Do you believe that happiness is a choice? These days, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic, it seems that happiness is in short supply. But as psychologists tell us, happiness is a choice we have the power to make. What’s more, if happiness is a choice, then it’s extremely important to our mental health as we age to make the choices and take the steps that will enhance our sense of well-being.
If this sounds like wishful thinking, or psycho-babble, it’s not. As this recent NextAvenue article suggests, by choosing to have good relationships, find beauty in nature and take care of ourselves, true happiness is within reach, and the benefits can be profound. This insightful article was written by Jackson Rainer, an Atlanta-based clinical psychologist. We think it’s a concept worth internalizing, and sharing. It’s also something to consider carefully as we head into our retirement years when old definitions of happiness seem to fall by the wayside.
Happiness is a Choice – but it Seems Elusive
Writing for NextAvenue, Rainer begins by telling us about one of his therapy clients, Gwen, a bright, 60-something year old nurse educator who works in a southern urban hospital.
In a psychotherapy session in which Gwen was exploring her experiences with chronic, debilitating anxiety, she told Rainer, “I know I should be happy, but I don’t even know what that is. The pandemic made things worse for me. As good as it sounds, I’ve learned that this whole patriotic idea of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ is aspirational, not a promise.” She added regretfully, “I think my natural state of being is not necessarily happy, so I’m not sure what to expect.”
“Happiness is a Choice, but I’m Not Happy”
Gwen is not alone in her sense that our sense of happiness, as defined by internal personal satisfaction, has changed quite a lot in the last few years. “Cynicism, irritability and exhaustion rise with increasingly demanding urgencies of daily living embodying different energy than was experienced in the pre-pandemic years,” Rainer writes.
Psychologist Laurie Santos teaches Yale’s single most popular course, On the Science of Happiness. She found that what people think happiness is—money, status, fame—is “erroneous”.
“Those things that ensure good physical health (sleep, exercise and nutrition), membership in community, expressions of gratitude, thinking in mindful ways and finding meaning in everyday life are more accurate markers indicative of the internal sense of happiness,” she says.
“Happiness is a Choice, but Why Is It Hard to Choose?”
Neurological psychologists point out that happiness is not exactly a biological imperative. In other words, happiness is not something our brains are always naturally “good at.”
“The process of natural selection and sustenance is more oriented to survival, reproduction and full utilization of resources,” Rainer writes. “So, in 2023 as the world is more fragmented, polarized and we live with a loss of the common good, the psychological ‘lay of the land’ for what makes us happy appears to be changed.”
George, another therapy client and a recent widower, put these ideas to words this way: “I want to be happy. I’m not sure what the takeaway is, though. I am struggling more than I think that I should.”
He adds, “I feel like a stranger in a strange land. I’m reading a map without understanding where I’m going.”
Happiness is a Choice: the 5 Elements of Happiness
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote extensively on five key elements of happiness, and Santos has brought those tenets forward one hundred or so years to teach them in her Yale course. Rainer explains these five elements here, and we’ve included them from his article:
- Good physical health. For 55+ers, good physical health is defined by staying in motion. While it may be aspirational to run a 5k race, walking 20 minutes every day is a good enough level of exercise for most.
- Close personal and intimate relationships. Finding and sustaining loving, companionable and collegial communities enhances the sense of warmth that is a marker of the energy of happiness.
- Focused intent on the beauty and art in nature. Walk outside. Place cut flowers on the dining room table. Listen closely to the sound of the rain. Hug a tree.
- Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work. As we age, the metrics for productive activities of daily living may be evaluated by what statisticians call “goodness of fit.” Ask questions that examine how elegantly the day unfolds. By Jung’s definition, the more grace and simplicity is found in the course of the day, the more happiness is present.
- A philosophic or religious point of view. An organized belief system that allows meaning for coping successfully with the alterations of daily life is a defining factor of happiness. This point of view is characterized through the definition of how an individual understands the nature of life.
Happiness is a Choice that is More Than Emotions
It’s common to speak of happiness as a “feeling”, but happiness is more than just an emotion, which can be fleeting. “Thought, value and belief, and behavior are necessary considerations for living happily,” Rainer writes.
For George, moving through the grief of losing his wife, this distinction was a helpful one. “I learned that I could feel more than one emotion at any point in time,” he says. “I’ve finally redefined being happy simply by the word ‘happening’ — that, if I am moving in a congruent way through the day, I’m OK, even if I don’t feel especially joyful. I now believe and think that happiness is tied more to effectiveness than it is to elation.”
Rainer explains, “The takeaway is that we think we know what we should do to be happy, even though our brain naturally leads us to faulty impulses and intuitions. Happiness-building helps. In a world where we are prone to feel anxious, down and unable to control those factors that influence happiness, understanding individual agency and intentionally helps the movement toward satisfaction.”
Experts who study such things all seem to agree that there is a distinct “cocktail of ingredients” that define happiness: “A sense of control and autonomy over one’s life, being guided by meaning and purpose, and connecting with others.”
Rainer concludes, “While our feelings are innate, the bulk of happiness is defined by choice. The more an individual notices and engages those behaviors that contribute to happiness, the more it grows.”
Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!
We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public. As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.
You’ve heard Rajiv say it repeatedly: 70 percent of retirement plans will fail. If you know someone whose retirement turned into a nightmare when they were forced into a nursing home, went broke paying for care, or became a burden to their families – and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you – then this book is must-read.
Through stories, examples, and personal insights, Rajiv takes us along on his journey of expanding awareness about a problem that few are willing to talk about, yet it’s one that results in millions of Americans sleepwalking their way into their worst nightmares about aging. Rajiv lays bare the shortcomings of traditional retirement planning advice, exposes the biases many professionals have about what is best for older adults, and much more.
Rajiv then offers a solution: LifePlanning, his groundbreaking approach to retirement planning. Rajiv explains the essential planning steps and, most importantly, how to develop the framework for these elements to work in concert toward your most deeply held retirement goals.
Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!
(originally reported at www.nextavenue.0rg)