Posts tagged “choosing to be happy

The Payback, Pride, and Pleasure of Choosing to be Miserable

"So let me get this straight. You're saying I choose to be unhappy?"

“So let me get this straight. You’re saying I choose to be unhappy?”

Some people get frustrated and even angry at the suggestion that misery and depression are a personal choice, yet evidence gently pushes toward this conclusion. “Why would I choose to be this unhappy?” a miserable person might ask. Good question.

A study* recently published in the journal Psychological Science indicates that “even when depressed people have the opportunity to decrease their sadness, they don’t necessarily try to do so.”

Logic pushes us in the opposite direction, that being when people are unhappy they would naturally make decisions that would lead them back to happiness. The study, though, reveals that people sometimes choose to behave in a manner that increases their sadness, rather than decreasing it.


The chief author of the study, Dr. Yail Millgram of Hebrew University, wrote that the study “is important because it suggests that depressed individuals may sometimes be unsuccessful in decreasing their sadness in daily life because, in some sense, they hold on to it.”

Participants in the study were first screened for symptoms of depression and then asked to complete an image selection task from among pictures categorized as happy, neutral, or sad. The depressed participants chose to view the sad images more often than the undepressed participants. A second study based on selecting music clips confirmed the first study. Sixty-two percent of the depressed participants chose the sad music over the neutral or happy music. Not surprisingly, researchers discovered that the more participants chose the sad pictures the more their sadness increased.

“The most urgent task for us,” Millgram concluded, “is to try to understand why depressed people regulate their emotions in a manner that increases rather than decreases sadness.”

I think we all agree with Dr. Millgram’s concluding statement. Fortunately, when it comes to the urgent task he describes, choice theory is ready to help.

Woe is me and don't try to talk me out of it.

Woe is me and don’t try to talk me out of it.

Choice theory explains that all behavior is purposeful, including the misery we feel. We behave in a certain way because that behavior meets a need. When a circumstance isn’t as we want it to be, usually because we want another person to act differently, we choose a behavior that we hope will bring this change about. We can choose from behaviors known as caring habits (these behaviors maintain our relationship with others since they don’t seek to manipulate or coerce), or we can choose from behaviors known as deadly habits (these behaviors harm relationships since they try to force or manipulate the other person into the behavior of our liking). Choosing unhappiness or misery in response to someone else’s behavior is an example of a deadly habit. Misery is often a form of withdrawal and therefore a kind of punishment.

Remember we are not talking about a little unhappiness when something doesn’t go our way. That’s natural and a common part of life. Instead we are talking about a deeper, more strategic sadness that is meant to convey a message and ultimately to control a situation. People can stay strategically sad for a long time.

What are some reasons (since Dr. Millgram asked) that people choose unhappiness and misery? Here’s three reasons that come to mind –

When we choose to miserable (Glasser liked turning words like this into verbs, which emphasized our actively choosing it rather than passively being infected by it.) we get something out of it. It’s possible that other people bow to our manipulation, which makes the behavior seem even more need-satisfying, but even if others don’t respond as we want them to, at least we get a feeling of control out of it.

Maybe this is just a personal admission for me, but when I really think about my own use of a deadly habit, like withdrawing for instance, it is pride that I let keep me from choosing a better behavior. I could choose to behave in the very way I want to be treated, but pride can derail such thoughts.

Let’s admit it, misery can feel pretty good. When we feel wronged we figure we deserve to be upset and we look for details that will affirm our disgust and anger. We can be like a gifted sculptor as we craft our interpretation of the story. Like a child tightly clutching a favorite toy we hug our misery ever closer, not wanting anyone else to mess with it.

A little misery is to be expected. Life is difficult. We negotiate it as best we can, but things don’t always go our way. Rather than choosing to stay miserable, though, we can choose a happier path, even if only small steps toward optimism and gratefulness. It might feel “right” to be miserable, but staying in that emotional state is a bit like playing with fire. Glasser used to say that it is impossible to be unhappy and miserable for more than six weeks without manifesting symptoms, either psychologically or physically. Our misery starts out as small choices, but it can morph into something that feels much bigger.

* I was alerted to this study in an article posted on You can access that article here.


Learn more about Glasser’s beliefs regarding unhappiness and misery in his biography, Champion of Choice.

I can now sell for lower than Amazon. Get the book from me, anywhere in the U.S., shipping included for $25.

