Choosing Joy

October 18, 2006 | 16 comments
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The Brazilian musical Orfeu Negro, a capoeira-filled retelling of the Orpheus story, contains a beautiful and haunting stanza penned by Antonio Carlos Jobim and sung to a heartbreaking tune: Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim. Happiness ends, but sadness lasts forever. (Literally: Sadness doesn’t have an end; happiness does.)

Ultimately, each of us experiences good and bad in our lives, happiness and sadness, joy and pain. Which of these emotions will last, and which will fade away? As Orpheus mourns his lost Eurydice, his own answer seems clear.

Recent conversations I’ve (repeatedly) had with my children have suggested another answer.

A regular complaint around these parts goes along the lines of “my brother is doing such-and-such (making noise, not sharing, teasing — you name it), and that makes me sad.” I’ve typically dealt with this kind of complaint by breaking up squabbles, separating participants, and so forth.

Some months ago, my wife adopted a new strategy. When our son complains “my brother is making noise and that makes me sad,” she replies, “your brother can’t make you unhappy. Only you can make you unhappy.” It’s an approach that may actually work. It’s been quite a task so far, because our son is a champion grudge-holder. (He had one meltdown over a relatively minor event that had happened three months earlier — and he could quote the exact date of the offense. It was really hard not to laugh when he explained, very seriously, that he was mad about something he was told in the middle of June.)

And so we tell our son: “You choose what to think about. You choose what to remember. You choose whether to be happy or unhappy. You choose whether to focus on the good or the bad. You can’t control others’ actions, but you can control your own reaction.”

(And of course, this idea relates to a recent post, by Lord Voldemort you-kn0w-who, over at the Blog that Must Not be Named. Comments then suggested that people do choose what they remember, and that at least a few bloggernacle readers choose to remember their insistence that a certain blogger be sent to Azkhaban, forthwith.)

These recent pepeated conversations with my son have left me pondering the truth of these assertions. Is it really the case that we choose whether or not to be happy? Do we truly choose our reactions? The idea seems false to some degree; our initial feelings and reactions often seem out of our conscious control. But in a broader sense, the idea of choice is accurate. We may not control initial feelings, but we do choose how to process these feelings, what to do in reaction to them, and how they fit into our lives.

Second Nephi, Chapter Two, contains two remarkable assertions in almost immediate succession. “Men are that they might have joy” is immediately followed by “wherefore men are free” and the elaboration, “free to choose.” I don’t believe that the combination is coincidence. We exist to have joy, and we are free to choose; therefore, we ought to choose to have joy.

We make this larger choice in the context a thousand smaller choices: What we choose to do, how we choose to react to others — and often, Voldemort, in what we choose to remember. As agents free to choose, we can choose to remember evils that have befallen us, or to remember the joys that we’ve experienced. This choice is our own and no one else’s. The good news is that the Devil will not make us unhappy; the bad news is that neither will God make us happy. Only we can make ourselves happy.

And there are going to be exceptions to the application of this general rule, of course. Our ability to control our reaction will diminish with the intensity of events we experience. It is probably difficult to choose happiness when one is being physically tortured, for example; only someone truly Divine can say “Forgive them, Father” while in the act of being slain.

But for most of us, the choice between choosing sadness and choosing joy is simpler and easier. We all suffer everyday pains and heartaches, but we also feel joy. It is within our power to prioritize our memories, to focus on the joy. We can remember the good, and let the bad float away.

Choosing joy is not an approach that I’m always good at putting into practice. I’m sure that I indulge in anger or self-pity as much as the next person, and I can be particularly susceptible to the soft, seductive blue hues of melancholy. But as I repeat injunctions to my son, I find myself thinking about how they apply in my own life. If I’m unhappy, I have only myself to blame. It’s within my power to choose my happiness.

There is enough beauty everywhere to sustain us. It is found in the wonder of nature, the radiance of human creativity, and the miracle of everyday interactions with other people. We stand at the controls, and we decide to focus on the beauty or the ugliness, to be happy or sad, to rejoice or mourn. We exist to find and experience joy; the gospel, at its best, is a catalyst that helps us remember that purpose, and to remind of of our power to choose joy.

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16 Responses to Choosing Joy

  1. mami on October 18, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    I think we choose what we remember–but perhaps not in the way you suggest. It is more like we choose how we remember things–not what things we remember.
    Read Bonds That Make Us Free
    and yes, happiness is a choice.

  2. don on October 18, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    I think your comments are right in line with Bro. Bednar’s recent conference address. My wife and I have had quite a discussion about this very principle. She tends to be offended when no offense is meant. My family’s humor is sarcastic to say the least, funny sometimes at the expense of others. I say she chooses to be offended, she says the “humor” is offensive.

