Happiness is a choice — What does that mean?

One of my professors at my summer class at Stanford University, once said, “Happiness is a choice.”

At the time, that statement felt bold and perplexing, I was unsure if I had completely agreed, or really understood what that meant. It took me a while to fully understand what he meant by that. Since then, that simple sentence has become a powerful inner mantra for myself during hard times.

Happiness is a choice.

After all, it is natural when we get upset when someone does something to the contrary of what we expect or want. Problems such as constant lateness to a meeting, honking horns in traffic jams, talking loud in a public space, overall rudeness, the list of undesired behaviors go on and on. However, the behavior that happens is not inherently bad or good, it is how we respond to it that makes it so. We can choose to not be bothered by it, or choose to be negatively affected by it.

Let me reverse the scenario. What was the last time that you felt genuinely happy? How long did that moment last? Happiness is an emotion that is fleeting. You may feel like you feel more negative emotions than happiness. What are you doing that actually makes you happy?

Let me help you with that. It starts with a re-defining of the word happiness.

What is happiness, really?

This train of thought led me to a deep dive into philosophy and religion.

Many philosophies, especially Eastern philosophy and Stoicism, discuss the concept of an inner peace, or equanimity. This word will be a better replacement of the word, happiness, because instead of an euphoric ephemeral moment like happiness, equanimity is a goal that can be reached with enough discipline and commitment.

This inner peace is developed through discipline and commitment to create a balance between yourself and the world around you. Meditation and self-reflection helps you to reach this level of self-awareness and emotional control.

For many of us, this is challenging due to all the demands around us. Work, family, and friends often burden us emotionally. That is why it is important to acknowledge that happiness is a choice, and that it begins with prioritizing your own personal mental health. It becomes hard to help other people, when you are struggling yourself personally.

Personally, I have struggled to find that inner peace for myself. I have tried to practice meditation as a way to adapt to my daily anxieties and to clear my mind. Like, I said earlier, “Life is about choices.” I chose now to take the time to discover what happiness means to me.

Making choices

It is important to make the choice to have positive life habits, such as daily meditation as way to center your mind, and control your emotions. Instead of immediately reacting to situations that make us feel negative emotions, if you choose instead to take a step back and internalize the situation, you will realize that it is not necessary to react in a negative way.

This way you can deconstruct the situation and find a way to solve the problem with a clear mind.

Now, simply knowing this is a way to live is not enough. You must choose to live life like this and do so everyday. That is the hardest part. However, if you want to live life with less negativity, with a calm mind, and less anxieties, you can choose to do so, and live life exactly as you want.

An excerpt from a Korean TV show, Misaeng describes this perfectly,

“What do you think life is? You think it’s a big question? It’s simple. A collection of choices is your life. The choices you make in each moment makes up the quality of your life.”

I found this advice very useful for myself to reduce stress and anxiety in my life. I can’t say that I have been able to apply this all the time, but like most things in life, it is a work-in-progress. As an entrepreneur, I have learned the value of avoiding burn-out and to strike a balance between productivity and positive emotional health.

I want you all to consider the quality of your life, think about your purpose, and consider the daily choices you make. You would be surprised how much your life can change, if you align your choices to what you really want.

Danny Tsoi