I was raised in a religious household, and I can remember sitting in the pews with my legs swinging several inches above the floor listening to speakers standing behind the pulpit telling me happiness was a choice. If I wanted to be happy, I just had to decide to be happy. Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezy.
Thirty-plus years later, I still don't believe them.
When you can't choose happiness
After seventh grade, when my family moved across the country leaving the only home I'd ever known, I wasn't happy. And I couldn't choose to be happy because I was sad. I missed my friends. I missed my house. I missed my bedroom with the tree next to the window that I climbed down whenever I needed to run away for an hour or two. I was sad until I made new friends, got comfortable in a new home and learned I could climb out my bedroom window on the first floor without the use of a tree.
When my husband's father passed away, my husband was grief-stricken. He couldn't choose to be happy. He missed his father's wisdom and laughter and the guidance he'd come to rely on. He did feel happy again but not right away.
When my brother-in-law was wrongfully accused of a crime he didn't commit and lost his job as a result, he couldn't choose to be happy. He was devastated, afraid and unsure how his family was going to survive.
Why you must feel grief
You can't always choose to be happy because life has ups and downs. In fact, as grief therapist Emily Page Hatch says:
"The only way to get through grief is to go through it."
Ignoring how you feel and pretending to be happy when you're not shuts out the very support you need to heal. Painful feelings that are avoided can be harmful to our health and they often resurface even stronger later on.
You need to feel your difficult feelings if you want to get through them.
What joy can do for you
A couple of years ago, my husband's company sold unexpectedly and he suddenly found himself without a job. We're a single-income family with four children, so that was a terrifying experience. But amid our feelings of fear, we managed to take advantage of the time he had off.
My husband spent most of his time looking for a new job, of course, but we also took time to go for walks together every day. We ate our meals together and did other things that brought us joy, even though we were scared.
That turned out to be a special time in our lives. I wouldn't describe us as "happy," because we were filled with uncertainty, but we look back on those months fondly. They are full of good memories and warm feelings because we let the stress bring us together instead of pull us apart.
So, yes, there are times in life when you can't just choose to be happy. Life isn't always full of unicorns and rainbows or even silver linings. Some circumstances are simply awful, and there's no way around that; but you can choose to do things that bring you joy.
How to choose joy when you can't choose happiness
You can choose to take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. You can choose to feel the wind tussle your hair and listen to the sound of the leaves under your feet. You can choose to do things that feel good, even when you're sad or scared. You can choose to give yourself a respite from your feelings, knowing that it won't change your circumstances or flip a switch to make you "happy," but it may help you cope by reminding you of all there is to love about this life.
Joy is more than happiness. It's deeper and more complex, purer and more enduring.
Joy originates in the center of your soul. It's what stabilizes and sustains you, not in the absence of your troubles, but through them. If happiness is what waits on the other side of your sadness, then joy is what lives inside you all along.
Joy is where serenity originates. Joy is all around us when we're open to it. Pay attention to people that make you smile and things that fill your body with peace. Discover where joy resides for you and immerse yourself in those things and surround yourself with those people.
When I teach dance classes, I teach my students to balance by helping them find their center of gravity. If they can find their center, then they can balance on their toes, on one foot, when they spin and when they jump. Joy is your spiritual center of gravity. Finding it doesn't mean you will avoid the twists and turns, but it will help you stay on your feet.
This article was originally published on The Good Men Project It has been republished here with permission.