Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Is Thassa right in saying that we all have the ability to be as happy as she is?

ckosarek's picture

 In Paul's class on Thursday, we discussed human emotion and the possibility of being happy in the context of challenging events or disorders (like MDD). Throughout the novel, Candace and Thassa both assert that happiness is attainable regardless of the hand you've been dealt. But can we all escape the clutches of negativity, and is negative affect a result of choices in cognition?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based on the supposition that our thoughts cause our feelings, and that by changing the way we look at things, we will then be able to control how we feel. Take, for example, the example of getting a bad grade on a test. You could think about the grade negatively (i.e. "I'm stupid," "I can't do this," "I should give up on school and join the circus."), thus causing increased sadness, anxiety, or some other uncomfortable, negative feeling. But if you thought about the grade positively or pragmatically (i.e. "It was just one test," "I have time to pull up my grade," "I'll talk to the professor and see what I'm doing wrong and if I can correct myself."), you have the opportunity to eliminate some of the negative feelings that come with the grade and to replace that negative affect with rationality or, even, positivity. Of course, CBT theories recognize that some negative emotions are a healthy part of the human experience and thus encourage the validation of negative feelings, but then refuse to let a person dwell on those feelings and the thoughts causing them, which risks a downward emotional spiral. 

The idea that emotionality is a choice is uncomfortable for some (after all, doesn't the subject of Generosity - the possibility that we could choose to be happy - make us squirm?), but CBT techniques have proved extremely successful in treating a range of psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety disorders, like OCD. Given the success of this treatment, could we then say that Thassa and Candace are right in their assertion that happiness is a choice? And, then, what would it mean to give us agency over our own emotionality? 


Lethologica's picture

A Glass Half Full?

 I've noticed, recently, that people seem to enjoy agonizing over things that simply don't bear agonizing over. Why worry about something that has already passed? It serves no purpose to work yourself up about something that cannot, at that point, be changed, yet people seem to do it anyway. I know that I, myself, am actually one of these excessive worriers; I have a tendency to worry about nearly everything, it often doesn't matter if that worrying will actually serve any purpose, because I'll do it anyway. I also know that when I force myself not to think that way, and just let go of all the useless worries and grievances that can plague my mind, I tend to be much happier.

Is it possible that one of the keys to happiness is simply to let go of the past and live in the present, and not worry about the things that you cannot effect? Could the whole "Que sera, sera," the "what will be, will be," system be the answer to happier day to day lives? That's not to say that we should completely ignore the bad in the world; lessons should still be learned from mistakes, and some level of worry is useful, but that does not mean that it is necessary to be miserable over those mistakes and troubles. It serves no purpose to obsess over what you are missing. Does it not make sense to take what you need from the bad times in your life and move on, to work for what you want instead of crying over spilt milk? Does it not stand to reason that accepting the bad and looking forward to the good might make life more bearable? If this is the case (and maybe it's not) then I think it could very well be possible that Thassa is right; it is possible for everyone to be happy. Perhaps we just have to allow ourselves to look at the cup half full rather than half empty. I won't say this would be easy, but perhaps it's worth it, in the long run. 


skindeep's picture

while saying that people can

while saying that people can decide how they look at a situation is easy, i dont think that all people can. for example, a child who is raised in a violent or otherwise abusive environment, might never learn that he has a choice to an opinion. if his opinion has been disregarded from when he was extremely young, he may never understand that his view matters, that he can speak up or that he has a say in what does and does not happen in his life. a kid like this, while technically still retaining the ability to choose has never had the option to do so - can we say that he has a choice in his happiness? maybe once he is older and has interacted with people a sufficient amount to help him gain a better understanding, maybe then he has a choice - but it isnt easy to go against your hardwiring and re teach yourself not only how to behave but how to react, even how to think.

i agree with KT - CBT is one way to learn to tools to find stability, but there is a sense of agency that leads to that that choice. and not everyone is allowed that sense of agency.

