Why Happiness Is Not a Choice

“Happiness is a choice, not a result.  Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy. No person will make you happy unless you decide to be happy.” – Ralph Marston1

The idea that happiness is somehow a choice has become one of the most prominent attitudes towards life in the 21st century. The mindset that happiness doesn’t come from external circumstances, and that it is simply up to us to “choose” has somehow become a slogan even inside the church. “Happiness is a decision, not a result! Wake up today and choose to be happy!” Everyone says it, from Christians, to Buddhists, to Atheists, so it must be true! Right? Wrong, just because something is socially accepted does not mean it is correct, even if, perhaps especially if, the claim is something preached by Joel Osteen. This, unfortunately, not only says a lot about our culture, but about the condition of the church as well. Have we forgotten what it means to be defenders of the truth?  I write not merely to debunk this idea of happiness, but also to encourage and challenge fellow Christians to be more mindful of the world in which they live.  I write to encourage Christians to learn to think more clearly and question more often. So, to this I propose the question: shall we think deeply to find truth, or shall we live in the blissful ignorance that happiness can be chosen—possibly allowing ourselves and the world around us to end up in a life of misery and brokenness, all because we never thought to question if our philosophy on life was correct? We will all be philosophers, but we must  decide if we will be good or bad ones.

This philosophy is for the people who couldn’t “make their own happiness,” or for the people who might find themselves going through a tough time. Almost as if to say, no matter what you’re going through, you can always turn on some switch in your brain that will somehow make you happy and that you don’t need any person or circumstance to give you said happiness. Very encouraging, very valiant, yet very wrong.

So where does this philosophy go wrong? First of all, happiness must be defined and understood. Aristotle claims that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  Happiness is what we as human beings strive for. Without happiness, life seems to not be worth living. Almost everyone revolves their life around finding happiness, but you will never find this happiness if you believe it to be a choice.

What exactly is happiness?

John Stuart Mill, a famous utilitarian who believed that happiness was the only thing in life with intrinsic worth, simply defined happiness as pleasure (such as reading a good book, listening to music, or having a family), with the absence of pain. For the most part, I agree with Mill. Happiness always stems from some sort of physical pleasure or external circumstance, which then gives us a positive sensation, making happiness a result, not a choice. If someone experiences happiness, it is because of something going on outside themselves that is giving their mind (or body) a pleasurable experience.  Whether it be a newborn baby, sunshine, listening to music, or even having intellectual stimulation, happiness never occurs without something initiating the reaction that gives us the emotion we call happiness. To say that happiness is a choice and not a result, sounds nice on paper, but is ultimately illogical. Happiness is not some magical potion that is dwelling inside of us that we can somehow tap into when we are feeling down. Happiness is a state of being that occurs only when initiated by something other than ourselves. To say that happiness is a choice and not a result is a non sequitur, it cannot solely rely on choice.

But I choose to be happy every day!

The first objection to happiness being a result rather than a choice will be from people the claim that they choose to be happy throughout their day. For example, a husband who might have had a bad day at work, may choose not to let his emotions affect his relationship with his wife by changing his attitude on his drive home. Many people would argue that this is an example of someone choosing to be happy.

I do not deny that there was a choice the husband made in this situation, and I am glad to hear of these circumstances, yet I don’t think happiness is being chosen in this instance. The husband isn’t choosing to be happy, he is choosing not to be angry. The husband has chosen to change his bad mood, but this has only gotten him as far as being emotionally neutral, it has not raised his emotions to the point of happiness. To achieve this he must see his wife, feel the warmth of his newborn baby, and find himself in certain circumstances that will give him the emotion of happiness.

What is actually taking place with the husband is that he is choosing love instead of anger, and this is something that one absolutely has the freedom to choose. Love is a choice, not a feeling that we receive. I know, this is groundbreaking, but love is not a feeling. You chose to love people. That silly thing you “fall into” is not love, it is infatuation. We can always chose to love (putting others before ourselves), which will then soothe and overcome our anger. This is what the husband in the above scenario did, he put his wife before himself, which in turn changed his mood. Yet again, this made him emotionally neutral. He needed something else besides a choice to reach the point of being happy.