    I think your point is well made, that our immediate reaction may be more controlled by our subconscious mind, but we can choose how we react and what stays with us.

  3. Margaret Young on October 18, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    I have just graded a set of essays. The assignment calls for the student to write a letter to someone they care about. I expect them to say something significant in the essays. Of the nineteen students in my class, two wrote about their depression (which, in one case, had deepened to self-mutilation and a serious eating disorder). Another was addressed to his sister who is suffering from anorexia. It compared her struggle to the themes of _The Great Escape_ and pointed out that a soldier has an obligation to TRY to escape from captivity and mustn’t “justify away” his bravery. It was a really interesting analogy, but the letter went on to say, “We can choose good or evil,” and I had to ask the writer if his sister’s eating disorder was “evil.” These are family issues for me, as I have a daughter who’s been in therapy for several years to deal with an eating disorder. Can’t she choose not to be a captive of her disorder? Can’t she choose to see herself as the beautiful young woman I see? I wish it were that easy. She is surrounded by messages that tell her she’s not nearly thin enough, and it takes far more effort than I suspect I can even understand to escape those messages and become free. She literally does not see what I see in her when she looks in the mirror. The distortion happens at a very deep level and seems not to be even conscious. I have sometimes gotten upset with my husband for his tenacity (often supplemented by guilt) in insisting that our children fast on Fast Sunday. Several times I’ve reminded him that the scriptures refer to fasting as “rejoicing.” I do believe the gospel is a voice of gladness, but I am hearing from more and more students who are really struggling with even the ability to feel joy. I think it has gotten worse in the 21 years I’ve been at BYU.
    So Kaimi, I think your post is really depressing.
    No, it’s a beautiful post. I am just coming to it straight after reading a set essays which reminded me how deep the struggle is for some of us.

  4. Seraphine on October 18, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Is it really the case that we choose whether or not to be happy? Do we truly choose our reactions? The idea seems false to some degree; our initial feelings and reactions often seem out of our conscious control. But in a broader sense, the idea of choice is accurate. We may not control initial feelings, but we do choose how to process these feelings, what to do in reaction to them, and how they fit into our lives.

    This is how I like to frame things. As your example of torture illustrates, severe emotional reactions are often beyond our control. Mental illness is what usually pops into my mind here. Someone with severe depression typically doesn’t have the power to “choose happiness,” but she does have the power to choose how to deal with the depression (whether she’s going to dwell on it or try to work through it, etc).

    I like your last paragraph–I often experience joy through the beauty (and the small things) of life. I also think that gratitude is the key. If we can set up a mindset where we see the beautiful things of life and are grateful (rather than always focusing on how bad things have been and what could be better), happiness often follows.

    Thanks for this post.

  5. MLU on October 18, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    I believe we have more power to choose joy than many of want. Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov tells the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, who recognizes Christ but condemns him nonetheless for bringing to people a terrible freedom that was, in fact, so terrible people did not want it.

    If it’s true that we have the power to choose joy, that’s quite terrible. If we are not happy then we feel condemned twice. We are miserable and we have to accept the blame for that.

    It might seem liberating to believe it was all just chemistry.

    I have had my own bouts with depression, and I did not find a simple way to simply shrug it off. It’s always there–a comfortable old room with feelings, that being familiar, have their appeal. We can become quite addicted to our familiar old feelings, even if they are miserable feelings. Odd, but true.
    In the movie version of A Beautiful Mind the protagonist learns to live better despite being haunted. He disciplines himself to ignore and not respond to presences that, given attention, grow stronger.

    I was never fully persuaded of the medical model. I get the feeling from responses to comments I’ve made that some people believe more strongly in their meds than they do in the gospel. Such things have their place, I suppose, but I believe lots of struggling people need to hear the case made strongly that we have more control over how reality feels to us than we sometimes think.

    I beileve that we assert that control, usually, not through a dramatic act of choosing sudden joy but through steady devotion to simple advice: read the scriptures, pray, repent, go outside under the stars and feel God’s presence, practice faith.

    In my experience, what you say is true:

    We stand at the controls, and we decide to focus on the beauty or the ugliness, to be happy or sad, to rejoice or mourn. We exist to find and experience joy; the gospel, at its best, is a catalyst that helps us remember that purpose, and to remind of of our power to choose joy.

