Is Happiness a Choice?

(An excerpt from Walking a Fine Line: Being Professional in the New Age, a book I wrote in the early  90′s that’s been living in my closet.)

I met a woman (let’s call her Tammy) who had been working with all sorts of New Age techniques for many years.  At the time I had met her, she had found her new favorite, with a basic underpinning common in New Age/Alternative circles: 

“Happiness is a choice.”



The technique involved asking a series of questions aimed at helping people see things more positively.  One of the tricks is to continuously ask people why they think their problems are problems, why they let their problems cause them unhappiness.


This technique has had lots of success, and understandably so.  People, for example, who have judged themselves and their lives as problematic have realized there are different ways of looking at things.  Just because a child is disabled, just because they’ve had divorces, or lost their jobs does not mean that they must be unhappy about it.


And this is true. In many ways, people tend to make problems out of potentially growth-inspiring circumstances.  Often the best way to discover the learning potential in any situation is by seeing it as a potential, not a handicap or tragedy.  At its best, this technique supports people in new more life-enhancing perspectives, bringing them into the here and now, the point of all change.  It gives them the strength and optimism to make tragedies triumphs.  It also demonstrates a basic trust in the fact that all people have the answers if they are just asked, and that everyone has their own deep source of wisdom.


At its worst, this technique can be experienced like a bulldozer, convincing people to ignore their feelings, superficially change the minds in their heads but sadly ignore the mind and deeper wisdom which also exists in the body and the heart.  Let me tell you what I mean.


One day, Tammy asked a woman, Abatha, if she were willing to be her guinea pig.  Tammy had just taken an intensive course learning the technique and wanted to practice her new skills.  The session started out just fine.  She asked Abatha, “What seems to be the problem?”


Abatha answered, “I do not feel comfortable in my body.”

“And why is that a problem?” she asked.

“Because it keeps me from being physically intimate with the one I love.”

“And why is that a problem?”

The questions went on and on, as did the answers.  Eventually, the answers led to Abatha revealing a horrifying experience from her past.  When she was a little girl, a group of boys tried to rape her and lock her in a box.  She was saved from the actual rape, but the experience had scarred her for many years.

Abatha began to cry.  Instead of assisting Abatha in exploring and making space for her sadness, Tammy just kept plowing away with her questions.  “And why does that make you sad?”

“Why did nearly having been raped make me sad?” Abatha asked, puzzled.

“Yes, why do you see that as a problem?”

Abatha had no idea what to say.  She was absolutely stunned.


Perhaps if Abatha had been a woman who held on tightly to ‘victim thoughts’ and who had never considered the fact that she had the power to choose how to look at the situations in their life, such an interview would have been eye-opening or helpful to her.


Abatha, however, was wise and in touch with both her power to influence her thoughts, attitude as well as her feelings.  For someone like her, this technique seemed cruel.


The more Tammy asked “why,” the more Abatha felt interrogated, and ironically, the more she remembered how horrible it felt to have her boundaries violated.  Tammy, a well-intending interviewer, became one with the rapist from Abatha’s past, psychologically speaking.


“Why” is a fascinating question.


It can lead to all sorts of interesting insights.  It can also be addictive and lead to a false sense of healing.


Just because we understand why up in our heads does not mean that we understand in our hearts or our bodies.  Although thinking we are healed can sow the seeds for true healing, since healing starts in the mind, it is important to remember that the mind is not only in the head.  Just because we can logically prove to ourselves that we have no reason to be unhappy does not mean that there are no reasons, or that the unhappiness, or deeper feelings and energy resources lying behind the emotions cannot be useful or transformable energy.  I tend to doubt the ultimate effectiveness of any technique which does not take the unconscious part of the psyche — and the intelligent body — into consideration.







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