I always remember the quote ” Life is about the choices you make. If you want a better life, make different choices”. This very true quote is often lost on people who blame their circumstances, upbringing or insecurity for not making a decision that could change their lives. This comes to mind when I see the amount of relationships characterized by a narcissist- codependent element where despite all the evidence that says staying in an abusive relationship is wrong, making a decision to leave is harder or nigh impossible. I see it constantly with clients procrastinating who spend a lot of their energy finding creative ways to avoid tasks and changes that could give them a chance to improve their lot. Often the reasons for the examples above are closely linked to the way we see the world, our paradigm as Stephen Covey puts it. It is this very paradigm (formed by experience, upbringing and genetics) that we have to choose to change if life is to better for us.
One view is that the way we interpret what happens to us has a greater impact on our quality of life than the events themselves. A Swiss psychologist, author and teacher, Yves-Alexandre Thalmann, cites the metaphor of the glass that’s either half full or half empty.
“Our brains are programmed to make sense of everything around us and that happens to us. We spend our lives interpreting facts,’ he explains. ‘These interpretations, positive or negative, generate corresponding emotions. These emotions determine our behaviour, the way we see life, and our relationships with others.’ For example, if it’s raining, you could say to yourself, ‘That’s today ruined,’ and be in a bad mood all day. Or you could say, ‘Great, it’s a chance to spend a cosy day at home,’ and this lighter mood will be much easier for those around you to live with”
As a CBT therapist, I work on the basis that our thoughts play a huge role in the way we see life and consequently how happy we are. While we should be very careful about dismissing negative thoughts completely, a programme of looking at things rationally can really help us to accept ourselves and start making the choices we need to be happier. All cognitive behavioral approaches are based on the same idea: that our phobias, relationship difficulties and even our addictions are often linked to ‘cognitive distortions’ (or false beliefs that we have turned into facts) that we need to do something about. This is a practical way of looking at increasing happiness in what can be a routine and rather stressful everyday life. It has nothing to do with the Hedonistic pursuit of ultimate happiness which tends to be very individual (and material). When you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value. Being grateful for the good things that are already evident in your life will bring you a deeper sense of happiness. And that’s without having to go out and buy or acquire anything new. It makes sense. You will have a hard time ever being happy if you aren’t thankful for what you already have and are able to recognise it.
When it comes to “thinking ourselves happy”, I wonder how many people place that responsibility on other people’s shoulders. I have always been of the opinion that nobody can change the way we feel or our lives except ourselves. We are truly responsible for everything we feel and consequently do. This is what led Thalmann to develop his theory based on an apparently simple premise: why not select the positive interpretations, which boost our well being, and focus exclusively on them?‘It’s a question of using free will to put our own spin on hard facts,’ he says. ‘Facts can’t be altered, as much as we might wish they could, but their significance is not contained within them – that is the story we tell about them. So you might as well link facts with plausible favorable explanations. I call it telling yourself nice stories.’
According to the results of a long-term study in Germany, happiness has more to do with our personal choices than it does with our genetic make-up. An international group of researchers analysed data gathered by the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP) from its widespread study of 60,000 Germans over 25 years. They found that altruistic goals were more important than money, and that focusing on family, social activities, exercise, religion, and working the right amount were good choices to ensure happiness. The results show that it’s easier for people to become unhappier due to terrible life events, and much harder for people to improve their satisfaction with life by making the right choices – but that’s the area the researchers are most excited about.
“What’s new in our study is we are looking at choices you have, and what we demonstrate is that those choices make all the difference,”