting from “internal” (my fault), “stable” (can’t change it), and “global” (this impacts my entire self-concept) causes. A classic example would be getting a bad grade on an exam in school, and concluding that “I’m just stupid.” Albert Ellis’ approach to cognitive therapy focuses on people messing themselves up by holding irrational beliefs (“I MUST win my mother’s approval” “Everybody HAS to like me” “I’m NEVER wrong”). It takes effort, but it is possible to gain control over these thoughts and steer them in healthier directions (“It would be nice if everyone liked me, but not really necessary”).

Happiness variables that are NOT subject to your choice:
1. Genetics. If we were to ask you to rate your level of happiness on a scale from one to ten, roughly fifty percent of the variability on your answer would be due to your DNA.
2. Money. This is somewhat subject to your choice, but only somewhat. If your income is above a minimum threshold, then the relationships drops off, but below that threshold, money and happiness are strongly related, and telling someone “Well just choose to have a better-paying job” is hardly useful. So, money might not be able to make you happy, but being broke can certainly make you unhappy.

While we have a certain amount of freedom to choose our level of happiness, that freedom is constrained by numerous factors. Overemphasizing the role of choice in happiness leads to what psychologist Barbara Held calls the “tyranny of the positive attitude,” the notion that those who are insufficiently happy should be blamed for their condition. An example of this is Dennis Prager’s facepalm-worthy claim that happiness is a moral obligation (being unhappy, according to Prager, puts you in the same moral category as terrorists and war criminals).

A Theological Perspective:

Is it true? My initial thoughts on happiness…

Scripture talks about joy, peace, love and other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But what is the relationship between joy and peace, and happiness?

Jurgen Moltmann, in writing about being born again, looks at two outcomes: joy and peace.

Joy is that what happens “when the Spirit of the resurrection is experienced, a person breathes freely again, and gets up out of the defeats and anxieties of his or her life…We beign to love life with the love of God which we experience in the Spirit. It far outdoes the disappointments and hurts which reduce our love for life and weigh us down.” (pg. 31)

Peace is, according to Moltmann, a “coming to rest…It also means arriving at consonance and concord with God and ourselves. People of peace radiate a quiet assurance.” (pg. 31)

And yet, Moltmann is quick to point out that this does not mean that Christians are always happy or cheerful. Indeed, he points out that Jesus was not always happy. We are “saved none of the torments of soul…The Spirit leads [us] into the wilderness just as it led Jesus too. By this I don’t mean the external lonelinesses. I mean the soul’s dark and desert hours.” (pg. 32). Moltmann points to what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, “when God-forsakenness drives a soul into cold despair, and we can only go on clinging to faith in God in companionship with the assailed Christ between Gethsemane and Golgotha.” (pg. 32)

Looking at this, joy and peace, and the emotions that come from experiencing the Spirit, seem to point to the cause being something outside ourselves. It is because of the Spirit, and because of the Resurrection of Jesus that I experience joy. It is because of God’s presence that I experience peace.

Happiness is the by-product of experiencing the work of the Spirit in our lives. Happiness flows out of the joy, peace, love, etc., and is not the cause of these fruits. The Spirit is the cause of the fruits, and happiness, being the by-product, is not rooted in our ‘choosing’ to be happy.

While positive experiences of the Spirit are good, and are to be sought after, our faith is not founded on them. If I am unhappy, it should not mean my faith dissolves and disappears. As Moltmann says, “The firm lodestone of faith is not provided by the inner experiences of the Spirit…but by community with Christ, in the living and dying and rising again with him.” (pg 32).