It is almost a new year, a time that is both exhilarating and exhausting. Lately I’ve been sick a lot. My sleep quota has increased. Even after 8 or 9 hours of sleep, I still feel tired. Being tired makes me cranky.
My crankiness is not fun for my family, so I search for an antidote that could help me feel better.
This time, an antidote came in the form of an annoying cliche:
“Love is a decision, not an emotion”
I’ve heard variations of this line before, such as:
“Happiness is a choice. Love is a verb”
Once I said something similar to a friend and later regretted it. Honestly, it is aggravating because nothing in life can always be a choice. If it was true, why don’t we always choose to love what is, and live happily ever after?
“Happiness is a choice” implies that we can control how we feel no matter what and when.
Therefore, I can choose not to be cranky if I really want to.
I am skeptical.
Yet, there seems to be some truth in it that I can’t ignore without putting myself at a disadvantage.
So I gave this idea a chance to prove me wrong.
For one thing, I feel more empowered when I make conscious decisions about my emotions. I notice that my decisions must be tied to worthy causes for them to prevail over my emotions.
My crankiness was getting in the way of my own as well as my family’s enjoyment of the holidays. I value being not a downer for loved ones because their joy and our time together matters to me. I made a decision to be happier and discovered that I can be happier on demand if it is for a right cause.
The success of this tiny experiment got me excited. I decided to explore more about this idea of choosing happiness and somehow it led me down a rabbit hole, which was an eye-opening experience.
Is happiness a choice?
The best clue I found came from Victor Frankl in his epic book Man’s Search for Meaning:
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
If happiness is the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a worthy cause, then, in a way, it can be a choice. We can choose it by directing our attention and actions to meaningful causes. We can earn our way to be happy.
But, wait a minute. In my case, becoming happier was my worthy cause that I worked towards. I didn’t want to compromise the quality of our family time during the holidays by being a meanie. I wanted to be an agent of joy.
Perhaps this was why I was able to feel happier without too much effort this time around.
Many times in the past I failed to become happier because I expected life or others to make me happy. When life failed to meet my expectations, I judged it harshly by labeling it unfair. It is no wonder why this attitude backfired and led me to feel more miserable.
I learned there was another powerful way of shaping our emotional experience and this was by tweaking our subconscious programming.
Emotion doesn’t just happen. What we witness and experience in life causes us to feel something. Most of the time, how we interpret our life experiences ends up shaping the nature of our emotions.
Therefore, we can possibly induce particular mood in ourselves by tinkering with our thoughts and beliefs or reframing our experiences.
Susan David wrote in her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life:
You can tweak your beliefs — or what psychologists call your mindset; you can tweak your motivations; and you can tweak your habits. When we learn how to make small changes in each of these areas, we set ourselves up to make profound, lasting change over the course of our lives.
As a mind-hacking hobbyist, I am excited about such a possibility.
She described “emotional agility” as:
Emotional agility means being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones. It also means getting beyond conditioned or preprogrammed cognitive and emotional responses (your hooks) to live in the moment with a clear reading of present circumstances, respond appropriately, and then act in alignment with your deepest values.
I know from my experience that I fare better if I acknowledge and feel my emotions as is without acting on them. Where I screw things up is when I get carried away by my emotions and make crappy decisions, or what psychologists call emotional decisions.
Most of the emotional decisions we make on a whim get us into trouble.
Emotionally spurred bad decisions almost always catch up with me. The older I get, the harder it is to get away from not owning my ability to make harder but more responsible decisions instead of opting for careless and easy ones.
There are those famous quotes by Victor Frankl that come up again and again as if haunting me:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Who can argue with someone who’s survived unimaginable horror and not only prevailed, but also learned life-changing lessons to share with the whole world?
Unfortunately, I still can’t stomach reading Man’s Search for Meaning in its entirety. It is too painful.
While looking for something short and good to read about emotion and decision making, I came across Mark Manson. He wrote in his article Fuck Your Feelings:
Everything that’s screwed up in your life, chances are it got that way because you were too beholden to your feelings. You were too impulsive. Or too self-righteous and thought yourself the center of the universe. Feelings have a way of doing that, you know? They make you think you’re the center of the universe. And I hate to be the one to tell you, but you’re not.
