Tag Archives: Positive Psychology

Why Can’t We Simply Choose Happiness?



HappinessCan’t we simply choose happiness? As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I’ve spent the last 30 years listening to people struggle with anxieties, depression, and loneliness, in search of ways to alleviate unhappiness.  And as a professor, I’ve spent as many years researching ways to build resilience—hoping to find ways to prevent people from “succumbing” to unhappiness.  The more I explore these issues, however, the more I’m convinced that Freud was on the right track.  We are extraordinarily complex creatures who, by nature, are probably not headed toward tranquility or happiness.  If we wish to build a happy life, we’ll have a darned hard fight on our hands.

Brain Research On Neurophysiology of Experiences

I keep returning to a delightful article by Hiss (2014) on the human brain published in the Reader’s Digest a couple of years ago.  Hiss reviews fascinating research on the neurophysiology of such experiences as love, procrastination, reactions to criticism, and road rage, and the basis for many of our emotional struggles. 

We like to think that our intellectual abilities accorded to us by the magnificent cortex provide us with the tools needed to control unpleasant emotions and primitive urges.  But why, then, do we feel our blood pressure rise and rage take over when someone “waves” to us with a single finger from their car?  What just happened?

As Hiss notes, the cortex is a relative newcomer to the brain party.  It’s built on a more primitive mammalian, emotional part of the brain, which is built on an even more primitive reptilian part.  How peaceful—or cooperative—a party should we expect? 

Our Expectations On Handling Life And Emotions

She draws an analogy to a speed boat that’s been built on a row boat base.  We expect to zip through life’s rough waters with ease—something our rickety base may not be able to manage.  It’s amazing that our brains aren’t out of service more often!

So when I hear patients question what’s wrong with them that they can’t seem to manage their emotions or just “choose” to be happy, I remind them that they’re not a Golden Retriever.  And some days, their lizard is active. Why can’t we simply choose happiness? Our brains may not be wired that way.

Mindfulness exercises may help. To learn more about mindfulness, see Mindfulness Training: Introduction and Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.


Hiss, K. (Sept. 2014). The beautiful life of your brain. Reader’s Digest.

APA Approved SponsorThe Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. The Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies maintains responsibility for this program and its contents.




ResilienceResilience, the ability to bounce back and maintain strength in the face of stressors, is an important attribute for our patients as well as for ourselves.  Life is filled with tribulation and dangers, both those we experience first-hand and those we live through vicariously as we are instantly exposed to events through the media.  How can we maintain our strength?

A study conducted with young adults found a 2-step process to be particularly helpful (Gerson & Fernandez, 2013).  Undergraduates were taught in three 1-hour sessions first to confront situations that were upsetting to them by analyzing them in terms of the role their actions may have played in causing the situation.  For example, if they’d been been snubbed by a friend, rather than blaming something about themselves that they could not change (“I’m no good”) or blaming their friend (“He’s a jerk”), they were to consider what they could have done differently and so could change for the future (“Maybe I acted insensitively”).  The second step involved focusing on “letting go” when no further actions could be taken.  This 2-step process led to a sense of personal control and significantly lower depression scores than a comparable placebo control group.

So, for yourselves as well as your patients, it may be helpful to confront worries with problem-solving strategies, followed by exercises to gain “perspective” on the troubles, whether with meditation or by seeking out experiences that lead to a sense of awe. Let me know what works for you.

For more on the importance of “letting go” when no further actions are possible, see Mindfulness Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment.  For more on how to do it, see Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.

Reference: Gerson, M. W., & Fernandez, N. (2013). PATH: a program to build resilience and thriving in undergraduates. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 2169-2184. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12168

Please contact Dr. Gerson at if you would like to receive a copy of the article.

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