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Can You Make Yourself Happy?

Last month I was reading an article about an app that comes with exercises meant to make you happier. Perhaps not happy but happier than you are overall.

It piqued my interest because… well… don’t we all want to be happier?  I mean, who would turn down something like happiness?  (“Oh, no, thanks.  I’d rather be miserable.”)  And at the same time, I don’t know if making oneself happy is actually possible.  I think there are things we can do that bring us toward or farther away from that emotion, but actually making happiness happen?  That seems outside our control.


I mean, I can’t make myself sad.  I can read sad books and watch sad movies and listen to sad stories and feel something akin to sad.  But once I move away from the stimuli, I’m usually not sad for very long.  In all of those cases, I’m sad for.  I’m sad for the character or the other person, but I’m not sad for myself.  So I can’t really make myself sad.  It’s like I can only go and stand next to sad, but I can’t actually become sad.

I can recognize that: That the sad I feel when I watch the sad movie is not the same kind of sad I feel when I’m really grieving a loss.  They are both sad, but one feels real and vivid and the other feels like I’m viewing sad through a window.  It is outside, and I am inside.  I can look at it, but I don’t have to get close to it.

So wouldn’t the opposite be true, too?  Can we really make ourselves happy?  I can do the exercises on that app and feel like it was time well spent, but does that actually mean that I’m happier?  So much of my happiness is a combination of how I’m viewing the world at the moment coupled with what is happening in my day-to-day world.  Content with work, getting some me-time, feeling like I’m doing a good job on the parenting front: All of that equals happiness.  When things are not great with work, I’m not getting me-time, or I’m feeling like a failure in parenting: I’m not feeling happiness.

Can we really make ourselves happier if those facets of life (whichever ones you use to determine your happiness levels) are out of whack?  Can I be miserable with work and forget to do stuff for the kids and balance it with a few exercises on an app and restore happiness?

Because if we all agree that we can’t make ourselves be sad, why do we believe the idea that we can make ourselves be happy?


1 torthuil { 08.28.16 at 10:55 am }

Ha, very good writing, I like your logic. I think happiness is a by product of what is going on in life (and attitude toward it). But the fallacy that doing, or often buying, something will make us happy is EVERYWHERE.

2 Noemi { 08.28.16 at 11:37 am }

Hmm. I think exercise is one of the few things that actually can make us legitimately happier, because it helps our brains release hormones that positively affect our mood. They’ve done studies that show regular exercise can be as effective, if not more so, at treating depression than SSRIs. So maybe in this case, you can make yourself happier. I know regular exercise is necessary for my own mental health, and if I weren’t exercising I’d less happy, so it seems easy to believe the opposite would be true. If the app said it could make you happier in any other way I’d agree that it isn’t really possible (though gratitude journals have been shown to improve overall outlook over time…). An interesting topic to be sure.

3 a { 08.28.16 at 1:50 pm }

This endless pursuit of happiness really bothers me. Shouldn’t we seek meaning instead of happiness? If you’re not constantly happy, doesn’t that mean you’re doing something wrong? Are people (e.g. app makers) equating hedonism with happiness?

4 Cristy { 08.28.16 at 2:39 pm }

The pursuit of happiness. A common theme with humanity. It’s why we love the “happily ever after” stories or invest in ways to improve our chances.

With exercise, there is a chemical shift that happens allowing for people to be poised for happier feelings. But I know first hand that exercise is not a cure for the ailment of sadness or discontent. Just as you said, being around sad things, though it may shift your mood, won’t cause you to to be there as long as you are not immersed in your own sadness.

I think the selling point of all of this comes from the fact many are generally unhappy with their lives, but the road to change requires being poised for a mental shift. Changes in viewpoint and exercise can help drive people towards this, but it always requires more work. Still, we are a society that likes quick-fixes. So we’re driven by the promise.

5 Beth { 08.28.16 at 2:51 pm }

I both agree and disagree. I think the idea of an app that can make us happy is a bit simplistic. But I do think we can choose to be happy. We can’t control some of the circumstances contributing to our happiness (though some we can) so I think there are natural ebbs and flows in our levels of happy at different points in life. For example, I am generally very happy in my life. I have an amazing family, and feel fulfilled much of the time. I make a choice to focus on the positive.

However my daughter is beginning kindergarten next week and I anticipate missing her quite a bit. So in the midst of my happy life, I feel anxious and sad.

That said, I think you CAN make yourself sad, or certainly miserable, by putting yourself in situations which don’t give you what you need and not working to get out of them. And that is not to say that everyone in crap situations can get out just by working. My point is simply that I believe you can make yourself both sad and happy, to some degree.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.28.16 at 3:12 pm }

For me, the answer lies in the interpretation of this factor: “So much of my happiness is a combination of how I’m viewing the world at the moment.”

My working theory is that discontent exists in the gap between what we expect and what we get. So if the latter is beyond our direct control, then the former is what we have to work with. If we can zoom out from work problems or time crunches or personal failures, perhaps all we can do is reinterpret them as temporary setbacks.

Obviously doing this is not easy… loss hurts. We fear that our pain will be permanent.

But nothing is.

An acquaintance of mine died from cancer this week. Our weddings were on the same day many years ago. She’d had a miscarriage back when I was struggling, AND SHE WAS NOT DEVASTATED and broken, the way I was. She somehow interpreted it in a way that didn’t cripple her. She went on to have 3 kids, now teens.

I’d lost track of her, but I wonder how she’s faced the 6 years since her initial diagnosis. I wouldn’t be surprised if she, of course, felt sad for all that she was losing, but also, overall, felt happy for all she got to experience.

(sorry so long. made me think.)

