How Happiness Is A Choice (With Real-Life Examples)

Updated 14 August 2019

hugo huyer author of tracking happiness small

by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.

They say happiness is determined as follows:

  • 50% is determined by genetics
  • 10% is determined by external factors
  • 40% is determined by your own outlook

This post is about the 40% of our happiness that is determined by our own outlook, or our own choices. Happiness is a choice in a lot of scenario's, and I want to highlight some real-life examples in this article.

I've asked other people to share their examples with me. These stories are about how they made a conscious decision to be happier. By doing so, I hope I can inspire you to consider choosing happiness more often in your life when the opportunity presents itself!

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I hate to break it to you, but the biggest chunk of our happiness is out of our control. But still, more often than not, happiness comes from within ourselves. This post is merely a piece of a much bigger chapter in my huge (free) guide on how to be happier. Learn how to control your happiness in Chapter 7: Internal happiness.

Let's start this article with a simple made-up example. Even though this is a made up example, I'm sure everybody has experienced this at one point in their lives.

Imagine this:

You are in a hurry after a long day at work. You need to get back home as soon as possible because you need to do groceries, cook dinner and head out to meet your friends.

But traffic is extremely busy so you end up stuck in front of a red light.

Bummer, right?!

How happiness can just be a choice sometimes

I'm sure you've all experienced a situation like this before. It might sound silly, but this is a very clear example of how happiness can be a choice. Let me explain.

There are a couple of things you can do here:

  1. You can be mad at this #*#@%^@ traffic light and be pissed off. This traffic light is ruining your plans!
  2. You can accept the fact that this traffic light is the way it is and decide to not let it influence your happiness.

It's probably the easiest for you to go with option1. It's the path of the least resistance, as you'll be placing the blame on something else. You're the victim here, right?! This traffic light is ruining your planning, and as a result, you're going to be late for your friends and that will only further ruin your night.

Sounds familiar? It's okay. We've all been there.

Traffic is one of the best examples, as it is just so relatable. I mean, who hasn't been frustrated at the traffic before? Road rage is real, and it's something that a lot of people have to deal with every single day.

But as you may already know, your mental outlook on this situation is something that you can control. I've written an entire article about how having a positive mental attitude can help you live a happier life.

Our happiness is influenced by an endless list of factors. Some of these factors are controllable (like hobbies, your work, or your fitness). However, most of these factors are out of our control. They are external happiness factors that we don't get to influence. The busy traffic is a perfect example of an external factor.

We cannot control the traffic. But we can control how we react to it. And that's why it's a perfect example of how happiness can be a choice. We get to choose how we react to events, and by choosing a happy outlook, we can vastly improve our happiness when dealing with these situations.

self awareness example red light
Having the ability to change your own perception of the outside world can make a significant difference

So instead of becoming frustrated by this busy traffic, why don't you try to focus on things that actually make you happy?

  • Put on some good music and just sing along.
  • Give your friends a call and talk about your plans for the evening.
  • Send a nice message to someone you love.
  • Just close your eyes and take a deep breath. Allow your mind to rest easy, instead of being focused on the busy traffic around you.

If you do any of these things, you're effectively influencing the 40% of your happiness that you can control. While that might not sound like a big deal, it can make a world of difference on your mental health.

If you are aware of these opportunities - where you get to decide how you react to external factors - that's when you can actively make happiness a choice.

Examples of people who decided to be happy

I've asked other's online about some actual examples of how happiness can be a choice, and the answers that I got are quite interesting!

Example 1: When you're annoyed at your partner

I was so mad. I felt angry that he didn't finish the job and that I had to now do an extra chore I hadn't planned to do.

This is what someone posted on Reddit a couple of weeks ago, and her post really inspired me. I reached out to this anonymous Redditor straight away, asking if she'd be okay with me using her post as an example of when you can choose happiness, and she said yes!

Here is her story:

Yesterday morning I was frustrated with my husband for starting the laundry the night before and then leaving it all to be folded in the wash room. He was trying to be helpful, but it created more work for me (a SAHM [stay at home mom] with an infant and toddler).

I was so mad. I felt angry that he didn't finish the job and that I had to now do an extra chore I hadn't planned to do. I opened my laptop to send him an e-mail (he can't use his phone at work) and started typing a passive aggressive message: "Thanks for leaving all the laundry for me to fold. Not helpful."

But before I sent it, I thought about how it would feel for him to read that message at the start of his work day. What kind of tone would that set for him? And then when he got home, for us?

I remembered on our honeymoon how we met a married couple in their 50s at a national park campground. They were so happy. And they seemed so in love and so positive. They told my husband and I that every day they just make the effort to treat each other as if they had just met. To extend the kindness they would extend to a stranger to one another.

I deleted my message, and instead I typed "I hope you are having a good day so far. Can't wait to see you when you get home. I love you so much."