Which explains why we can’t simply choose to be happy anytime we want to. If happiness were something you could “choose” or simply to reach for inside yourself and put on, then why are there times we can’t do it? Why is it that when tragedy strikes or when we are depressed, this magic potion that resides inside ourselves cannot be found? Simply put, because happiness and sadness are reactions to external circumstances, not decisions we can choose. We are sad because it is a natural emotion in response to events that call for sadness. We are happy because it is a natural emotion in response to events that call for celebration. It is not something we choose, it is a response.

Can’t you choose to be happy by focusing on positive thoughts?

The final objection might be that we can be happy by choosing to think about what is good and positive instead of what is bad and negative. Which would be about the same as choosing happiness, wouldn’t it? This is trickier, but there are several errors in this thought. First, you must already have positive circumstances in your life to dwell on in order to accomplish this. Without these circumstances, your “choice” would be nonexistent. Second, as I pointed out earlier, sometimes it is impossible to find this happiness through meditation on positive thoughts because our situations are so overwhelmingly dark or negative—once again not making it a choice. Lastly, I would argue that trying to make yourself happy by focusing on “happy thoughts” can be dangerous and unhealthy. There will be times in life that will demand we look past the darkness and into the light, but this is not what I am referring to here.

For example, if someone lost their parents and were trying their hardest to not cry or be sad by only thinking positive thoughts, what would most people say to this person? Hopefully, most people would tell them that it is natural for them to be sad, and that this is a time in their life that calls for sadness. In this situation it would not only be healthy, but right for the person to grieve and let sadness run its course. Why? Because sadness is a natural emotion that occurs from events that call for sadness. But for some reason, we try to deny this any other time we are sad or unhappy.

We tell ourselves happiness it is a choice because we refuse to believe our sadness is a natural emotion occurring from the condition of our lives. Simply put, we do not want to admit that the way we are living is worth being sad over. We don’t want to admit there is something missing in our lives.Technically, a person who has just lost a loved one can to some degree refuse to be sad, but he would be in an unhealthy place of denial. Just like denying sadness is unhealthy, pretending we can manufacture happiness denies the circumstances that infuse us with that feeling of happiness. The correct thing to do in seasons of sadness would be to face reality and begin searching for truth, to grow by beginning the quest for what one’s life is missing.

The Dangers of this Mindset

Okay, so you can’t literally choose to be happy, and it will be unhealthy if you try to, but what’s the big deal about believing you can? Well, for one, it can be dangerous because it will make people think that they don’t need to change in order to find happiness. Someone living a lifestyle that is causing them sadness will continue in their depressing lifestyle until they realize happiness is not something they can “choose”. This mindset is what keeps people enslaved to their laziness, depression, and complacent lifestyle. Only when one realizes that happiness is not a choice will one be able to take steps towards changing their lives for the better.  Only when one realizes that happiness comes from an external source will one come closer to finding the One Source where all happiness derives.

Being a Christian, I would love to say that becoming a follower of Christ will instantly give you the happiness that you have always craved. But to be honest, it isn’t that simple—nothing in life is. Christianity does not promise happiness, it instead offers peace, love, joy, and suffering. Did God care about Moses’s happiness when giving him such a heavy burden? Or what of Hosea when the Lord told him to marry a prostitute? The harsh reality is that God doesn’t care for our happiness in the same way that we want him to.

Because of this reality, many have turned to the second popular philosophy that we can “make our own happiness.” This is the second prominent mindset of the culture today, but has been around since the beginning. In part two, I will argue against this second philosophy, though it isn’t quite as illogical it is all the more dangerous.

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Micah McMeans

Micah McMeans

Micah has been an avid reader, writer and artist since he can remember (though he admits that calling myself an artist is a stretch, and merely claims to draw and paint in his spare time). He is attending the College at Southwestern in the fall as a Junior, where he hopes to satisfy his newly found passions for theology and philosophy.

