Can We “Choose” to Be Happy? No—and Yes!

Steven Goodheart Essay

Steven Goodheart Essay

Can we “choose” to be happy? Well, try it right now, and see. Make yourself truly happy.

Can’t do it, right? At any given instant, if we are honest about it, we realize that we just feel what we feel.  Sheer willpower can’t make us truly happy.  We can’t flip on happiness like a lightswitch — or, at least I can’t!

There is a reason for this.  In Buddhism, all the emotions, feelings, thoughts that arise as “I” and “me” and “mine” are called the “dhammas.” A “dhamma” is any phenomenon and its properties. In what Buddhist phenomenology, the dhammas are the mental and physical constituent factors of human experience.

The dhammas are always contingent. They depend on and always exist co-dependently on other dhammas. Dhammas simply arise and pass away due to causes and conditions: because this is, that is; because this is not, that is not.

When we are paying attention, in the deep Buddhist sense of the word “attention,” we can see the dhammas arise and pass away, arise and pass away, moment to moment.  We have no control over this flux.  It just is. This insight into the dhammas helps us see that there is nothing in this continual flux of changing phenomena that we can really call “I” or “me” or “mine,” except in a conventional sense where the entire fabrication seems to give rise to a sense of self.

Television Repair 1Let me explain this. My insight into the impermanent, not-self nature of the dhammas doesn’t mean I suddenly don’t know myself as “Steve,” any more than my knowing all the individual components of a television set and how they work together to create “TV” suddenly makes a TV set not a TV set! “Steve” emerges from the contingent dhammas, the mental and physical causes and conditions of my “Steve-ing,” every bit as much as TV set “emerges” from all of it’s coordinated, interrelated components “television-ing.”

No single component, or even group of components is the “TV” and yet as a fabrication, the collective components give rise to “TV”. And knowing how a TV operates, or even deeper, how the individual electronic circuits work, allows me to use a TV skillfully, and maybe even fix it when it needs fixing. In a similar way, the greater my actual, practical (not theoretical!) understanding of how “my” particular dhammas work and operate, and how they give rise to either suffering or happiness, the better able I am to help this process called “Steve-ing” move toward freedom.

Cosmic Interbeing Quantum BuddhaI’ve explained all these Buddhist views of how things work, to bring us back to the opening question, “Can you choose to be happy?” From the standpoint of the continuous flow of arising and passing away dhammas, the answer seems clear: no we can’t. We have zero control over whatever thought or feeling or emotion that might arise at any moment. This arising and passing away of dhammas is absolutely contingent on prior causes and conditions and immediate causes and conditions. If these dhammas were really self, we could control them—we could choose instantly to be happy. But this flux is not self, so we can’t!

We just feel what we feel, and thoughts arise unbidden. A keystone of all Buddhadharma practice is to learn how to actually be with what arises, see it clearly, and not push it away with aversion or cling to it with sticky attachment as “I” or “me” or “mine.”

So, then, is Buddhism promulgating a kind of absolute determinism, reducing us to mere passive observers of the rise and passing away of dhammas we have no control over? Actually, quite the opposite!  Seeing the dhammas as dhammas is only part of the big picture in Buddhism!  The very insight that looks into the true nature of things as impermanent, ever-changing dhammas that we mistakenly identify as “self” is also the insight that we use to look into the causes of suffering and then choose to let go of —abandon as “I” or “me” or “mine” — whatever gives rise to stress and suffering.

So while we cannot “choose” to be happy in the sense of controlling whatever is showing up at any particular instant as “I,” we can choose in any moment what we identify with. We can think and act in ways that help us move toward the end of suffering in the next moment.  We are now “surfing” the flux instead of being swept along by it mindlessly.  Indeed, in the very moment of insight into how some self-view causes suffering, in that very moment lies the opportunity to abandon some cause of suffering, and immediately feel some liberation.

Inner LightYes, dhammas may arise and pass away unbidden, but the Buddha’s key teaching is that we decide how we respond to and view those dhammas — all the thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories that make up the experiential sense of self. For example, just because we feel anger arising in us as anger, doesn’t mean we have to reify that anger as an angry “I.” With practice — yes, lots of earnest practice — that develops mindfulness, we can respond in skillful ways that help bring an end to suffering.

With mindfulness and attention, we find that when a particular dhamma arises, we are better able to not be swept along into a whole storyline about some feeling. We may see and note, “anger arising” and just see it for what it is — anger arising! No “I” there (at least, not initially!) to be angry, just arising dhammas. We can even get so skilled in insight that we can actually see the causal “I” chain ready to arise at the point of sense contact with whatever sensation might give rise to anger, or any other feeling.

More typically, and we’ve all done this, we let the initial anger cascade into full-blown “I’ and “me” and “mine” dramas, complete with story-lines and a “cast of thousands” justifying whatever we are feeling. We blend the anger, for example, with issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and all the past memories we’ve had of being wronged by others. I’m not saying we don’t have to sort out moral and justice issues in any human encounter or situation; we do! But, this is exceedingly hard to do if we are an angry red-eyed ape, so to speak, club in hand and ready to go on the warpath.

angerAny of us who have given ourselves over totally to anger know that it is, ironically, a complete loss of self. We aren’t just angry; we become anger. It’s a kind of unconsciousness, and we do terrible things when we are anger. As we learn more how to pay attention, and have built up some insight skills through meditation, we can prevent the total loss of self into some feeling, like anger. Instead — and this can be a huge step of progress– we remain keenly aware of anger as a rising dhamma.  Paying attention, not wanting to lose awareness of what is, we note: “Here is anger; anger is arising.” Sometimes that alone is enough to stop self-identification. But if not, and we have already leapt to “I am angry” then the next step of mindfulness is to note, with full clarity and attention, “I am angry.”

