THE BLOG
07/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Happiness Is A Choice

Are you happy? Would you know if you were?

Has your definition of happiness changed as you've grown older and more successful? Is it about accumulation, more toys, more exotic travel, new experiences, more of what you thought you wanted? Is all of that making you happy? Or, as Leo Buscaglia reminded us, is "what we call the secret of happiness is no more a secret that our willingness to choose life."

Happiness can mean doing something we love, having someone to love and something to hope for. Is that it? Is that enough of an understanding of how to bring "more" of the feelings of joy, surrender, surprise, delight that true happiness invites and provokes in us?

The Boston Globe recently reported that the most popular course at Harvard was about positive psychology, or the study of well-being. Its immense appeal took everyone by surprise. Just one year before, the instructor, Tal Ben-Shahar, offered the course for the first time, and although it was certainly a hit, with 380 students enrolled, no one could have imagined that the following year the number would have jumped to 855.

"For many years," says Ben-Shahar, "the people who were writing about happiness were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. It was all 'five easy steps,' rather than dignity and hard work. What I'm trying to do in my class is to regain respectability for the concept of self-help. It's a great thing, if you think about it literally. It's what this country was built on."

Dr. Martin Seligman and many of his colleagues introduced the idea of "positive psychology" a relatively new area of research that "studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive." Psychology has been rightly been criticized for its' sole focus on mental illness rather than mental "wellness". Several humanistic psychologists, including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm, developed successful theories and practices that involved human happiness despite there being a lack of solid empirical evidence at the time behind their work, and especially that of their successors.

Positive psychology has explored the Pleasant Life or the "life of enjoyment", how people optimally experience, forecast and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.), the Good Life or the "life of engagement", the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and "flow" that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities, and the Meaningful Life or "life of affiliation" which examines how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves.

With all of this good work, and the efforts of Donald Clifton, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and psychologists like Dan Baker, former director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, we now have handholds on what many call the "new" science of happiness.
Dan Baker's book, What Happy People Know, confirms the wisdom of the research into what Seligman calls "authentic happiness" and "learned optimism." Baker notes that a major barrier to happiness is fear. He writes, "We all have a neurological fear system embedded deep within our brains, a neural network that once helped us survive as a species, but now limits our lives. The biological circuitry of fear is the greatest enemy of happiness."

We're written about how fear bind us, edits our hopes and diminishes our potential for happiness. Baker reminds us that fear is the repository for our past traumas, our fear of the future and our archaic instinctual terrors. Fear can be a gift, our way of staying out of the darkness and moving into the light of awareness and new beginnings. But if our fears own us, we have to break free...by awareness of those fears, and through the courage to challenge our fears to see if they are still real.

One of those fresh starts is the decision to be happy.

Yes, but how?

First, by love. Love yourself enough to create a life you will love living. Entertainment legend George Burns, whose own sense of purpose helped him live to 100, offered this wise advice: "Everyday, do something you love."

Here's several questions to begin your own happiness audit: "Am I living a life I love, and one that allows me to be happy?" Listen to the wisdom of your heart, and tell yourself the truth. Ask yourself:

• What brings vitality to my life? When do I feel most alive?
• What is my proudest achievement?
• What is my greatest gift? My legacy?
• For what are you most grateful?

These questions invite you to ponder the symphony of your experience, the missed notes, the flourishes and the coda. I don't deny that life can be rough, that you can (and will) experience mistakes, excesses, lies and lessons, and on occasional loss, grief and sadness. Even Charles Schultz, the creator of "Peanuts," the cartoon strip that brought us minor wisdom and wide smiles for decades, suffered his entire life with serious depression, a melancholy temperament and insecurities.

Happiness can become your default state and not some elaborate life lie by acknowledging your gifts, your lessons, the people in your "cast" who love and teach, tolerate and celebrate you. You can choose between the ambiguity and clarity.