  • Daniel Hartley

    Wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time to articulate what’s not being acknowledged these days! There is a serious effort these days for people to propogate the concept that the individual is internally in control of every aspect of life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    God bless

  • Micah McMeans

    haha well thanks Kenneth. I was pretty hesitant about writing it in a Christian blog, but I thought it might at least spark good discussion. Plus, I could be totally wrong! I would be happy to hear opposing viewpoints.

    • Micah, I am curious to know why you were hesitant to write about the subject of happiness on a Christian blog. The Bible often says “Happy is the man…” in Psalms. I don’t think it means that a man’s happiness is determined by circumstances, but by how he chooses to respond to the things God has given, and even how he chooses to respond to hard/bad things happening to him.

      I found the following observation worth bringing up, considering the points you made about happiness above: ‘For both Plato and Aristotle, and indeed for most Greeks, *virtue* was essential for happiness (eudaimonia, which means “happiness” or “good character,” [or] more broadly. . . the good life).’

      If virtue is the foundation of happiness (and the good life), then people who lack virtue are also unable/incapable of being happy or leading a good life in the classic sense.


      • Micah McMeans

        Of course! That is the angle I will be using to argue against being able to “create” happiness. If we have a telos, then we have a purpose and creator, meaning we have to follow certain guidelines to function properly and flourish or “be happy.” And of course, the end of all happiness is found in “the good” A.K.A. God, which is an external source that can’t be created. I am excited about writing it!

        And I guess I was a tad bit hesitant to write on it because it doesn’t have a ton to do with Christianity or contain biblical teaching. And having grown up with fundamental conservatives, I wasn’t too sure how the rest of the Christian Church would think about using reason outside of biblical teaching to come to a final conclusion.

        • Micah, my apologies for the delayed reply—it was a very long week at work.

          Confessedly, I’m a bit confused by your answer… In your essay you say that happiness is not a choice (not about whether anyone can create happiness). However, the ancients say that happiness *is* a choice, sustained, directed, or undergirded by virtue.

          If we have virtue or good character, then we will choose to view all of life based on that character (which character and virtue stem from God, even for the unbeliever). We will essentially choose to be content [happy] with various good things. Thus, we choose happiness.

          On the flip side, we choose to be sad or grieved over bad/evil/un-virtuous things. We may not realise that being upset by murder or cruelty is a choice, because we should be so firmly entrenched in virtue that it feels like second nature to be upset/angry/sad about wrongdoing or the consequences of the Fall.

          As for your other point, the Bible often talks about goodness, character, and contentment—all things that underpin happiness… And God made us rational, reasonable creatures, so using reason to reach a conclusion seems right in line with how God made us to work. If anyone in the Church takes umbrage at using reason or logic as if it is outside of the Bible, they may need to learn more about who God is (and who we are in light of that), and how He made us to be/function. 😉

          I look forward to your next piece, to see more of your thought progression on the topic.

          • Micah McMeans

            alas, I finally have time to sit in front of my lab top. Yes, I must admit, I didn’t really play fair when writing against “happiness being a choice.” I was writing against the utilitarian idea of happiness being a choice, because it seems to be the most prominent idea of happiness in our culture. I hold to the Aristotelian idea of happiness, but even then, I am hesitant to call it a choice! We do “choose” to be virtuous and live in accordance with our function, but at the end of the day, happiness is a result and not a choice (which I was arguing for in this one.) whether utilitarian or Aristotelian, it is always a result stemming from choices we make in life. The result of living virtuously for example is happiness. I find it dangerous in the world we live in today to say one can “choose” happiness because the way moderns think, I wouldn’t surprise me (and hasn’t) when people assume that means no decisions or actions have to be made to receive happiness. After all, sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible!

  • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

    I’m happy somebody finally said this!

    • Was that tongue-in-cheek, Kenneth? 😉

      • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

        Yes, but I also mean it 🙂