I wonder if he is referring to how people’s sense of entitlement and privilege can blind them and lead them to be insensitive and narcissistic.
The article makes a good case against emotional decisions and advocates for value-based decisions. Manson wrote:
Acting based on our feelings is easy. You feel it. Then you do it. It’s like scratching an itch. There’s a sense of relief and cessation that comes along with it. It’s a quick satisfaction. But then that satisfaction is gone just as quickly as it came.
Acting based on what’s good/right is difficult. For one, knowing what is good/right is not always clear. You often have to sit down and think hard about it. Often we have to feel ambivalent about our conclusions or fight through our lower impulses…. The point is: doing what is good/right builds self-esteem and adds meaning to our lives.
I am spending a couple of days in Monterey, California, with my husband and son. After walking around for what seemed like 9,000 miles and visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium, my husband announced that he was too tired to do anything else for the day. He was ready to crash early or at least take a nap.
Then, a smiley shop attendant talked us into renting a 3-seat bike trolley. We pedaled it for another hour or so. When it became too tiring to pedal, my husband got out and pushed us. After we returned the bike, all of us were happier and more energized.
Weren’t we supposed to be more tired?
My husband had a mini revelation just in time for the New Year. He declared, “You know, I realized being tired is a state of mind, not a reality. I mean I had more energy than I thought I had. I just needed to push through the hump to tap into this hidden energy.”
True. We usually have more than we think we have: more energy, more happiness, more love, more abilities, and more ways to give back to life. Discovering what we already have more of requires us to make conscious and responsible decisions again and again as long as we are able and mentally healthy.
At the end of this beautiful day in Monterey, we heard the news about one elderly person close to both of us. He was feeling suicidal. He stopped accepting phone calls. I feel incredibly sad and let myself feel the depth of my sadness in solidarity with this man. This sadness is an emotion for sure, but it is also my decision. Suddenly, I was compelled to meditate about suicide.
Is suicide an (emotional) decision?
This question is much more complex and serious than anything I’ve ever contemplated.
I didn’t expect my question about happiness would at some point morph into a question about a suicide.
But, I let myself go down the rabbit hole a little further.
When choosing to live is a decision
A few weeks earlier I learned from a friend about a single mom who chose to live after giving birth to a child with cerebral palsy and being abandoned by her partner at the same time.
According to this mom, her daughter’s disability was her sole reason to choose to live because she knew no other person would be able to take care of her child in the fiercely committed way as she was determined to.
She worked her way through impossible challenges to help her daughter who later obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and became an advocate for people with disabilities.
I am reading a fascinating biography about the French-Spanish rockstar Manu Chao by Peter Culshaw. In his book Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao, he wrote:
Manu hit the road and hit rock bottom. ‘I decided to end my life in Brazil,’ he says. ‘It really was a depression. It was very bad. Not that I wanted to kill myself, exactly, but I thought about it every day. It was my first thought of the day. That’s the song ‘Dia Luna … Dia Pena’ on Clandestino. ‘Day of the moon, day of pain–with no reason.” That’s the terrible thing about depression, it’s a sickness–you have to find a reason to live, quick!’ At his lowest point, Manu found himself in a bar in a shanty town–a favela–in Rio when a cow walked in. It was raining. ‘I got face to face with this cow, which was lost like me. Just looking at the cow’s eyes I felt good. There was something immensely tender in her eyes. After that I started to meet cows in very strange places, so I figured the cows wanted to say something to me. Since then I realise why cows are sacred in India. One day I will go to India to say thank you to them.
This story reminded my husband and son of “a cow walks into a bar” joke. It reminded me of some terrifying and embarrassing moments of my life. I am not lucky with cows. Once as a child, I was chased by a little bull which I thought was determined to hurt me. Then in Udaipur, India, in 2017, a cow with a mean stare chased me for a reason I couldn’t figure out while people on the street watched the spectacle, laughing.
Was it a holy cow? I didn’t think so.
