Utilitarian philosophy, which is the unsung foundation of Western economics and modern culture, says that happiness is what we all seek, the summum bonum, the ne plus ultra. According to the utilitarians, we have already decided to be happy, all of us, and it is only the proper means that we contemplate, the interposition of outside circumstance that confound us. If happiness were under our personal control, the entirety of utilitarian social philosophy would be vitiated.
At the other extreme, “you create your own reality” is a mantra of New Age culture.
If you’re still reading this, you obviously think it’s not an utterly ridiculous question. Yes, we have some control. “Deciding to be happy” is not obviously useless all the time. How much do we control, and to what extent are we at the mercy of our hormones? Or of external cricumstances?
The worst depression of my life occurred in 1994-95, triggered by the collapse of a lawsuit, which was all that remained of my software business, begun so propitiously just a few years before. For a year, I answered in monosylables and behaved insufferably to my wife and, most shamefully I confess, to my young daughters. Then one day I said, “I don’t want to be like this any more,” and a corner was turned.
If being happy is as simple as deciding to be happy, why have so many of us chosen not to? Perhaps because it is not part of our culture to be happy. We risk ostracism if we are “insufferably cheery.” People around us are sub-clinically depressed, and we annoy them if we appear day after day in a good mood. What is it to “be cool” if not to blow off the world’s glorious gifts as we blow off insults and setbacks, and to hide our child-like capacity for wonder from the light of day? In our culture, “I don’t care” is the easiest thing in the world to say, and “I love you” is the most dangerous. I dare say that, given the choice most of us would choose the acceptance of a peer group over genuine happiness.
Without a doubt, there are cultures where people are much happier than 21st Century white middle-class Americans. Black middle class Americans, for a start. Most Latin and oriental cultures, many tribal cultures are happier than ours, certainly not because they have more wealth or security, but perhaps because they are situated more comfortably in family groups. How many of us dance regularly, or sing spontaneously as we go through our day?
I can’t leave this brief essay without a nod to Meher Baba, Indian master in the Zoroastrian tradition. As a young man he wrote profusely, sometimes tortured songs of incessant seeking, sometimes rapturous poems of divine love. Then, in 1925, he broke off, counseling, “Don’t worry–be happy,” and didn’t speak a word for the latter 40 years of his life. (In the 1930s, Meher Baba visited America and his particular magnetism attracted a following of movie stars and celebrities included Boris Karloff. There’s a match!)
Maybe free will is an illusion. Maybe “deciding to be happy” is something that happens to us, and we only feel we have control over it. Maybe our dispositions are dictated by outside circumstance far more than I like to admit. Maybe deciding to be happy is not different from choosing a perspective of gratitude. Maybe happiness is a property of cultures and families far more than individual temperaments, let alone individual choice.
But I think deciding to be happy is a worthy experiment. Whatever your belief system, suspend it long enough to imagine that there is a buoancy in the world, a guiding hand that works in mysterious ways but for your ultimate good. Try it! So long as it doesn’t make you sweep emotional grist under the carpet, sing out loud while chewing your cud and continuing to grow.
— Josh Mitteldorf