It felt so good to hit send.

When he got home, he told me how that message made his day.

I told him what I had initially planned to send and we were both able to laugh because by that time I had cooled off. He helped me fold the laundry and we had a wonderful night with our kids.

It's so easy for us to make little comments and snips at our partners, but over time that chips away at the foundation. Pouring in love is much better.

This is such a beautiful example of how happiness can sometimes be a choice.

Aren't we all tempted to be passive aggressive sometimes? You know, to quickly allow your discontent to break out as soon as you experience something negative? This is something that probably happens on a daily basis.

  • When your partner doesn't fold the laundry
  • When the bedroom is a mess
  • When somebody does not seem to listen to what you're saying
  • Etc

There are all scenarios in which you can decide to either react negatively or positively.

It turns out that if you give yourself a moment to think of the other person, their intentions, their situation, it is just as easy to be kind.

That's when happiness is a choice.

Example 2: Finding happiness when dealing with illness

When I was first told about this lung condition I was scared out of my mind and inconsolable for weeks. I had already beaten cancer twice and just when I thought I was out of the woods for good, the doctors found out that my lung function had decreased drastically and if it continues to decline, the prognosis wouldn't be optimistic.

This is the situation that Sabrina from The Budding Optimist was in 3 years ago. This is a very different example of how happiness is a choice. The situation that Sabrina found herself in is much more difficult than what we discussed previously.

I mean, being stuck in traffic or feeling annoyed at your partner don't really compare to the difficult situation that Sabrina was in.

But this is still a wonderful example of how happiness can still be a choice. Her story continues:

One day I decided to take a walk outside after wallowing at home for days. It had just finished raining and the afternoon was peaking out from underneath the clouds. I took a path that led me up a familiar hill near my house and I walked up that hill as quickly as I could. I felt my lungs expand and take in the fresh air around me. I looked in the direction of the sun and felt its warmth. The moment was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. I felt scared still but in that moment I decided I would face this challenge head on. I would try my best to make the most out of the air I could still breathe and live my life to the fullest.

It's been 3 years now since that diagnosis. I continue to hike, travel, and even play dodgeball in a hobby league with my husband and friends.

This goes to show that happiness is determined by both external factors and your personal outlook. Even though external factors might make it very difficult to maintain a positive outlook, we can still somewhat influence how we react to those factors.

Sabrina's story inspires me to make the most of the happiness that we still get to influence.

Example 3: Focusing on spreading happiness instead of mourning

25 years ago I broke my neck while body surfing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The resulting quadriplegia means that I have no feeling or movement from the chest down and limited sensation and movement in my arms and hands. Very early on I learned that every day I had two options. I could mourn the loss of function or maximize the strengths and abilities that I still have.

This story comes from Rob Oliver, a motivational speaker who has found that happiness can be a choice even when "life gives you lemons". Just like Sabrina, his story doesn't really compare to our first 2 examples.

One of the more difficult side effects of having a spinal cord injury is a much higher incidence of Urinary Tract Infections. That frequency tends to build up a resistance in the bacteria and before long my UTIs required treatment with IV antibiotics which usually involved a hospital stay.

About 10 years ago, I was in the hospital on Mother's Day weekend with a UTI, my third or fourth in the last 12 months. When I am healthy, I reach out to others who are in the hospital, texting, calling and visiting. I had been in the hospital for a week and almost no one came to visit. Mother's Day morning I was thinking about the lack of visitors, feeling lonely and unloved. It got me thinking about other people who might also be feeling lonely and unloved on Mother's Day.

My Aunt Gwyn is wonderful with children. They love her! However, whatever the reason, she never had any kids of her own. I realized that Mother's Day must be a very difficult day for her. When she did not answer my call, I left her a voicemail explaining that I love her and was thinking about how difficult this day must be for her. I didn't think much more about it.

Later that week, she called me to explain that she did not answer her phone because she and her husband go up to the woods to get away from everybody on Mother's Day because it is that difficult for her. She would love to be a mom and she so wishes that she could be sharing a special day with her kids but that just is not God's plan.

She thanked me for the call and said that my call was a ray of sunshine on a dark and difficult day. What I learned on that day is that focusing on my deficits will only fill me with emptiness. Using my abilities (however limited they may be) to serve and encourage others has a positive impact on their lives and a sense of value on mine.

This is a beautiful example of how happiness can be a choice. This choice not only influences your own happiness but can also spread to others.

You see, I'm a strong believer that happiness is contagious. You don't have to be the happiest person in the world in order to spread some of that happiness around. This inspiring example of Rob is a great example of that.

Instead of focusing on something negative, he decided to spent his energy spreading happiness around to others. I think this is the purest way of making the world a better place.

Example 4: How positive affirmations lead to happiness

I thought affirmations were silly, but after 30 days of saying, "I am enough," I believed it.

