Surely you’ve heard the adage “Happiness is a choice.” So who wouldn’t make the choice? Surprisingly, a lot of us. Many people don’t believe happiness can be that simple. But dozens of studies have found our subjective well-being (what scientists call our day-to-day positive feelings and overall life satisfaction) is something we can choose to work on and improve.
Making the choice is just the beginning. “You don’t decide to be happy and poof! it happens,” says Amy Telsey, a psychoanalyst in New York City. You have to do the mental and emotional pushups such as trying scientifically proven happy habits like keeping a gratitude journal, making time for friends and consciously savoring moments.
If you haven’t chosen happiness yet, you might be holding on to one of the following excuses.
1. “I don’t make enough money/I didn’t get the promotion I wanted.”
Some people believe joy will descend upon them once they reach some elusive goal. “When you make your happiness conditional on your life circumstances, you’re doomed to fail,” says Telsey. “Discontentment often happens when your life and your expectations are out of sync.”
Even if you achieve the goal, there’s no guarantee it will fulfill you the way you thought it would. In a study by Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard University and the author of Stumbling on Happiness, a group of assistant professors reported that they thought they would be happier once they received tenure. Years later the professors who received tenure were just as content as those who didn’t.
2. “I’ve experienced tragedy, so I’ll never be happy again.”
It was once believed that we adapt to distressing events and eventually return to a happiness “set point.” More recent studies have shown these unfortunate events can actually influence life satisfaction and well-being for good. But influence does not mean determine.
Personal choice has just as much, if not a greater, influence as tragedy on subjective well-being, says Edward Diener, Ph.D., a professor at the Universities of Virginia and Utah and one of the founders of the field of positive psychology. You can choose to see a therapist to help you work through grief; you can choose to find joy and meaning through certain things even while finding sadness in others.
“Happiness is dependent not on how you feel, but on how you feel about how you feel,” says Telsey. You might not have control over what happened or the grief you feel, she explains, but once you accept the sadness, “you move into a kind of peace and inner alignment that can lead to happiness.”
3. “I was born a pessimist.”
Some people believe their potential for happiness is limited by their genes. While mood does have a genetic component, it’s not the determining factor. A 2015 analysis of 13 research studies found only 40 percent of the variability in subjective well-being between individuals is accounted for by genes, which leaves a whopping 60 percent to work with. Even the 40 percent heritability is not fixed, Diener says. Your brown hair, for example, might get lighter if you spend a lot of time in the sun. And your dark mood might lighten, too, once you believe it can.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.