  6. Idahospud on October 18, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    One of the things taught to me in counseling is that agency can only exist in the present moment; therefore, joy can only be felt in the present moment. Choosing to dwell on the past or fret about the future negates agency and thus joy. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. Tatiana on October 18, 2006 at 11:12 pm

    I believe in that, that I have a huge power to choose my thoughts, to a limited extent. Mentally ill people didn’t choose to be mentally ill. People who grow up abused, people who are tortured, people who have post traumatic stress, they didn’t decide they wanted to feel these things. There are changes in large scale brain morphology of people who grew up as neglected or abused children. There are difference in how the brain is wired on the lowest levels, differences that are adaptive for living in harsh circumstances. You can’t just wish those away.

    What you can do is decide to retrain your brain, but first you have to learn 1) that you can do that, and 2) how to do that. It’s takes luck or guidance or something to get to the point that you can even begin. I guess I think the whole idea that you can just think your way out of serious issues like this to be an evil one, because there is so much blaming the victim already, and it doesn’t need to be reinforced.

    So maybe the idea is good when we apply it to ourselves, but a mistake when we apply it to others. Maybe the thought that *other* people choose their own happiness is what bothers me. I guess maybe I feel we should be more awed and humbled by the the things that are unknowable about each other, and more quick to feel sympathy and love, slower to dismiss or minimize the sorrows of others.

  8. greenfrog on October 18, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Is it really the case that we choose whether or not to be happy? Do we truly choose our reactions? The idea seems false to some degree; our initial feelings and reactions often seem out of our conscious control. But in a broader sense, the idea of choice is accurate. We may not control initial feelings, but we do choose how to process these feelings, what to do in reaction to them, and how they fit into our lives.

    It seems to me that usually, we don’t choose at all. But the miracle happens when we allow just a little light to come between the stimulus and the response. When we attune ourselves to noticing our own minds at work, we begin to create a space between the sensation — even the mental sensations of thoughts, ideas, imaginings, memories, plans, judgments or whatevers — and the reaction to the sensation. When we enable our awareness, we find that even when we are depressed, our awareness is not. Even when we are excited, our awareness is not. Even when we are in pain, our awareness is not. It just is. If we don’t attune to that, our lives are filled with chaotic suffering. With the power of that awareness, we are free to become like Christ (or the Buddha, who made a living of pointing out this fact). ;-)

    There is enough beauty everywhere to sustain us. It is found in the wonder of nature, the radiance of human creativity, and the miracle of everyday interactions with other people. We stand at the controls, and we decide to focus on the beauty or the ugliness, to be happy or sad, to rejoice or mourn. We exist to find and experience joy; the gospel, at its best, is a catalyst that helps us remember that purpose, and to remind of of our power to choose joy.

    Nice.

  9. JKC on October 19, 2006 at 9:45 am

    I think it’s true that we should be able to choose joy. On the other hand, I think this ability to choose can be diminished greatly by circumstances (e.g. genetics, traumatic experiences and memories, etc.). I hear an idea sometimes (usually from politically conservative mormons who want to justify disinterest in social responsibility with an emphasis on individual responsibility) that agency cannot be dimished or destroyed. I’m not sure if that’s true. If it couldn’t be destroyed, why was there a war in heaven to save it? Couldn’t we have just let Satan try to destroy agency and watch him fail, if it were an absolute?

    I don’t know the answer to that question. But assuming that we can always choose joy, I’m still not sure that it’s always appropriate to do so. Sometimes, we are supposed to mourn with those that mourn. One of the most powerful images in scripture is that of God weeping in Enoch’s vision. Isaiah’s most quoted prophecy describes the savior as a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. These are not joyful images. It seems trite to resolve it all simply by quoting Ecclesiastes, but I am reminded of Melville saying in Moby Dick something to the effect that as the Man of Sorrows was the truest man, Ecclesiastes is the truest book in the Bible with its “fine-hammered steel of woe.”

    Maybe the freedom we have is not freedom from woe, but the freedom to know that it will not last forever. That helps me to rejoice in the future even when the present seems dark.

    I’ve heard agency described as a muscle—the more you exercise it, the more you can use it, the less you exercise it, the more it atrophies. This makes sense to me. It means that we all have the potential to be able to choose joy, but that some of us are born with weaker muscles. We shouldn’t disdain those who are weaker, we should lift up their hanging hands and strengthen their feeble knees. Maybe instead of saying: “you can choose to be happy, so why aren’t you, what’s your problem?” we can say “I believe that you can learn to choose happiness, but don’t get discouraged if you find it hard; I bleieve in you, what can I do to help?” For me, I think its the difference between guilt-tripping and empowering. I think we know which one the Savior prefers.

  10. JKC on October 19, 2006 at 9:46 am

    By the way, I love that song.