However, I am grateful and happy to learn that this particular cow walked into the bar where my favorite artist was and somehow convinced him to not kill himself. This singer whose mere presence emanates immense sense of hope, humility, and honesty has a lot to teach us about emotion.
Culshaw further wrote:
Manu was in a strange, unbalanced state of mind. ‘I was crazy and unable to make any decisions about my personal life or my professional life. But it turned out that to be so lost was also good because I was always recording–and Clandestino is the result of the recordings from this time. I didn’t know I was making a record–it was pure therapy.
A quote I love the best came from Manu Chao’s mom. Culshaw wrote:
When he was at his worst, his mother Felisa gave him some sage advice. ‘She told me that for you, life is pena. But it’s good to go to the end of life for one reason–curiosity. Even if it’s hard.’ One of Manu’s greatest characteristics is an insatiable curiosity. The word ‘curious’ is a favourite of his.
Manu Chao surely succeeded in transforming his heavy and depressive emotions into an inspiring work of art that has sold like hotcakes to the world. He advocates for and believes in turning negative emotions into something positive or at least in not giving into the temptation of being a nihilist.
I think all of us have an ability to become an emotional alchemist like him to some degree.
Though, I also get it when we fail to do so. Pain and loss can be too much to bear. The brain is a fragile organ. The mind can go astray in a thousand different ways that may or may not be our fault.
When choosing not to live is (not) a decision
A smile could’ve saved a thirty something old man from plunging into his death by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. According to psychiatrist Jerome Motto, this man wrote a note that said:
I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I won’t jump.
I can only make a guess. Loneliness may have driven him to the edge and he chose not to stop and reconsider. Or he may have been dealing with an illness that claimed his cognitive ability to make an alternative decision. At least, he was searching for a smile or a reason to be alive. It breaks my heart.
Sadly, though, this is a story of one of millions of individuals I’ll never get to know.
I will never know why Amy Winehouse, Anthony Bourdain, or many others I adore and respect went over to the other side.
Couldn’t they have chosen to be happier with their lives no matter what their situations were? Many of these people were smart and successful, after all.
No one knows the answer because no one can answer for them.
What I choose to believe is that all those people who took their lives didn’t fail life or God. For some, life failed them. For many others, an illness failed them. Certainly, they didn’t fail to be happy, strong, or even positive. There is always more that we don’t know.
I am terrified to write about suicide. I feel I am not qualified to voice my opinion about it. Especially since I know that my opinion can never capture the complexity of something so elusive and so beyond understanding.
But, then again, this is only a meditation of one clueless but opinionated person at a singular point in time. I don’t pretend it to be anything more. I am simply asserting my right to reflect on and pose hard questions even if there is no answer.
So, is happiness a choice?
To me, it is both yes and no. It depends.
I came to see that there is no one definitive answer to this and many other questions regarding the human psyche.
According to Mark Manson, we can feel good for the wrong reasons and bad for the right reasons. Thoughts and feelings are cheap, transitory, and unreliable. But values endure.
There are no inherently right or wrong emotions, only right and wrong reasons and actions.
I aspire to be happier when I am cranky because my husband and son like it better. It brings more harmony, hope, and kindness to our family. It is a good enough reason for me to choose happiness. At other times, it makes more sense for me to feel sad if it means more understanding and acceptance of others who are going through hard times.
I can speculate about these questions in the relative peace of my life. But if an illness or stressful event strikes me, I don’t know where I will be emotionally or mentally. I tend to fall apart easily.
Still, I anchor myself to the idea that we all are blessed with the ability to choose to live our lives the way it matters to us.
Perhaps Victor Frankl is an exceptional person, an outlier. He found his almost superhuman strength and reason to live despite the hell he was in. And, his reason for doing so was to spread the message of hope and love and to remind us all to keep choosing our deepest values over and over again until we can’t.
Perhaps the universe truly conspired to save Manu Chao through the cow’s eyes because he was destined to bring his own message of hope through his music to inspire millions.
Perhaps hope is all that is left to live for when all else fails.
Curiously, the process of writing this article helped me see one empowering question I’ve neglected to ask myself which definitely has answers.
For 2020, I resolve to ask this question: “what is my worthy cause for this day?” everyday for the whole year.