7 Justine { 08.28.16 at 8:45 pm }

I don’t think we should always be seeking happiness in the way that the happiness industry defines it, because that kind of happy doesn’t ring true. I think it would be nice to cultivate things like resilience, contentment, etc. But if you’re not happy, I think it’s unreasonable to turn to an app that can “fix” that. I think it’s possible to learn how to live with the unhappiness, allowing ourselves to experience it without thinking we’re somehow defective. As the article says, if we’ve seen Inside Out, we know that Sadness is just as important, and just as necessary.

8 Raven { 08.28.16 at 8:59 pm }

That’s food for thought. While I don’t believe an app can make you happier … I do believe that you are responsible for everything you feel. You make yourself sad or happy because you choose to be in response to a given situation – we usually don’t feel the choice because it’s natural. So I absolutely think you can make yourself happy, but I don’t think an app can! 🙂

9 Sharon { 08.28.16 at 9:29 pm }

There are research studies that support the notion that some behaviors can increase our happiness. So to the extent that the exercises on this app are based on that research, I can see the sense in it. Although it would be a simple thing to do on one’s own with a little reading up on the topic.

I remember my Irish grandmother being so puzzled at the American preoccupation with happiness. To her, life was about service and fulfilling a purpose: happiness was a pleasant side effect of those things, if one was lucky, but certainly not an aim of its own.

10 Mali { 08.29.16 at 1:57 am }

See, I disagree with your basic premise. I think we can make ourselves sad, consciously, by dwelling on something that will make ourselves sad. If I chose to right now, I could be thinking about my mother and her last months and weeks and that would make me sad, truly sad. I could be thinking about the baby I never had, imagining holding them or imagining them being the same age as my great-nephew, and wondering what they would be like, what they would be doing, etc etc. That would make me sad, just as writing my Microblog Monday post made me sad today, but not as sad as it could have if I had let it.

So I think that we can also make ourselves happier, consciously too. I’ve learnt a number of techniques in the last decade or so that do help. Interestingly, as Sharon just said, feeling useful and of service is one of those techniques that can make us happier. I’ve experienced this first hand. I’m experiencing the opposite this year.

11 Mali { 08.29.16 at 1:58 am }

A qualification: I do think people have a base level of happiness/sadness. And I do agree that we all react to trauma and loss differently. But in degrees of happiness and sadness? Yes, I think we have some control over them.

12 mijk { 08.29.16 at 9:52 am }

I most certainly think myself sad/angry/anxious a lot of the time. I think quite a lot of the time…. It’s stupid but hard to stop…

13 SRB { 08.29.16 at 11:11 am }

Hmmmm. Interesting thought experiment, and something I suspect we have all spent a great deal of time thinking about. I don’t believe that “happy” is a steady state of being, though we are all supposed to aspire to this culturally. I am working on “content/satisfied” rather than “happy”. I absolutely do NOT believe in the “Choose Happiness!” ideology – it certainly didn’t choose clinical depression, you know? Simply *choosing* to be happy is too easy, if not impossible for some people. We are simply wired differently. That said, I have learned to make choices that limit the stimuli of “sadness” as you put it above. Decluttering things, people, stimuli etc that make me feel shitty does lead to a more content life overall, at least for me. I realize this logic might have holes you can drive a van through, but it’s working for me at this point. And I am happy with that.

14 Jess { 08.29.16 at 5:35 pm }

I love what a. said.

I actually think I can make myself sad, but it has to be related to what I am deeply sad about, in my core, all the time. If I need a good cry and I can’t seem to do it, all I have to do is watch that montage from “Up” and BOOM. Sad. Or, I guess, sadDER. So maybe it’s not that you can’t make yourself sad or happier, but you can enhance those feelings? I agree with Noemi that exercise is a great way to get a happier feeling, but I’m not sure an app could do it for me. When I get in a funk (and I’ve been in one for a day or so), there’s very little that can bring me out of it until I’ve felt all the sad. And I feel like if we could bypass the sad and only feel the happy by making ourselves feel happy before we’re ready, then that might have emotional consequences down the line. Really thought-provoking post! My wheels are still turning…

15 tasivfer { 08.29.16 at 9:42 pm }

I can made myself sad. I’ve taught myself this skill through years of torturing myself; I’m glad you believe it isn’t possible.

I believe you can learn to be happier, and by ‘happier’ I probably mean ‘more resilient’. I’ve lost mine; every pain I feel deeply. However I believe with work you can retrain yourself to not see everything as a setback. Perhaps if there was a specific problem you wanted to work on an app could help? However it takes more than an app. It takes some self-evaluation and awareness – and a lot of work. It also takes the will to change, which can be difficult to find in the first place.

16 Ana { 08.30.16 at 10:51 am }

I can definitely make myself sad. I don’t think we can make ourselves “happy” but there are certain activities that have been shown to increase happiness a little bit. So whatever your state of happiness is at the moment, you can increase it a few percent by exercising/meditating/being grateful or whatever.
Though I think the other part of “making yourself happy” is something you are already doing—the fact that you identified the key things you need for happiness is no small thing. Many people never quite figure out what they really want/need in life. And then you make sure your life allows the time/space for it. You could commit to so many things that you have no me time, or procrastinate all day instead of making progress on work, or let yourself become too tired/stressed to have good relationships with your kids—but you don’t (usually, I’m assuming)

17 loribeth { 08.30.16 at 9:32 pm }

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Gretchen Rubin and her book “The Happiness Project” and its sequels. She also has a blog, and a podcast.


18 SWATI BASSI { 09.01.16 at 2:17 am }

Happiness comes from inside. Sometimes we are happy even for no reason at all. No app or external source can bring in true happiness.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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