Happiness Feed

"Choosing" to be Happy

“Dwelling on the negative simply contributes to its power.”
~Shirley MacLaine

Let me say up front that Pollyanna Sunshine advice to just "choose" to be happy can really be annoying.  It is not meant for people who are seriously depressed.  If someone is so depressed they are not functioning, are suicidal, are losing the will to live, or are psychotic - this advice is at best inappropriate, if not downright ludicrous.  This article is meant as a cure-all for people struggling with life threatening depression.  However, it is intended for people struggling with the negative thinking so prevalent in depression.

From what I have experienced and observed, there is a kind of thinking that goes with depression.  A very negative outlook on life that always focuses on what is wrong, rather than what is right.  I've seen it in myself, in my clients and in people attending depression support groups.  I don't know which came first, the thinking or the depression, and I'm not going to debate that here.  Whichever came first, they do co-exist.  And our thoughts affect our mood.  However, since they are thoughts, we do have some control over them.  That is what this article if for.  It is not meant to be a miracle cure or a panacea.  I'm not advocating that readers throw away their antidepressants and consider this the Holy Grail.  But it can certainly help. 

The idea that you can change how you think about things, and that by changing how you think about things, you can change how you feel about them is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  And I think this is especially true in the case of depression.  This one of the reasons CBT is one of the most effective forms of treatment for depression - it addresses the thought patterns.  And addressing the thought patterns changes the mood.  

With that said, "choosing" to be happy is not the blasé answer it appears to be.  Choosing to be happy takes a lot of work and concentration.  It takes a lot of mindfulness.  And it takes a true desire to be happy.  Some people, for whatever reasons, are heavily invested in suffering, in martyrdom, in being depressed.  Some people are afraid to be happy, perhaps out of fear they will lose it again, or it will be wrenched from them.  In order for this to work, you have to be willing to accept change and you have to want to be happy.  If you are willing to fight for it, the benefits can be significant, even life altering.  

The word "mindfulness" is bandied about quite a bit these days.  But what do this word actually mean?  Being "mindful" can seem counter intuitive when you're in a state of life-sucking sadness and misery.  When you're really depressed, being "mindful" doesn't sound like a very good idea.  Why would I want to be more aware of my miserable state?  

Therefore, mindfulness alone will not do the trick.  You have to actively choose what to be mindful of.  I think "reframing" needs to occur along with mindfulness.  Reframing can be a conscious effort to look at things from the other side of the table.  People who are struggling with depression tend to see the glass as half empty.  Reframing requires that you be in the present (mindful) and look at how the glass is half full (reframing).  This can require a lot of effort, but the payoff can be huge.

Imagine you are feeling depressed.  And by depressed I mean, feeling sad or melancholic for no good reason.  If you are grieving the loss of someone or something, that is not depression.  That is grieving and should be experienced in order to heal.  So imagine everything is OK in your world, yet you still feel depressed.  Try this exercise.  Personalize these things for yourself.  You may like rainy days or storms.  You may like the sound of traffic lulling you to sleep or the excitement of a screeching neighbor.  Make this exercise specific to you.


Look around your world at what is going on.  How is your glass half full?  What is going right in your world?  Is the weather really good today?  Are you healthy and strong?  Has your partner cooked you a lovely meal?  Is your dog patiently waiting to be played with?  Are your children peacefully playing a game?  Is your favorite song playing?  Are you enjoying a hot bath?  Are you eating a good meal?  Are you snuggled up in a particularly cozy blanket or sitting in a really comfortable chair?  

For this exercise, I try to be hyper aware of what is happening to my body right now.  And to be hyper aware of what is not happening to me right now.  I'm not in pain.  I'm not paralyzed.  My body is functioning pretty well.  I'm not too hot or too cold.  I'm not being annoyed by my screeching neighbor or the sound of traffic.  It's not storming and there is no freezing rain.  My new job is calm and fairly peaceful. I'm no longer terrorized by my work environment or sick with dread at the thought of having to return to work tomorrow.  I'm no longer dealing with that nightmare of a relationship I was in.  I have no family drama plaguing me.  All my bills are paid and I have an adequate paycheck coming in.  The weather is beautiful and I'm walking my fabulous dog who is thrilled to be alive.  (I have a lot to learn from her.)  

Having accurately assessed what is not wrong, I want to look at how the glass is half full.  I tune into the pleasant activity (and this should be specific to you).  Focus your mindfulness on what is going right, instead of what is going wrong, then turn up the volume.  Choose to enjoy what is going right and really get into it.  Use your five senses as a guide.  Try to use them all in your experience of your pleasant activity.  If you are standing outside in beautiful weather, can you feel the sun warming your skin?  Stand still and try to feel it.  Take a minute to just be happy and feel the warmth of the sun on your body.  Choose to enjoy it. Can you feel the breeze on your skin, or hear it rustling the leaves in the trees?  Is the sky a particularly beautiful shade of blue?  Are the clouds a fluffy white?  Take an hour to cloud watch and see what shapes they form.   (Or feel the waves lapping on your feet if you are a beach person.  Or the silence of snow fall and the way if gently lands on your face if you are snow person.)  Choose to get into the experience and really feel it.

Repeat weekly, daily, even hourly if you can manage it.

