How To be Happy - Be Grateful

How To Be Happy?

There are 2 types of happiness. There is the happiness that we feel in response to an external event or circumstance. An obvious example of this would be our reaction to winning the lottery!

Then there is the happiness that is cultivated internally. This is the energy that arises as a conscious choice rather than the more ephemeral reaction to a piece of good news.

In this article we are going to focus on happiness as a choice.




Happiness And How Things Are

We all struggle and strive to attain health, wealth and personal happiness. Yet these three big areas: our health, our wealth and our relationships are where we all get hung out to dry – sooner or later.

It is as though there is an inbuilt design flaw that ensures that we all suffer at some point - one way or another.

In the Buddhist perspective, "seeing things as they are" (Sanskrit yatha-bhutam darshanam) basically means to see that all human experience is stamped by three characteristics:

* Impermanence (anitya)

* No-self (anatman)

* Suffering (duhkha)

This is how things are.

As we become aware of these characteristics our point of focus shifts away from the content of our experiences and toward our response to them.

At time of writing in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown this is a very pertinent point!

However, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in “Being Peace”:

“…life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby.

To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time."


Zen teacher Alan Senauke offers the following advice for keeping your Joyful Mind when fear and suffering threaten it:

“Joy is an active principle, not a swamp of passivity. No one can steal it…

We have choices even though they are often hard to see.”




Happiness As A Choice

In the bible (Philippians 4:4 NKJV), the psalmist writes:

”This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it”

He doesn’t say “yesterday was a good day so let’s give thanks for that” or “tomorrow will be a good day so I’ll scrape through today and hang on for tomorrow”

He says today... now... this present moment... we choose to give thanks for this day.

When we complain it is often self-focused – about our current experiences and what I want or don’t want.

Happiness is a choice and it comes to those who look beyond themselves to something greater than their own immediate personal happiness based on their circumstances.

The apostle Paul was frequently imprisoned and on one occasion when he was incarcerated with no prospect of release he wrote:

”Rejoice in the Lord always…always be joyful…”

His joy was grounded in his focus and was not a reflection of his circumstances.




How To Be Happy – A View From The End

In 2015, the award-winning journalist John Leland (on assignment from “The New York Times”) spent time with number of older people with the initial expectation of learning about how they cope with the effects of aging in terms of physical and mental health and overall quality of life.

However what he found was quite extraordinary, despite their circumstances these people lived positive and joyful lives. He captured and expressed his experiences in Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old:

”Older people consistently reported just as many positive emotions as the younger participants, but had fewer negative ones. They also had more mixed emotions, meaning that they didn’t let frustration or anxiety keep them from saying they were happy.

Consciously or unconsciously, they were making the choice to be happy even when there were reasons to feel otherwise…

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, the researchers found that the emotional processing center of older people’s brains, the amygdala, fired more actively when they looked at positive images than negative ones; younger brains reacted to both equally.

In this, older brains resemble the brains of people who meditate.”


Leland offers a compelling explanation from the psychologist Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity:

”Her hypothesis, which she gave the wonky name ‘socioemotional selectivity,’ is that older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment, whereas young people, with long horizons, seek out new experiences or knowledge that may or may not pay off down the line.

Our default position is that we’d be “happy if only” every bad thing went away. Whereas, these old people accepted that there are always challenges in life and they choose to be “happy in spite of.”




The Cognitive Approach To Happiness

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy William B. Irvine shares the wisdom of Stoic philosophy and reveals how its insights and advice are refreshingly relevant to now.

In summary, here are 3 key takeaways:

1. “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?” - This is what the Stoics refer to as “the premeditation” – which means that there’s a lot of value in thinking through carefully, and consciously about the worst that could happen. In most situations your thought process will show that your anxiety about those situations are out of proportion or exaggerated

2. “Fake It To Make It” - Irvine refers to Seneca, who says that when we are angry we should take steps to “turn all (anger’s) indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.

3. “Make It A Treat” - The Stoics understood that denying yourself something makes you appreciate what you would otherwise take for granted, and they regularly undertook quite stringent exercises in self-denial and over long periods of time.




How To be Happy? Be Grateful!

We have left the best and most powerful key to how to be happy to last.

Be grateful!

The practice of gratitude really does make us happy.

Not only does gratitude make us happy there is considerable research that shows that there are many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits that we can enjoy from this practice.

As with most tools and resources featured on this site gratitude is a practice.

To make a start, all that is needed is a change in perspective. You can feel it right now if you choose to.



"Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."
(Henri Nouwen)







Return to: What Is Spirituality? Or, Return to: Renewing Your Mind

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