  11. Kaimi Wenger on October 19, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks for comments, everyone. I hope it was clear that I don’t mean this post as a way to guilt-trip or to berate, to say “yet another thing people are doing wrong.” It’s just my own thoughts at present, about choosing joy. Applicable to me, and hopefully, to people I love and care about; obviously, everyone will do this differently.

    Margaret,

    Your comment is so sad. One of the reasons I think about this topic is because I regularly mourn for dear friends who struggle with sadness and emptiness. It’s heartbreaking when people I care about deeply have trouble seeing past pain and remembering joy. I know that I can’t change that, and that’s frustrating too. So this post is two sided. It’s something that I wish would work better for some people I know; it’s also how I choose to think about those people, myself, whether to remember the good or the bad. But I desperately wish that they had an easier time finding joy from their lives.

    Seraphine,

    Thanks for your comment. I smiled when I read it. I’m glad that that portion resonated with you. It’s something that I’ve been told, myself, for years. Years and years. And I never really believed it, or thought about it much. And then, over a series of months, it’s come to suddenly click, to suddenly make sense.

    And now, probably not coincidentally, I’m finding myself saying things to my son that my father said to me for years. Don’t react to others. Choose to be happy. Perhaps my son will figure it out _before_ he turns 30. And perhaps others who I worry about, will find joy.

    Tatiana,

    Definitely — it’s at least in part about finding new habits, making new mental associations, and training one’s mind. And probably the most difficult, choosing to try to make those choices. There’s no one-size fits all solution; and everyone will find joy differently. I do think that the gospel, at its best, should encourage our tendencies and abilities, whatever they are, to choose joy.

    JKC,

    You’re right that there are better and worse ways to encourage this, and your own example seems accurate. Hopefully I’ve done that sort of ting here. And you’re right, of couorse, that there is certainly a time for mourning. Scripture itself tells us to mourn with those that mourn; and life without mourning would make little sense, anyway. But just as it’s not unbroken laughter, it shouldn’e be unbroken tears. There is more to life than sorrow alone. Our purpose is to find joy, we are told; ultimately, that probably means a lot of things, at the very least learning to comfort those who mourn and help them find joy and peace; and learning to find it ourselves.

  12. Kristine on October 19, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    MLU–it might be instructive for you to read the book on which the sugar-coated film was based. In fact, Nash’s life did not improve by sheer force of will–he was in very bad shape for very many years, then had a rare spontaneous remission of his symptoms. I don’t think he would himself claim the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps cure that you (and the horribly misleading movie) suggest.

    And, more generally to the post–I think it’s important to distinguish between “happiness” and “joy.” I think it is absolutely possible for people to choose joy; to find the deep beauty in even a terribly difficult life, to hold on to moments of transcendence rather than being forever bogged down in the mundane drudgeries and minor miseries that are so much a part of human existence. However, happiness–the minute-by-minute sense of emotional well-being–has a lot to do with genetics and brain chemistry. There are studies that suggest that people have a sort of baseline of happiness or contentment that is largely uninfluenced by life events. That is, people who are generally “happy” will return to being happy within a certain period after traumatic experiences, while people who are prone to melancholy will return to their accustomed sadness rather quickly even after positive experiences. I’ve always thought it was the serotonin/dopamine application of Christ’s saying “to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away.”

  13. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 19, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    I’ve been reading “Stumbling on Happiness” — you might find it interesting.

  14. a random John on October 20, 2006 at 10:26 am

    Kristine,

    I agree that the movie in question is not accurate. Have you seen the 60 Minutes interview with Nash? He asserts that he got better through force of will, while they also interviewed doctors that said that what happened to him isn’t unusual because your brain chemistry changes as you as and there are other cases of people getting better because of aging. Interestingly Nash thinks his son who suffers from the same mental/emotional problems needs use will power to get out of it, believing that this is what he did.

  15. MLU on October 22, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    Kristine,

    My point is only that the image in the film is true to my experience. It is often possible to cross
    yourself
    –contradict your feelings and inclinations, in the sense that Alma uses the phrase in talking to Corianton: “Now, my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things.”

    My bias is simply that not all misery is caused by chemical imbalances, and my worry is that the medical and pharmaceutical industries will increasingly argue that they are.

    In any case, the study of joy should be central to our culture.

  16. annegb on October 22, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    I’m going to immediately order that book, Stephen.

    Kaimi, and Margaret, thank you for validating my sometimes-feelings. I’m glad to be reminded that I can choose my attitude, and it’s so easy to focus on the sad and ugly. But I’m also glad that better people than me struggle with sadness, at times.