Is being happy really a choice?

 There are so many different factors that go into this question, and probably nothing that I have to say will be applicable to every situation out there, but let me just say this much – if you don't choose to be happy, it probably won't choose you. Happiness is not just some easy-going, jolly feeling that effortlessly happens to some lucky few. Like anything worthwhile, it is hard work.

To be honest, I have a happy disposition. In other words, I don't really feel like myself if I'm not striving toward happiness in some way. If there is something in my way blocking me from feeling happy, I am actively seeking to destroy it so that I can be myself again.

I've been depressed before. To say it was just hard on me is akin to saying the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground. Depression is horrible, and I don't want undercut anyone's experience with it or any other mental illness he or she may suffer from by writing this blog. I fought my way out of depression so gradually that I really couldn't say what day it was that I finally felt like myself again.

After that, I got into a car accident where I was pronounced permanently paralyzed from the shoulders down. I was just 18 years old. The first week I spent in the ICU, mainly sleeping and out of my mind on morphine, I was in denial about my situation. I did not really accept what had happened to me until we found out that in addition to breaking my neck, I also had broken my wrist and ankle. My body was broken and I didn't know it! For the first time since waking up and not feeling my body, I cried. I had actually been picturing myself, fully healed, going back to work in about a week or two.

As I struggled to come to grips with reality, my mind latched onto a book that I had read in high school: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book was about this man's true experience in a Nazi work camp. Under the most brutal circumstances, he figured he still had control over one thing – how he felt. This thought prevented him from becoming a victim of his situation and instead allowed him to choose happiness in the face of the most extreme kind of oppression imaginable.

Before my accident, I was extremely independent, in the physical sense. I started working a regular job when I was 16, and I never let my parents pay for any of my extracurricular activities, even before I got a regular job. I moved out of my parents' house when I was 18, and I even bought my own car. Now that I was paralyzed, I would be dependent on them. But I did not have to be a victim of my circumstances. I could choose how I felt, and for my sake and the sake of my family, I wanted that to be a happy feeling.

Anyhow, simply deciding to be happy is just the first step of the process. I went through a lot during those first four months while I was in the hospital. I knew that I had to be strong for my family, and that having a positive attitude would make things easier for them. I'd grown up in Arizona from when I was a toddler, but my family was in the middle of moving to Southern California. I knew I would be leaving all of my friends and moving to a new place where I didn't know anyone. It was hard.

Something that I kept in the forefront of my memory during these difficult times was to be grateful for the things which I did have. In the sage words of Sheryl Crow, "It's not having what you want. It's wanting what you've got."1 I would play the grateful game with whoever was staying with me at the hospital, and I never once ran out of things to be grateful for. I could still breathe, talk, think, see, hear, express myself, move my shoulders, and I had a wonderful supportive family, technology made my life easier, and I was benefiting from the most advanced medicine in history.

Another thing that really helps if you want to be happy is to be less selfish. Obviously, I need a lot of help, and as someone who was not used to accepting help from others, it was difficult to do. However, I didn't want to be only a burden. I wanted to help others as much as I possibly could, and so I did. I listened to my family and friends, and I helped with my siblings' schooling. I just read a fascinating article2 that shows that people who help others are happier and more fulfilled. Another facet of serving others is also allowing others to serve you. I NEED help with almost everything, and my life would be so much different if I was bitter or awkward because of the help I have to accept from other people. Allowing others to serve you is just as important as serving others, because it allows them to receive the blessings and good feelings of service. It is important to accept service both with humility and gratitude. The truth is this: we all need one another.

An interesting thing that the article also goes into is that people who believe the best in others are often happier and more successful. This goes with the third thing that I do to choose happiness: assuming the best in others, always. It goes hand-in-hand with being nonjudgmental. I'm not going to say that I am the best at this, because I fall short. But, I try. Let me tell you that assuming others have good intentions is not natural for us to do, but it is pivotal to being happy. It is a little easier to assume that the people we know and love have good intentions, and those that we don't know or don't like have bad intentions. I know that this is not easy to do, but it gets easier the longer you do it. Luckily, I'd already had a good start by actively deciding not to judge others beginning with high school, figuring that I'd easily make it to heaven if I never judged others, a topic which I will delve into deeper in another post.

The last thing that you can do to become happier is to forgive. When I was in the accident that paralyzed me, the person driving my car fell asleep. This simple mistake changed the rest of my life. Of course, he didn't do it on purpose, but that didn't stop me from feeling victimized from time to time, especially when life got really hard, or I started to miss being able to play piano and create musical works of art. Because I was willing to forgive initially, and because I wanted control over my life and happiness, I was able to completely forgive that mistake. I knew this to be true when I only wanted good things to happen to this person. And when I heard about the good things in his life, it made me happy. Living a life free from petty grudges and thoughts of revenge is truly liberating. I highly recommend it.

So, that is just my experience. Summed up, the steps are: deciding to be happy, being grateful, serving others and accepting service, assuming the best in others, and forgiving. Am I always happy? No. Am I happy most of the time? Yes. Is it super easy to do? No. Is it worth doing? Yes.

[I want to say that I know that there are circumstances that are out of control for some of us – mental illness, physical maladies that mess with the chemical makeup of our minds and bodies. In these cases, just deciding to be happy is not going to be enough, and I understand that. What I have written here is simply my experience.]

Lastly, I just want to say that is important to know who you are: an infinite being with limitless possibilities. You have intrinsic worth! No matter your choices, your value never decreases. Whether you believe as I do, that you are a child of God, saved by grace through the atonement of Jesus Christ, or you don't believe in anything, you need to believe in the power of yourself. I know what it's like, wanting to disappear into the oblivion as if you had never been created, but there is that sliver of your soul that always persists, which is why you are still alive today! Believing in the infinity which is your soul makes it so much easier to choose happiness over despair. You are worth it! You are worthy.