Is Happiness a Choice?

01/27/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

So far, over 2.5 million people have seen the post, over 25,000 have shared it and the comments just keep coming. What's up? The cartoon says: "Every single day you make a choice." It features a guy sitting on one side of the bus looking out the window at doom and gloom, and his expression matches this dark perspective; another passenger on the opposite side of the same bus is looking out the window focusing on sunny skies, and his outlook is sunny too. Is happiness a choice? The question has sparked a wildfire of comments.

Support for "happiness is a choice"
Those who feel that happiness is a choice are deeply committed to that viewpoint. Many comments suggest that although we can't control our circumstances, we can influence how we respond to them. "It's not what happens to us, but the way we respond to what happens. Happiness is definitely a choice." Do you agree?

Support for "happiness is not a choice"
The other perspective sees things entirely differently. "How can you say that every single day you make a choice when those suffering from depression have no choice -- it's bio-chemical." And, "What about the death of a loved one -- doesn't this society even give you permission to feel your feelings?" Or, "There's so much pressure to appear 'together' that it can leave no room for authenticity." How do you feel about that?

The grey area
The truth is, this issue is complex -- there are shades of grey. People think of happiness many ways. Some would argue that you are born happy... or not. That's your lot in life. Some would suggest that it not just a state: Happiness is a skill set that can be taught. I'm firmly on this latter side and the science supports my own experience, that with certain practices, such as gratitude, happiness levels can increase significantly.

At Project Happiness, the non-profit I founded to teach kids practical tools for a happier and more meaningful life, we don't try to force people to look through rose-colored glasses or drink the happy Kool-Aid. Rather, it is about building awareness for the importance of preventative wellness practices, and teaching skills to access more happiness as well as to better manage real challenges... both part of life. It's about using scientifically proven strategies to develop emotional resilience within yourself, rather than looking to outside circumstances. It's about learning how to identify and build on your strengths and regulate emotions.

Strategies That Can Help
Mindfulness is an important tool, as are self-compassion, forgiveness, and mindset. The latest research from neuroscience indicates that we can change our brain, actually reshape the neural pathways through the thoughts that we think and the practices that we adopt. With all the various tools now available, one thing is clear -- the more we practice a certain mindset, whether positive or negative, the more we reinforce that tendency, and the more we lean into that direction.

One comment does a good job of highlighting the complexity of this debate:

I have dealt with anxiety/depression. Take medicine for it. I don't think anyone is trying to downplay the struggle that people with depression face. There is no need to get offended. I do believe, however, that your mindset has a lot to do with how you face life. I made the choice to get help with my depression. I am much happier now that I'm getting help. We do have control over A LOT more than we think we do. Consider that.

Some people are open to the possibility of a choice for happiness even in the darkest moments. Some tend to argue for their limitations as, "that's just reality -- it is what it is."

Another post said:

Barring mental disabilities, most people can do this, it may take some training but your attitude is one of very few choices we can make for ourselves each day, hour, minute, second, at a time.

The question for both sides is: Can you accept the reality of the moment, be open to a glimmer of hope that your experience can change, and then deliberately try to build on that? That too is a real choice. This is a heated discussion with passion on both sides. Depression is real, and yet... I'd love to know what do you think.