That might sound counterintuitive, or contradictory to Buddhist not-self teaching, but actually, it’s not.  To see recognize “I am angry” is a skillful means we can use to unbind ourselves from the anger.  If I become self-aware enough to know that “I am angry and acting angry,” I have already put valuable distance between that in me that is awake and objectively sees “I am angry” and that in me that completely identifies with and is one with the anger. Mostly, we humans just feel what we feel without even being aware and without conscious self-identification with some feeling. The moment we pay attention and note what we are identifying with some feeling or thought as “I” “or “me” or “mine,” then we have a tremendous calm, sane vantage point from which to deconstruct the “I am angry” sense of self.

father and son gardeningSo, we are never really totally helpless or at the mercy of the arising and passing away dhammas of our experiential self. The good news of the Buddhadarma is that by paying attention and being mindful, we can choose to what we give attention and energy to and what we don’t. As my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, likes to say, we are all like gardeners. In our the garden of our life and mind, many plants (he calls them “habit energies”) are growing. Some of these habit energies give rise to happiness and some cause suffering. All these “plants” are there because of seeds we have watered, and nurtured in our minds and hearts. And new potential seeds (dhammas) are always showing up. What to do with them?

Watering plantsHere is where the choosing come in. We can choose to be happy by choosing skillfully and with wisdom and compassion what plants and what seeds we water and nurture. We invest in the now to create a happier future.  This is the real meaning of karma, cause and effect. In terms of seeds that have already sprouted and taken form as “self,” we can choose to water those “plants” (habit energies) that support us and give us food and flowers.  And we can choose not to give our precious energy to those noxious plants that poison us, harm others, and that blight the good plants.

But even the noxious, harmful plants are not wasted or ignored or denied. They are, after all, part of the garden of our thought. They are there — what are we doing to do about them? Rather than going to war with the noxious plants — something I tried to do for years but that I never found worked, no matter how ruthless I thought I was being with “weeds” — the compassionate, non-violent way is to look deeply into the nature of these noxious plants. With great curiosity, dispassion, and compassion, we bring meditative insight to unskillful, destructive, hurtful, poisonous ways of thinking and acting.

Buddha MindThe path — and this can take time and require great patience and perseverance — is to let this deep seeing deconstruct our sense of anger or hate or whatever as being “I” or “me” or “mine.” As we do this, the noxious poisonous plants stop robbing us of our energy. Because we are not feeding them with a sense of self, they fade and fall apart into compost and can become fertilizer for our garden.  Or, in some cases, we can literally uproot some noxious”weed” and be done with it, because we have seen it has no roots in us.  As we do this kind of dharmic weeding, we are literally energized by our victories over false self-identifications that tie up our life energy into useless knots!

So, yes, we can, finally, “choose to be happy” by paying attention to what we give assent to and identify with. Just because some thought or feeling or emotion arises in thought doesn’t mean we have to give it our life and sense of self! More skillfully, we can just note the arising, and pay attention until it fades away. Nothing to get stuck to or cling to; nothing to push away with aversion. Just this — and paying skillful attention to what gives rises to happiness and what gives rises to suffering. And should we get caught up in some tsunami of emotions—and we all have and will — we can always begin again, get centered in our breath and heart, look into what happened with non-judgment, and resolve to pay better attention now and in the next moment.

Lovely Garden and WheelbarrowAnd note too, my dharma friends, that as we do this gardening process, letting go of what we can skillfully abandon, and nurturing the good seeds of karmic action, the garden itself does get more and more beautiful!  I can attest, as I’m sure many of you can, that through practice, the number and virulence of noxious plants (habit energies) do diminish!  While we can’t control the arising of dhammas, the unbinding and letting go of what causes suffering and nurturing of what causes happiness to arise, does result in a citta, consciousness, that is more and more bright and free of hindrances.  The garden of our thought and life truly can become more beautiful each day, through practice.

As Buddhist teacher Andrew Olendzki notes:

“Everything is practice, because we are always practicing to be the person we will become next. The reason we put so much time and care and effort into learning, through meditation, how to be with whatever is arising in experience without greed, hatred or ignorance, is because by suspending their influence upon us in this moment, we become free of their effects in the next moment. How we hold ourselves right now is the key to everything we will become. It is that important.”

And this, my friends, is how we consciously, ardently, and skillfully choose to be happy, and how we create beautiful gardens in our hearts!

Thich Nhat Hanh getting fruit

Thich Nhat Hanh gathering fruit


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

4 Responses to “Can We “Choose” to Be Happy? No—and Yes!”

  1. good stuff because it came just at the right moment so i can use it.
    lovely.i have often found that this is how dharma works.

  2. Thank you for this. Very clear explanation of the “self.” I am going to reblog!


  1. Sabbe dhamma anatta | Cattāri Brahmavihārā - 2013/07/25

    […] Can We “Choose” to Be Happy? No – and Yes! ( […]

  2. “Secular” & “Scientism” Buddhism is NOT Buddhism! | Buddhist Insight: How To Become a Bodhisattva, How To Meditate & About Buddhism - 2013/07/23

    […] Can We “Choose” to Be Happy? No – and Yes! ( […]

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