By Krisca Te

What Is Happiness?

Of course happiness is a very subjective issue. An individual’s happiness depends on a number of things: Age. Timing. Personality. Culture. To name a few. Some say happiness is a feeling of peace and contentment. Others say it’s a matter of exciting fulfillment. Circumstance and situation must play a heavy part.

Could perhaps death, rather than long and excruciating torture, be seen as invoking happiness? Linking happiness and choice brings up other interesting questions. Can we choose to be happy? If one has many choices rather than just one or two, does that variety of choice itself make for a better chance at happiness?

Timeless Questions, Many Outlooks

What was happiness to the first human, hunter-gatherer philosopher? Since then countless questions and philosophies ranging from the simple to the divine have been devoted to human happiness. Surprisingly, old Aristotle reflects many of today’s happiness gurus: “Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot.”

More recently, Sigmund Freud had a rather sour outlook: “The intention that man should be happy is not in the plan of Creation.” Nowadays, happiness and choice are often linked in two ways: Choosing to be happy and, the other, choosing amongst ways to be happy. The first is a mental or spiritual exercise. The second holds some peril.

Choosing to Be Happy

A few years ago, Gretchin Rubin wrote a book called The Happiness Project. In a blog she has recounted that it is unrealistic for people to just wake up one morning and decide that they are going to be happy for the rest of their lives. Finding happiness is not making one big decision. It comes with tiny decisions made throughout the day.

Making all those little decisions in a way to gain happiness becomes a sort of skill-set that is sharpened as you become more and more successful at pulling happiness into your life – happiness becomes a way of life. Making happy choices becomes easier and the world becomes more fair and sunny.

Committing to Be Happy

Rather than just choosing to be happy, you need to choose happy things, happy actions, happy emotions. When your lover must leave, don’t gripe; kiss him or her in a way that makes a return most promising. Choose to put flowers in that vase that’s been sitting empty for months. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Resolve to greet your neighbor as you leave for work with a smile and a happy word, rather than lamenting what a horrible day it’s going to be.

Commit to Be Happy, a tightly packed little book soon to be published by New Zealand author, Josephine Coco, also expresses the knowledge that it takes a bunch of little commitments to be happy rather than just making a broad and sweeping statement that that’s how it’s going to be from now on. Plowing through the Web, you’re going to be confronted with the tenets as held forth by philosopher Immanuel Kant – “Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”

Another Aspect of Choice and Happiness

Our western culture offers a dizzying array of choice; not only in material goods, but also philosophies and “secrets” from a plethora of self-help gurus. Many long for the simpler times when there were, for instance, three flavors of ice cream: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Now you must choose between Chunky Monkey and Zebra Zing, and a myriad of choices in between.

Religions and sects as obscure as Ayahuasca rituals in the Amazon forest, to masses in the great cathedrals of Europe, promise happiness and redemption. From Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and on to Tony Robbins, self-help gurus offering the secrets to success and happiness abound. And these choices do seem to work for some folks.

Is So Much Choice a Good Thing?

In an article written some time ago, The Tyranny of Choice (Scientific American magazine), writer Barry Schwartz lamented that “…as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. What could account for this degree of misery?” The answer, put forth rather simply here, is that the more choices you have, the more opportunities for regret you have; the more wondering you do about the wisdom of your choice. Consequently, no matter how happy you should be with your choice, the happiness is dampened, if not ruined altogether, because of that nagging feeling.

Another good example of the excesses of choice might be “customizable” software. How often have you purchased an application to do a few things really well, only to find that to get those few things, you have to work the keyboard until your fingers are blistered because of all the available options. Sometimes lack of choice can make solutions simpler, and the outcome happier. Though we revel in our wealth of choices, Barry goes on to say, “A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery.”

And They Lived Happily Ever After

You can see a psychiatrist. You can go to a church service. You can be elated about the myriad of shampoos you can choose. The answer seems to be, for the happiness you want, you have to make on your own. Nothing old, nothing new, just what’s been passed down since that first, prehistoric barbecue, after which a very simple hunter-gatherer leaned against a tree, watched the sun set, and breathed a sigh of contentment.

Krisca Te works with Open Colleges, Australia’s leading provider of TAFE courses equivalent and counselling courses. When not working, you can find her actively participating in local dog show events – in support of her husband.