Foundations of Happiness 1/5: Happiness is a Choice.

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I am convinced that, to some extent, happiness is a choice.

What this means is that happiness is an inside job, as it always comes from within. Even if your happy feelings seem to be due to an outer source or event, this is not really the case. Happiness is a state of internal fulfillment. Instead, we often tell ourselves that when we achieve this or acquire that, we will be happy.

“Seeking happiness outside of ourselves is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” – Tibetan proverb


Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that you feel as an immediate response to something. Accompanied with that pain, there is suffering. Thoughts such as ‘This hurts,’ ‘This sucks,’ and ‘When will this stop?’ arise, and these mental stories are the reason you’re unhappy. Which is good news, because whereas pain is often out of your control, suffering is something you can get rid of.

“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.” – William James

It’s not a choice that you simply make once and then you’re done. It’s more of a consistent practice. You can get stronger by training your mind. Building this mental strength could be the most important thing you ever do for yourself.

Having a positive attitude about things and being able to let go of negative thoughts is a skill. One that you can learn to have, too. This isn’t easy, but saying that some people are just able to see things on the bright side and some people aren’t, is like looking at a fit person and thinking ‘Well, some people are fit and some aren’t’. That’s not how that works. Mental disorders taken into account (but just like physical limitations not necessarily excluded) you can train yourself to think positively, feel grateful, and generally be happier.

It’s not something you can do overnight. Depending on where you are right now, it may take years of practice to get where you really want to be. At the same time, though, you’ll start seeing results soon. To stick with the work-out analogy: If your goal is to gain 30 lbs of muscle, you won’t get there after one week in the gym. But you will feel nice from all the exercising after the first week already, and you’ll be closer to your goal than you were before you started.

“There’s no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” – R. L. Stevenson

We can develop our inner strengths that foster fulfillment, happiness, and inner peace. Rick Hanson says: “[These strengths] include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, determination, and a warm heart. [It can also be] self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.”

Yeah, OK… That’s a great list, but where do I start?! I personally think that this depends on your personality and on where you currently are in your journey, but it mostly comes down to some willingness and curiosity, which you will use for introspection and mindfulness. I like to keep it simple, and rely on these three strengths only: gratitude, being in the present moment, and non-attachment.

This idea I have on the foundations of happiness rests largely on two things: Buddhist philosophy and recent neuro-psychological research. Richard Davidson, for example, has studied the brains of Buddhist monks who spend their lives deliberately acquiring positive emotions, and their levels of happiness are off the charts. “In many ways, this is the most important idea in neuroscience in the last decade. Our brains are just waiting to be transformed, and they’re always being transformed. But we can take responsibility and change the brain in more positive ways.”

Over the course of the the next four weeks I’ll post about each of the three strengths (gratitude, being in the present moment and non-attachment), and I’ll conclude with a post on the first steps towards acquiring these strengths that you can take right now. The articles will contain the practical advice I give to my clients, and I’ll incorporate answers to frequently asked questions. They will all have the tag ‘Foundations of Happiness’ so that you can find them back easily. To make sure you won’t miss any of them; you can sign up for the weekly newsletter below.

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