Making Happiness a Choice

Dec. 11th, 2017

Different people have different reactions to the same thing. The phrase “Happiness is a choice.” for example. Many of us who struggle with mental health challenges feel this phrase either is a lie or at least doesn’t apply to us. “Neurotypical” (if there even is such a thing) people have the ability to choose to be happy, but not someone who is unable to get out of bed due to depression or who cannot attend social gatherings due to anxiety. And for a long, long time I would have definitely put myself in this camp.

The word itself, ‘happiness’, also has different meanings to different people. By my definition, I haven’t really been 'happy' most of my life. My existence has contained joy, fulfillment, pleasure, and fun, but it did not have an overarching stream of happiness. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I could choose to be happy all the time, surely I would. So therefore I cannot choose to be happy.

Before I continue, let me be very clear I am speaking about only myself here. This is my experience and I in no way mean to imply that I speak for anyone else nor have I any intimate experience with any brain chemistry other than my own.

I thought if it were a choice, I'd already have chosen it, and in some ways I still do, but this year some of my perspectives began to shift.

The first shift I discovered was in the word. What a lot of people seem to call happiness, I am now calling contentment. I used to view this word as meaning something more akin to acceptance, with the definite connotation that nobody really needs to ‘accept’ something they want. Usually in life we have to accept that things aren’t ideal, that we get sad and angry, and that life isn’t fair.

It surprised me just now to actually look up the dictionary definition and discover that the word contentment is a noun that means: “a state of happiness and satisfaction”. Wow! It has happiness built into it! Like a handy multi-tool for my life. And, in fact, when I am in a state of contentment, I do have the ability to make julienne fries.

So now that I use the term “contentment” to define the state I want most of my life to be spent in, what happens to the original statement? “Contentment is a choice.” It seems slightly more attainable to me, but when I think about that choice part it still seems iffy. It felt for almost my whole life that happiness- er, I mean, contentment - was a random thing. Good feelings happened randomly and I wasn’t really in control of when or how often.

Then, mid 2017, I began to make real strides in my battle with my sleep pattern. I began to put pieces together that I never had before. And something really unexpected happened: I discovered that when I was sleeping well, not only did the negative side effects of poor sleep (essentially an upswing in all my ADHD symptoms) diminish, but there was actually a rise in that thing that I now call contentment. Without much effort or thought, I was just smiling more, joking more, was more patient, essentially all the positive things about me (and my ADHD) were more prominent.

Now, despite what a game changer this is, it isn’t as though I live in fairyland 24/7 now. There are things, many of them, that shake my contentment and threaten to topple it, such as when my boundaries are tested. That is when I need to choose to turn back to the things that allow me to maintain contentment. Things like sleep, hydration (to prevent sinus headaches and much more), correct diet, my exercise regime, and enough time alone.

Hang on... There was an important word in there that I think I missed. Something like ch... Ch... Choose? Yes! I said I had to choose! That’s... Kind of like choice, isn’t it?

But seriously folks, sleeping well is one major thing that makes happiness an option for me. If my sleep is poor, or I have a headache, or my stomach hurts, then no, I don’t feel I have much choice in how I feel. Prioritizing sleep and my other basic needs does, however, make happiness a choice for me.

What things might make happiness seem more like an option for you?