This exercise is not easy and takes a lot of effort.  I don't want to minimize or trivialize that, especially if your are struggling with depression.  But it is worth the fight.  Think of it like any physical exercise.  It's really tough to get off the couch and get started.  But the more you do it, the easier it gets.  The more you practice it, the more natural it becomes.  





Learned Helplessness and Depression

While working with a depression support group it became apparent that many of the clients struggled with very negative ways of thinking about things and very negative ways of viewing the world.  This was interesting to me, because I battled depression myself for years.  I spent many years taking antidepressants without a significant relief from symptoms.  I eventually decided to stop and pay attention to the negative thinking in my own head.  As I researched it, I found it had a name:  Learned Helplessness.  

Learned helplessness is a concept developed by the psychologist, Martin Seligman.  Seligman worked with dogs who were exposed to electrical shocks.  Dogs who were allowed to push a button with their nose to stop the shocks learned to act to stop the shocks.  Dogs who were unable to escape the shocks learned to do nothing and wait for it to abate.  They gave up.  The conditioning taught the latter group they were unable to help themselves. 

This same behavior can be seen in some children and adults who endured traumatic childhoods.  Children who grow up in households where the parents' behavior is erratic and harmful will eventually stop trying to figure out a coping mechanism and just hunker down and endure the violence.  Imagine a child with a parent who is struggling with drug addiction.  Sometimes mom is unconscious, sometimes violent, sometimes pleasant.  The child never knows what they are going to get.  And the mother's behavior with the child is heavily influenced by the drugs, not the child.  What kind of behavior the mother displays depends on whether she; has drugs, is running out of drugs or is unable to get more drugs.  None of this is in the child's control.  And nothing the child tries to do to get the care they need from the mother will work if the mother is high from using drugs or raging because she can't find money to buy drugs.  So the child learns not to try to change their mother's behavior, because their efforts are futile.  Some of these children will space out or dissociate.  Some, like Seligman's dogs, will hunker down in the house and just endure the mother's abuse.  They learn they are helpless.  They learn not to try to change anything.

As adults they often adopt the same coping behavior.  They believe life is to be endured and feel they have no ability to act to change things.  Life is an endurance test, a series of mishaps that must be endured.  They can have a "Chicken Little" type of mentality, constantly feeling, "The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!"  These folks often view themselves as too helpless, too incompetent or too depressed to change the events in their life.  This creates a way of behaving and thinking that will result in pessimism and depression.  If this is the problem, medications will have little effect.  The problem is learned behavior, not biochemical. 

Finding that medications will not help can be disheartening.  But it can also be empowering.  A learned behavior can be unlearned.  The trick is to determine what the thinking is and learn how to think like a happier person does.

Seligman also studied naturally happy people and found the opposite of learned helplessness was learned optimism.  Seligman studied the differences between people who were basically pessimistic and people who were naturally optimistic and found three primary differences in their thinking patterns:  permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.  In a nutshell, optimistic people look at a failure as "I may have been thwarted at this goal (not their entire life), but it's a temporary setback (not a permanent failure) and it was just bad luck (nothing to do with them personally)".  


Learned Helplessness/PessimismLearned Optimism

Believe bad events are permanent

Believe good events are temporary

Believe bad events are temporary

Believe good events are permanent


Failure in one area means is interpreted as meaning they are a failure in their entire life or as a person in general.

Success, or happiness, in one area does not spill over into other areas.

Failure in one area does not mean they are a failure as a person or a failure in their life.  

Conversely, happiness in one arena may brighten all other areas.  


Blame themselves for bad events.

Attribute good events to external factors, i.e. "luck".

Take credit for good events.  

Blame bad events on external factors.

 Some people would say the optimist's outlook is not entirely realistic, and they would be right.  Research has shown that people struggling with depression more accurately assess the outcomes of events than people who are more optimist.   Happier people tend to incorrectly assume that things will be all right when they won't.

In the end, happiness may be the result of a little bit of self delusion.  But does that make it bad?



Take Two Yoga Classes and Call me in the Morning

I'm reading the August 2009 edition (yes I am a little bit behind in my reading) of Yoga Journal and I am reminded once again of all the benefits yoga has to offer in one's struggle for peace of mind and mental health.

Continue reading "Take Two Yoga Classes and Call me in the Morning" »

Are We Thinking Beings Which Feel or Feeling Beings Which Think?

It seems most Americans like to think of themselves as thinking beings who happen to feel.  But research into the human brain shows that we are instead feeling beings who are able to think.  I believe our failure to recognize this causes untold frustration and the current epidemic of people being diagnosed with depression.

Continue reading "Are We Thinking Beings Which Feel or Feeling Beings Which Think?" »

Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

My video collection is inexplicable, unless you understand its purpose.  The only movies I actually purchase to keep are those which are safe and make me laugh.  I know no one dies, there is no violence, no animals are killed or harmed in the viewing of this movie and it makes me laugh.

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Satir's Mandala: The Components of Happiness

Virginia Satir was a renowned therapist who developed a mandala to illustrate the many aspects of a human being - all of which need to be fulfilled in order for us to be happy.  I find this mandala to be especially important when working with clients struggling with depression or recovering from substance abuse

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Just Feel Your Feelings

She's about to come out of her skin.  She attributes this to her period and/or her psychiatric medications.  She says that she doesn't know what is wrong, but she just feels like crying.  Some days, counseling is not rocket science.  It's just reallllly simple.  "So cry!" I tell her.  If you feel like crying, cry.  It really is that simple.

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