This is a story from Maria Leonard Olsen. Just like our previous examples, she recognizes every day how happiness can be a choice. Here's her story:

When I got divorced and sober at age 50, I had to change everything about my life.  I chose to focus on all that I had, instead of all that I had lost. I sold many of my belongings and volunteered in a remote village for a couple of months, to cultivate gratitude for all of the things I took for granted, like access to clean water and heat. I had to change the voice in my head and practice saying affirmations to keep my spirits up.

I thought affirmations were silly, but after 30 days of saying, "I am enough" I believed it.

I am happier now than I ever have been. In my current relationship, we send each other a message every day saying one thing we appreciate about the other person, from the profound to the mundane. I believe that what I focus on becomes magnified. So if I focus on what I like about my partner, I will not spend mental energy on his imperfections. And we are all perfectly imperfect, because we are human.

This example is very similar to the example of our anonymous Redditor.

It takes the same amount of energy to focus on something negative as it does for something positive. Sending a happy text takes just the same amount of effort as a negative text.

The difference in outcome is enormous though.

What I want to show you is that happiness can be a choice in a lot of different scenarios. We may not always recognize these situations, but they happen every single day.

When a situation like this presents itself, we have a choice. Happiness is a choice in these situations.

Can you choose to be happy every day?

Eternal happiness doesn't exist.

As much as we try to be happy every day, we have to accept that happiness moves as the oceans do: there's a constant movement of ebb and flow that we can't always control.

Sometimes, happiness is simply not a choice. But that shouldn't stop us from trying. Happiness is only partially determined by our own personal outlook. It's a big part, but it doesn't comprise 100% of our happiness.

There are some external factors that we simply cannot control, like:

  • Losing a friend, family member or loved one
  • Becoming ill or physically limited
  • Depression (saying "just cheer up" doesn't help anyone who's depressed)
  • Being assigned a project that you don't like
  • Dealing with sadness around us
  • Etc.

And if these happen to us, then that sucks. In these cases, happiness is simply not a choice. In fact, happiness simply can't exist without sadness.

But that shouldn't stop us from trying to influence the portion of our happiness that we still can control!

Is happiness something we can control?

Let's go back to the start.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that happiness is roughly dependent on the following factors:

  • 50% is determined by genetics
  • 10% is determined by external factors
  • 40% is determined by your own outlook

If you've made it this far down the article, you should know by now that we can control this 40% of our happiness.

But I want to take it one step further.

I believe that we can understand 100% of our happiness, not just our own personal outlook.

I've tracked my happiness every single day for over 5 years now. What does this mean?

  • I track my happiness every day on a scale from 1 to 10.
  • I determine which factors have influenced my happiness.
  • This data can be used to discover exactly how happiness is created.

That's what this website is all about: understanding happiness on a personal level.

you see, my definition of happiness is unique.

I'm not saying that I am the only one who understands happiness, I'm just saying that our "happiness equations" are all different. We are unique human beings, and what makes me happy does not necessarily have to make you happy as well.

We all have a unique happiness equation.

We can all learn about our happiness equation by tracking our happiness on a daily level. By doing so, you'll discover what factors in your life have the biggest influence on your happiness. This way, you'll be able to steer your life in the best direction possible.

What does my happiness data look like?

Here's a simple data visualization I made at the end of 2018 to reflect on the year.

happiness journal 2018 tracking happiness animation

This is only one example of what you can do by tracking your happiness. This is a yearly calendar that shows me which factors have had a positive or negative influence on my happiness.

You can do the same thing. My free template allows you to start right away in order to learn more about your happiness unique happiness equation!

You can be happier. Discover how with my free template!

  • Track your happiness every day
  • Learn more about what makes you happy
  • Receive my custom template for free

Closing words

There's a couple of things that I wanted to show you in this article:

  • How happiness can be a choice sometimes
  • How often we are given the opportunity to choose happiness (probably more than you know!)
  • How different people around the world get to choose for happiness on a daily basis

If you have learned more about just a single of these things, then I have accomplished my mission! 🙂

Now, I want to hear from you!

Do you want to share your example of how happiness has been a choice for you? Want to know more? Do you disagree with something in this article?

I'd love to hear more from you in the comments!

Who runs Tracking Happiness?

My name is Hugo, and I'm from the Netherlands. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering, a passion for data and statistical analysis and am an expert in happiness.

I've tracked my happiness every day for 5 years in a row. And I'm now using my knowledge to inspire you to prioritize your happiness. You see, I'm a strong believer in what gets measured gets managed. I want to show you what I - and many others - have learned while tracking our happiness.

My Happiness Essays have reached thousands of people around the world and have been shared in many places.

With my data, I have inspired hundreds of others to also track their happiness. And I'm hoping this number will only grow more!

Hugo Tracking Happiness Snapshot

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