“I’ve decided to be happy because it is good for my health.”
- Voltaire

What sort of “decision” is this? And if it’s just a matter of deciding, why hasn’t everyone decided to be happy?

June’s theme is happiness/joy – which fits with this season of graduation speeches. Such speeches often say what a great thing it is to “dream,” “dream big,” and “follow your dreams.” Well, OK. Sure, there’s a place for goal-setting. Let’s just not forget: the way to have everything you want is to want what you have.

In order to make “what you have” and “what you want” match, there are two strategies. Strategy A is to make a list of all the things that you want, and then set about doing whatever it takes to acquire everything on that list. You work to bring the “have” bar up until it meets the “want” bar. Strategy B is to lower the “want” bar until it meets the “have” bar. Which strategy will work best?

Strategy A is doomed to failure. You'll never have enough. Long before you ever acquire every item on your list, you will have added more things to your list. The “want” bar will always keep rising, staying ahead of the “have” bar. Strategy B, at first, may not look so hot either. How does one decide not to want stuff? Even if one has come to believe that wanting only what one has, letting go of desires for more, does conduce to happiness, can one simply decide to stop wanting?

The instant that it takes to say, “I now hereby decide to be happy” probably isn’t enough. It takes a little bit longer to psyche oneself into a good mood -- and even then, the effects tend to fade away in a few hours, even under good conditions. What's a body to do? Happiness eludes us when we aim at it, and it often sneaks up on us with big, warm hug when we’re paying attention to something else.

Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can undertake to orient ourselves toward happiness without thinking of it as a thing that we want. It’s the difference between opening to what’s there and acquisitively pursuing something that isn’t. So deciding to be happy is a matter of noticing that you are. In this psychic version of quantum mechanics, it comes into existence only when observed. Realizing (noticing) is realizing (making real).

Still, a single act of decision – to notice the enjoyability of the things in your life – is only a beginning. Yes, we can, in principle, with Voltaire, decide to be happy, but we simply won’t consistently make that decision unless we make another decision: to commit ourselves to a discipline of cultivating the habit of deciding to be happy. Such discipline is called “spiritual discipline.” What’s yours?

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