I hate being told that happiness is a choice. It’s as if the person I just expressed all my worries and told all my troubles to wasn’t listening to me, can’t understand me, or worse, didn’t even try. Being brusquely told that I can just be happy if I want to feel it underplays circumstances like dealing with a broken heart or possibly losing a relative due to an illness. It’s never fair to throw that philosophy around, to say it to someone unhappy, grieving, lonely, or upset. We don’t have emotional switches, and there are times when we must feel down because it’s the appropriate—rather, human—thing to feel.
But just because I hate being told that happiness is a choice, doesn’t mean it’s not in any way true.
There have been times when I pulled myself out of my corner of sadness because I was tired of feeling sad. Sometimes I’d smile when I’m not feeling particularly happy, and then the next thing I know, my mood’s up. You can say that choosing to be happy is not at all saying “Okay, Self. Be happy. You’re happy. You’re happy” like you’re brainwashing yourself—that’s actually a pretty depressing picture.
I recently tried this app called Happify; I figured it would do me some good. It offered “tracks” to happiness, promising results in three to four weeks if I did the activities regularly. A special feature about Happify is that its activities are science-based. (If you’re the cynical type like me who needs evidence, you can check the sidebar of each program where you’ll find the “Why It Works” link, which cites the research.)
Before the program started, I first had to answer a few questions about myself, like my age, sex, job status, if I’m sociable, if I’m creative. That was supposed let the app curate for me the activities I should take to make me more positive given who I am and what I’m going through. Some tracks that I could choose from were for relieving stress and getting rid of negative thoughts. It was like picking a playlist. I was excited.
I selected “Conquer Your Negative Thoughts” and had to earn medals by completing the activities. I have to admit, I raised my eyebrows on that one. I thought, “Pfft. I don’t need medals.” But still I went with it and entered Level 1: Noting Today’s Victories. I had to list things I’m thankful for that day. This idea is not new, but that doesn’t matter.
According to Happify, doing so “primes our mind for gratitude, and helps overcome the brain’s natural ‘negativity bias,’ a phenomenon by which we are wired to give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences.”
I typed things like, “Had a fun lunch with officemates,” “Got to the office safely,” and “Cat GIFs.” I got some medals.
The following day I played a game called “Uplift,” where tons of hot air balloons were shooting up and across the screen with “positive” and “negative” words. The day after that, I played an Angry Birds-like game, where I had to sling down from a platform fuzzy round creatures with the words “anxiety” “stress” and “disappointment” on them.
The next level was called “Overpower Your Anxiety.” I had to answer another survey before it began. This time, it was about my strengths. Happify states that “each of us has a unique character strengths profile” and that developing our strengths “leads to greater happiness, higher performance, improved health, and better relationships.” The survey had statements like “I have taken frequent stands in the face of strong opposition” and “I experience deep emotions when I see beautiful things,” and then I had to select from a range of how “me” they were.
I then had to write how I can use my strengths (love, judgment, and perseverance) to deal with things that make me anxious, like deadlines and seemingly unattainable life goals. The more specific the plan, the better. I typed away and got a medal.
The program culminated with something called “Serenity Scene.” It was good for some meditation or just closing your eyes and drifting off for two, five, or ten minutes.
Happify cited a research that found that focusing on the feeling of relaxation helps it “sink into your brain” so you can somehow “call it up” the next time you’re stressed. I could choose from a beach scene and hear the water lapping, a lake scene and hear the chirping birds, and a waterfall scene. I picked the beach and relaxed for two minutes.
Do I feel any happier? More relaxed? Before I answer, I must say I didn’t take my course all that seriously—at least, not as seriously as I had planned. I began to have my qualms with it the moment I clicked on the “solitude” balloon in Uplift and my score went down. I didn’t think solitude was innately negative; it can be good for people. (A pet peeve: that people associate being alone to being lonely. There’s a difference.) I’m not going to change my belief just because a game said the opposite. I’m also not going to think my opposition is a sign I’m clinging to a “sad” lifestyle or what-have-you.
Another issue is how contrived it all was. Clicking positive words printed on hot air balloons? Shooting the negative down? How were they supposed to help me live a happy life? And the games were so short and quick!
And then I realized that maybe the Happify program wasn’t about selecting words, as much as that was the games’ mechanics.
I bet the researchers behind Happify know that clicking “cheerful” isn’t going to make me any more “cheerful.” Maybe it was about allotting some time, around 15 minutes from my day, to take a step back from work and play a pretty simple game or to be thankful. Rest has been undervalued by workaholics. I’ve been there with the whole “Sleep is for the weak!” mentality. It was then pretty refreshing to play short games and listen to the recorded sound of nature to make me feel relaxed. Then feel recharged to get back to work.
Now back to the question. My answer is yes, I feel happier and more relaxed. But let’s not be hasty and give Happify full credit—aren’t my feelings up to me? I kid. Happify, at least the Conquer Your Negative Thoughts course, seems like an exercise of self-awareness. By making me think of things to be thankful for and of strategies to banish my worries, I was becoming more aware of what I feel, want to feel, what my strengths are, and what I can do. What are the implications? That I can work well to accomplish my daily goals. That I will work well, if not better, only if I step back, calm down, sort things out, then plunge into work mode again. That by having gone to Happify and participated in the activities these past few days, I was actually choosing to feel lighter. That I can train myself to be calm and positive. That ultimately my happiness was—and is—up to me.
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