You’ve probably heard quotes like “happiness is a choice” or “if you want to be happy, be” or “people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” (I’m probably guilty of using these words. Scroll through my Instagram feed and I bet you’ll find “choose happy” or something along those lines amidst my many quote-themed photos.) In theory, these quotes come from a good place. They’re meant to highlight the notion that, though you don’t always have control of your circumstances, you have control over how you feel.
Except… that’s not true.
Quotes like “choose happiness” or “think happy thoughts” aim to convey the idea that, no matter what happens, you have control over what you think, but what they actually convey is that you have control over what you feel. But there’s a big difference between what you think and how you feel, and the idea that thoughts and feelings are interchangeable is potentially very damaging because, much as you might want to, you can’t control how you feel. And you can’t control happiness because happiness is a feeling. You can’t just choose to be happy when your dog just died or your wife just left or you’re suffering from depression. You can’t choose to be happy when you just found out your child has cancer or your parents are abusive or your doctor just diagnosed you with a chronic illness.
If you’ve ever experienced any of these things (or any other heart-breaking, painful, or sad situation), you know this is the truth. No matter how much you want to be happy, sometimes you just cannot be. This is normal and to be expected because happiness is a way of feeling, not a way of thinking.
While feeling isn’t something you can control, thinking is. The literal definition of to feel is “to experience an emotion.” To think is defined as “to direct one’s mind toward someone or something.” Experiencing an emotion just happens. You feel sad when something saddens you. You feel happy when something (or someone!) makes you happy. You can (sometimes) decide whether or not you get carried away with your emotions, but you can’t control whether you have them in the first place.
You feel how you feel when you feel it, and feelings can’t be changed by words like “be happy!” or “think happy thoughts!” As anyone who’s faced serious trauma or heartbreak knows, in the midst of true pain and loss, happy thoughts are not an option. But what is an option is thinking positively. Happiness is not always an option, but positive thinking always is. Let’s take a closer look at how they’re different…
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POSITIVITY + HAPPINESS
You might be saying to yourself right about now, Aren’t positivity and happiness basically the same thing? Aren’t “positive thoughts” and “happy thoughts” the same? No, they are not the same, and the difference between them is very, very important (especially for anyone striving to live a positively present life!).
Fleeting Emotion vs. Logical Choice
As I said before, happiness is an emotion. Emotions, as a rule, are fleeting. Some last longer than others, but there are very rarely entire days when you are happy. Even when things are going incredibly well and you’re having an amazing day, you’re not actually experiencing true happiness and joy that entire day. (Same goes for negative emotions too — no matter how difficult the situation, you usually experience a range of emotions, not just “sad,” and even in the most challenging of times, positive feelings like hope and even happiness can be experienced.)
On the other hand, positive thinking is an active choice — the decision to focus on the possibility of good results or seek out the goodness in any situation or person (good or bad). Positive thinking is logical, not emotional. It’s more about using your head than it is about using your heart. It’s about taking whatever you experience (and feel) and trying your best to make the most of the situation (even if the situation is terrible).
Experiencing vs. Learning
Happiness must be experienced. Positivity, on the other hand, is something that can be learned and practiced by everyone. No matter what’s going on in your life, you can strive for a positive attitude. You can also practice it (and get better at it!), which is something you can’t do with happiness. You can fake happiness, but that’s not the same as practicing it. You’re either happy or you’re not. You can’t learn to be happier, and you certainly can’t force yourself to feel (truly) happy when you just don’t feel that way.
A lot of people struggle because of the notion that you can somehow become happier overall by doing something external (getting a better job, falling in love, buying the newest gadget) but those kinds of things only provide a burst of happiness that will eventually fade until we find that next “happiness high.” Happiness can be gained from external things, but it won’t last because it’s merely an emotion. Instead of focusing on experiences, it’s much more useful to spend time and energy learning how to find the good in any situation (rather that striving for short bursts of happiness).
Unique Feeling vs. Similar Thinking
Another major difference between happiness and positivity is this: happiness is incredibly unique. (This is why it’s such a hard topic to study and deeply comprehend.) What fills your heart with joy might not even register on my happiness radar. It’s kind of like love in a way (except it usually doesn’t last as long): it’s something we all experience at some point, but it’s hard to put it into words because we all experience it so differently and for such different reasons.
Also, because happiness is a feeling, it’s experienced in unique ways too. If you and I were both to think of a time when we were incredibly happy, we might have very different reactions to that memory even if we both labeled it as a “happy” time. From a mental and a physical standpoint, we all experience happiness differently. However, when it comes to positive thinking, we can all practice similar techniques. We all know what it means to try to find the good in a situation (even if we find different kinds of goodness). Positive thinking is a logical, thought-driven experience. It’s something we can all understand and, most of the time, experience in a similar way. For this reason, it’s much easier to share and teach to others. (And, as an added bonus, the more someone practices positive thinking, the more happiness s/he is likely to experience.)
