On Happiness

When I realized Isaac Hanson had started an Instagram, I was excited. When he started posting the kinds of quotes that make the basis for his Grace Unknown podcast, I was interested. But one quote in particular was like a needle being dragged off a record: “Happiness is a decision, not a reaction.” I don’t care how good this Kool-aid tastes to the rest of you, I’m going to pass. This is an idea that makes me actively uncomfortable.

What are we even talking about? What is happiness? According to the newest podcast, it’s recognizing and appreciating what we have to feel good about. It’s looking at things positively and writing down things to appreciate, because when one does these things and forces oneself to smile and act happy, the feeling follows. I’ve read this idea before, and since it didn’t seem so far off from what motivated me to start writing in the first place — remembering the happy events of the summer I got Middle of Nowhere — I’ve tried writing down things to be happy about more recently. Overall, I know I have more than most people do via some luck, some hard work, and a few difficult decisions. And the only thing writing down those happy things accomplished was making me feel like an overprivileged first-world asshole.

Here’s the thing: research has found that if a positive frame of mind doesn’t come naturally via your life experiences, trying to force one is actually counterproductive. Acting positively only induces happiness in already-positive people. It makes sense to me. Happiness is partially controlled by the same brain chemicals that are also known to be low in people with depression (and I’d guess vary even in the nondepressed). If one lacks the requisite chemicals to feel happiness, it really doesn’t matter how many good things you write down or how many smiles you force.

These days, my life is a calculated balance of things that I don’t always enjoy, but on the whole, keep me from wanting to punch someone in the face or never leave my house again. Literally every day, I refer to a list of medications and actions that I’ve found genuinely do make a difference: antidepressants, exercise, giving myself enough sleep, vitamin D, et cetera. Despite all those efforts, sometimes I am not happy. Sometimes, those low brain chemicals leave me ruminating on an annoyance or embarrassment or sadness even when I’m trying to think of other things. This is a straightforward biological fact, not some failure on my part because I wasn’t thinking positively enough.

If positive thinking and gratitude journaling genuinely make you happier, by all means, do them. Isaac makes some excellent points, but for me, this wasn’t one of them.

3 thoughts on “On Happiness”

  1. Yeah. The quote reminds me of when someone demands that I smile. No. I’ll smile when I have an emotion that makes me feel smiley. Happiness is something you have to allow, but you can’t decide or force it. There was even recently an article with the headline “Another reason to say no to depression” as though we one day woke up and decided our emotion was going to be debilitating.

  2. Great post Misty. I worry that Isaac is going down the line of chucking inspirational quotes at us, without really exploring the issue in question (which, fair enough, he’s not a psychologist and he doesn’t have the time or the platform to really do that). People are lapping it up like it’s gospel anyway, so why shouldn’t he?
    I’ve enjoyed his podcasts so far but I don’t agree with this simplistic approach to happiness. First of all, is happiness really an obligatory state of mind? Are we really supposed to be happy? All the time? Secondly, and most importantly, we’re all wired differently. It’s like saying ‘cheer up’ to someone suffering from severe depression: it’s not only unhelpful but also potentially harmful, because that person might not bother speaking up anymore. And next time, they might do something extreme.

  3. This is so true, Misty. When I saw his podcast title it actually made me mad! My immediate reaction was it biology! Yes one can shift ones mood with thought reframing and effort and lots and lots of practice but if you are coping with clinical depression or anxiety no amount of positive thinking will change this alone.
    There are some amazing books out there like the secret which I’m guessing he’s probably referring to it’s approach by using the law of attraction. As you’ve said, it works for those who are already ok. If you have ptsd, are in an abusive relationship etc the affects of trauma leads to clinical levels of anxiety and depression. These need therapy, medication, and environmental changes to improve ones mental health.
    Thanks for challenging his notion. I couldn’t agree with you more!

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