Happiness is something that most people strive to achieve. It is probably impossible to be supremely happy all of the time, but most people hope to be happy some, if not much, of the time. Whether or not a person can control their happiness is debatable. Firstly, in the case of people with clinical depression, happiness can be impossible to achieve. Furthermore, such people may be deeply offended by the insinuation that they could choose to come out of their depression if they so wanted. On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that there are certain ways in which people can actively increase their happiness levels. For example, they can choose to spend time with people who make them feel happy, and embark on empowering, pleasurable activities. However, uncontrollable life events can happen at any point and cause a previously happy person to lose their ability for happiness for long stretches of time. While it is possible to control happiness to a small extent, there are too many external factors that can prevent a person from becoming truly happy.
There are two main philosophical definitions of happiness. The first is that happiness is a term of value, generally one and the same as thriving or well-being. The other definition uses happiness as a descriptive psychological word, somewhat like calm, or depression (Stanford). This essay will discuss happiness as in the former definition. In other words, happiness is an emotion that people feel and is measurable.
In her article, “This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice,” Carolyn Gregoire discusses the psychological theory of a happiness “set-point” that decides a person’s general well-being. She reports that people tend to fluctuate around this point, their happiness levels rising when a positive event occurs or, conversely, levels rising when a negative event occurs, and then evening out again to the original set point (Gregoire). This is an interesting idea, mostly because it implies that all people have their own set-point, and that it will vary between individuals. For example, one person may have a particularly low set-point. They may be depressed much of the time, meaning that when something positive happens, their happiness levels increase, but not to the same level as someone who already has a higher happiness set-point. The debatable point that this raises is whether or not a person can control their set-point, and therefore their happiness levels, in the first place.
Gregoire argues that the set-point can be changed, “to a certain extent” (Gregoire). Apparently, while mood levels can be in part decided by factors such as upbringing and genes, around forty per cent of a person’s happiness is controllable. Gregoire claims that scholars have produced a great deal of research supporting the idea that anyone can choose to be happy. She quotes psychologist William James as saying: “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude” (Gregoire). Her article goes on to list various ways that readers can employ in order to make their happiness choices. On the face of it, there are some obvious problems with this theory. For example, a person with acute depression may argue that they cannot choose to be happy; after all, they may say, if they could choose, they wouldn’t be struggling with the pain of debilitation of depression. If happiness really was achievable simply by choosing to spend time with certain people, and smiling more, then most people would be happy.
The other important question that rises from this discussion is whether or not happiness can be measured. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy deems it possible: “there seems to be no in-principle barrier to the idea of measuring, at least roughly, how happy people are.” This does seem to make sense as, to the opposite extreme, healthcare professionals have methods through which to assess someone’s level of depression, often using self reporting. While there might be different dimensions to happiness that cannot be combined or accurately measured, it is probably possible to obtain a rough idea of someone’s happiness levels, especially when compared with others. As Stanford points out: “Even the simplest self-report measures used in the literature have been found to correlate well with many intuitively relevant variables, such as friends’ reports, smiling, physiological measures, health, longevity, and so forth.”
Of course, perhaps the question of whether happiness can be controlled needs to be narrowed slightly. For example, if individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses were taken out of the equation, then the idea that people can control their happiness is more convincing. It is commonly discussed that many mental illnesses, such as depression, can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Whether this is true, or whether the brain chemicals become imbalanced as a result of unhappiness, is still debated. However, it is possible that healthy individuals could control their happiness by choosing to embark on pleasurable activities, and by focusing on positive matters. However, even this assertion comes with complications. For example, a person who has been previously happy may lose their spouse to a sudden, untimely death. This loss is likely to cause them to be somewhat unhappy for a considerable length of time. It is difficult to accept that someone in this position could become happy simply by choosing to be. A bereaved person may not necessarily develop clinical depression, or any mental health issue, but they are still likely to find happiness difficult to achieve.
Although most healthy people can control elements of their happiness, external factors can get in the way of a person achieving true happiness. Many experts have written on the subject of happiness, and implied that all people can choose to be happy if they want to. However, mental health issues are on the increase, and if happiness were so easily achievable then it is likely that more people would be choosing it.
Gregoire, Carolyn. “This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice.” Huffington Post. 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/scientific-proof-that- you_n_4384433.html Accessed on 3 May 2017.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Happiness.” 2011. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/#HapMea Accessed on 3 May 2017.