Is happiness a choice?

Last weekend my teenager blew my mind. He said, “Mom, I’m confused. People say that happiness is a choice, but they also say that we should feel all the big feelings, including sadness and anger, and not hold them in.”

I had to really think about how to respond to this. Because my son is so right. This is so confusing!

After some careful consideration…

I think we need to be careful how we define happiness. If happiness means that we are always filled with joy and eager anticipation of life, then happiness is impossible. When we define happiness this way, we are creating an unmeetable expectation.

The first thing we need to do is reframe our expectations around happiness. Happiness is not always feeling joyful. Happiness isn’t always feeling content. We can feel sad, angry, and restless and still live a happy life.

There is a difference between feeling happy in one moment in time, and living an overall happy life.

When I think about happiness being a choice, I think about choosing to focus on gratitude and blessings, versus focusing on all the things that are wrong in my life and the world. That is where the choice comes in.

Currently, our family is processing the death of my dad. In addition to the sad feeling of loss, there’s also a lot of extra chaos as my brothers and I work to wrap up all the details of life – things like canceling my dad’s cable subscription and emptying his rented condo within 30 days, planning a memorial service, and tending to his end-of-life arrangements. It’s a lot.

And life is often a lot, isn’t it?

Sometimes life is just overwhelming, and it’s okay to feel exhausted and emotionally drained. We need to be better about giving ourselves permission to feel those things. And not just when life is obviously hard, like when you’ve suffered a death in the family. But all the time.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed simply because it’s Tuesday.

For me, giving ourselves permission to feel all the feels when they arrive is part of happiness. There’s nothing that creates a pervasive sense of resentment and bitterness faster than burying our big, messy feelings. Suddenly we feel invisible, like our pain and discomfort doesn’t matter.

Happiness isn’t about always feeling happy.

Happiness is about giving ourselves permission to lean into life, in all it’s beautiful, messy chaos.

Happiness is about celebrating the small joys, the humor, the blessings, in even the hardest circumstances, as well as on days when we are just over the daily grind of life.

For example, with my dad’s passing, I could choose to focus on the hassle of it all – the endless to-do list, the time crunch of wrapping up 71 years of life in 30 days, the whole “It’s not like I didn’t already have a busy life before this happened” feeling. And the feeling that I haven’t even had time to feel sad yet because there’s so much stinkin’ stuff to do.

Or, I could choose to focus on the hidden blessings – the deeper connection with my brothers, the photos of us kids we discovered in my dad’s wallet, the outpouring of love and support from friends, the opportunity to teach my kids about healthy processing of grief and big feelings.

These are gifts, you guys!

Gifts! The final gifts given by my complicated, conflicted, fully human father.

So when my son asks whether or not I’m happy, and whether it’s okay to be happy in the midst of loss, I answer with a resounding yes and YES. Not only is it okay, but it’s the only path to happiness.

Because let’s face it – tragedy and loss are a part of the human experience. If happiness isn’t attainable during the times of big hard feelings, then it can’t be attained at all.

And that, my friends, is unacceptable to me.

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