does this apply to the happiness pill as well? can it? do people need a sense of agency in order to decide to take it? will they loose their sense of agency when they do? because once taken, presumably, happiness, for as long as the pill is effective is no longer a choice. we cannot tune in and out with it. we are stuck with it. and being stuck with something, even if it is a sense of happiness does not sound comfortable.


hlehman's picture

The Secret

 The question of being happy and what that really means reminds me a lot of a book my mom gave me a few weeks ago called The Secret.  The Secret is about how if you ask the universe for something and believe you will get it, then you will receive it.  Although it may seem silly, I've been trying it out for the past few weeks and I think it is actually working.  I think that the secret can apply to this idea of achieving happiness because I think that you can control it.  I agree with KT that there are different paths and it can be difficult, but I also believe in the secret and if you ask for it and believe it you will receive it.  I like thinking that we can all choose to be happy because how can you really live your life if you are always thinking such a choice does not exist? 

It also reminds me of an article in The New York Times from two weeks ago about self-compassion and the effect how kindly people view themselves has on health.  The article discusses research that has shown how “giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health,” which is something I think more people need to learn.  I think students and teenagers in particular constantly beat themselves up over the little things and don’t understand the toll it really takes.  But, if we believe in The Secret and start thinking more about self-compassion, I think that Thassa’s idea about being as happy as she is, is not as unrealistic as we may first perceive. 


tangerines's picture

We don't choose happiness, but...

I don't think happiness is a destination; it's a journey. For this reason I think it's impossible to "choose" happiness, because it's not that simple. What you can choose is a more positive outlook or perspective on life, which is more conducive to a happy life by default. I'm familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I think it's important to remember that it's okay to feel unhappy at times, there is definitely proof that we are often able to find happiness in our lives simply by looking for it.

Reading Generosity has been interesting. My mother has her Masters in Counseling, and we have had a number of discussions about how people's expectations shape their feelings of contentment and satisfaction with life. For example, with the advent of "happy pills" and the significant increase in the prescription of these pills (often, sadly, for people who don't need ongoing chemical therapy) there is an expectation that everyone should be happy all the time, and if you're not, there must be something wrong with you. When you have an unrealistic expectation about how happy you should be, life is never satisfactory. Generosity, however, challenges (or perhaps intentionally critiques?) this expectation - Stone never expects happiness in his own life, and thinks Thassa must be insane for being happy.

In answer to your question, ckosarek, I think that we don't choose to be happy. I think we can choose a different perspective that allows us to find happiness & dismiss negativity more easily - and that is all the agency we need.


Poppyflower's picture

Work for happiness

I completely agree with this. I do not think that happiness is something we all initially have or acquire. I think it is a long and difficult process that takes time and effort, and is all about outlook and attitude. Although I am not saying that everything has to be sunshine and rainbows all of the time, I do think that it would be healthy for all of us to try to have a more positive outlook on life. Even those who seem to be happy all of the time have to work for it. In fact, in my personal experience, I think it is better to work long and hard for something, because in the end, I am usually very pleased with myself. While the character of Thassa seems to 'choose' her happiness, it is important to remember that part of her happiness stems from her outlook on life. She embraces the good, not the bad, and is therefore able to move on with her life with a positive attitude. But I also agree that one can not be happy all of the time; that is simply unrealistic. Humans are by nature volatile and full of emotions that always seem to be brimming close to the surface. It is only natural for someone to be happy, just as it is natural for them to be upset or angry. But it is important to remember that we do not make the decision to display or feel any particular emotion, we are influenced by outside factors, and must challenge ourselves to make the best of the situations.

KT's picture

The Happiness Algorithm

I think that there are different paths to happiness, the difficult part is getting to the trailhead. I don’t think that you can just say, “I want to be happy.” You have to go through the “loopy” science whereby you make observations about what might make you happy, try it out, then if it works keep it, if not, loop back to the start and try again: the happiness algorithm. I think that you have to follow the sequence throughout life to adapt to the constant change that we all experience.

I think CBT is one method that gives you the tools to find the trailhead and therefore gives you agency, but first you have to choose to learn CBT. What inspires THAT choice? Why don’t we all take action to attain happiness?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
7 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.