Big Picture vs. Present Moment
Whatever you experience (good and bad) can impact your happiness levels. It’s hard to be happy if aspects of your life (some of which might be out of your control) aren’t going well. For example, let’s say you’re having a really great day at work and you receive an unexpected promotion. This should make you really happy, right? It might — but it might not make you happy for very long if something really unhappy is happening in another area of life. You can’t experience true happiness when certain areas of your life are negative, uncertain, or unhappy. Happiness focuses on the big picture. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s an important difference from positivity, which isn’t at all concerned with (or impacted by) the big picture.
Positive thinking focuses on the current moment and determining what you can gain from that experience or interaction. It’s about making the most of whatever is happening to you right now. It should not tainted by what has already happened or what could happen (unless you’re recalling a time in which you struggled with a difficult situation and overcame it, reminding yourself that you’re strong enough to survive whatever you’re currently going through). Positivity is about taking whatever’s happening and trying to make it as good as it can possibly be, regardless of what’s going on in other areas of your life or what might happen in the future.
There are some major differences between happiness and positivity, but making the differentiation between happiness and positivity isn’t meant to make “positive” seem better than “happy,” or to put down happiness in anyway. It’s only meant to show that there is a big difference. Here’s why this difference matters…
WHY THE DIFFERENCE MATTERS
After reading about the differences between happiness and positivity you might be thinking, So what? Why does this matter? It matters because so many people use these very different terms as if they are interchangeable, and this can lead to damaging beliefs in those who read/hear phrases like “if you want to be happy, be happy!” or “choose to be happy!”
Because happiness is not a choice, when people are told to be happy and they’re unable to achieve a happy state (because they’re in a bad situation, because they have a chemical imbalance that doesn’t allow them to be happy often, or for any other reason), they feel like failures. If happiness is promoted as something that can just be chosen, like pulling an item off a store’s shelf, those who cannot seem to “choose” it feel as though there is something wrong with them. On the other hand, if you were to suggest to someone who is struggling that s/he “think positively” (accompanied by suggestions for how to actually do it), those words might actually be useful and encouraging. Happiness is not an action that can simply be chosen, and suggesting it is can actually cause feelings of frustration, confusion, and even self-loathing.
And speaking of self-loathing, one of the other reasons using happiness and positive thinking are used interchangeably is: it causes a lot of people (most of us, in fact!) to strive for something that is unattainable: a lasting, permanent state of happiness. Due to many popular culture messages about happiness, many of us believe we should strive for happiness most of the time, even when we’re sad or struggling, even when we’re stressed or heartbroken.
As Dan Harris writes in 10% Happier, the “pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.” If you’re striving for a constant state of happiness — a fleeting emotion that rarely lasts for an extended period of time and that sometimes comes from negative sources, like abused substances, the approval of negative people, unhealthy activities, etc. — you’re bound to be, at the very least, disappointed a good deal of the time. You might feel guilty when you don’t feel happy when everything is going well or confused when you experience happiness during difficult times.
Making an emotion (happiness) a life-long goal is a pretty great way to set yourself up for a lot of disappointment and stress. While there will (hopefully!) be many, many moments of happiness in your life, no one is happy every single moment of every single day, and striving for that is like spending your life hoping to find an actual pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. This isn’t meant to leave you feeling as if happiness is some crazy dream that’ll never be made real; it’s only meant to show how the pursuit of happiness isn’t what leads to true fulfillment. Happiness comes in amazing, fleeting moments that we’re all lucky to experience from time to time. And the best way to keep an eye out for these moments (and make the most of them when they happen!) is to focus on positive thinking, on seeking out the good in your life, no matter where you find yourself.
Rather that focusing on choosing happiness, what we should be focusing on is thinking positively. Remember: we can’t choose how we feel, but we can choose how we think about those feelings (and whatever it was that caused us to feel that way). Instead of focusing so much being happy, what we should be focusing on is how we can make the most of our lives (both the happy and the sad parts).
When we see something that tells us to simply “be happy,” we should question that request and think about how the notion of happiness-as-a-choice is actually impacting our lives. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking happy thoughts or gravitating toward things that make you happy, but it’s important to keep in mind that happiness (no matter how great!) is fleeting. If you’re looking for lasting contentment, learning the art of positive thinking is the best place to put your time and energy.
Positive thinking can be tough when it comes to self-contemplation, which is why it’s so important to focus on self-love. Want to empower yourself with some serious self-love and acceptance? Start loving yourself (or increase the love you already have for yourself!) with the inspiration and motivation found in Loving Your Self: An Empowering Workbook for Increasing Self-Love. Filled with uplifting encouragement, thought-provoking questions, and engaging exercises, Loving Your Self is an essential tool for mastering the art of self-love. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own copy here.