I can now sell for lower than Amazon. Get the book from me, anywhere in the U.S., shipping included for $25.

10 Minutes to Live

How do you share in 10 minutes that which is most important to you?* (And now I only have 9 minutes and 45 seconds.) Think of the great death bed blessings of the Old Testament—like Jacob blessing his twelve sons. Or think of those great movie scenes, the hero is dying or wounded, only able to mutter something while others bend close to hear the words, a final message—like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, with his dying breath telling Private Ryan to “Earn this.”


I thought about using a gurney as a prop and being wheeled out here to the mike and leaning over to it and gasping or muttering something important, but dying and final messages are not very funny to me now. I have been reminded of that with the recent passing of my good friends, Trevor Murtagh and Bob Buller, and of the tragic passing of Luke, Boaz, Chong, and Simon, and just last week the passing of one of our teacher credential candidates—Oscar Munoz.


And so we are here, seeking that which is important, that which is essential. As I look at my life I can see four major lessons that I have learned, ideas that have pointed to the best version of myself, ideas that have pointed to eternity. These four lessons have been hugely important to me, since they have been like beacons, calling me, nudging me, to the best path. The other evening I got back from a walk behind the airport later than I planned. It was after dusk, pretty dark really, yet airplanes were still landing. As I walked around the flight center the entire runway came into alignment with where I was standing and I could see the long ribbon of lights clearly indicating the runway position. These four lessons have been like runway lights to me. You may relate to these lessons. These beacons may have beckoned to you, too, although one of them is a bit controversial. I have experienced these lessons at the rate of about one per decade. We’ll start with the current decade and then move backward, to the beginning, to the controversial one.

God, through His Holy Spirit, is actively involved in my life.

The most recent lesson that I have embraced is that God is, through his Holy Spirit, actively involved in my life. He is anxious to talk with me and to listen to me. He is quick to support me.

I choose. I can choose to see the positive or I can choose to see the negative.

The next lesson is that I choose. I can choose to be happy or, if I think it is the best option for me at the moment, I can choose to be miserable. But in the end, I make a choice. George Bush was right—he is a decider. We all are deciders.

There is nothing I can do to make God love me more, or to make Him love me less.

Going back a little further I come to the incredible lesson that there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and that there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. It’s amazing when you think about it! That God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, would care about this dust speck of a planet, this rebel outpost that rejected him and his way of being, and that further he cares about me personally, one of the rejecters of his love—I can only pause and bask in the thought of Amazing Grace.

Lesson #s 4, 3, and 2 were and are important for me. I don’t know if they are important to you. We are each on an individual journey. The Spirit brings us to the lessons and ideas we need. For me, these lessons came in their turn, maybe as I was ready for them. But lesson #1, the lesson that will be controversial to some, is the one that started the lesson-learning process for me. And for me lesson #1 took place when I was a student at Pacific Union College from 1973-1977, when I sat where you are sitting right now, when I lived on third floor Grainger Hall, room 324, with Chuck Evans, longtime faculty member in the Exercise Science department, as my roommate, and just down the hall from Harold Crook, long time principal at Newbury Park Academy, as our R.A., and just down the hall from Brad Benson, now director of development at Rio Lindo Academy, and just one floor above Tim Mitchell, our beloved pastor; lesson #1 took place when I played in the gym, our large, old gym, when intramurals was king and dorm-village basketball games were even kinglier, when I had to not only win games but had to score 30 points a game to feel good about myself, when winning the MVP award of the dorm-village game was what mattered to me; when, whether on the football field, the softball diamond, or the volleyball court, I was driven to win and to be better than anyone else; when this need to prove my worth spilled over into everything I did, including my relationships. Lesson #1 came in the midst of this struggle, the struggle for value, worth, and acceptance. It came quietly, began almost imperceptibly, yet it was distinct—lesson #1 was You don’t need to compete.

You don’t need to compete.

Picture one of the final scenes in Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams, playing a counselor, has moved close to Matt Damon, a dysfunctional math genius, abused as a child, and unable to move ahead in his life, and quietly says, “It’s not your fault.” Matt Damon shrugs it off, but Williams moves even closer and keeps saying, “It’s not your fault.” Damon continues to fend him off, psychologically and even physically, as he is forced to confront this demon. The intensity of the scene is profound. Now picture the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, as he comes into room 324, and moves close to me, spiritually dysfunctional, friendly yet deeply selfish, jovial enough yet desperate, a joker yet scared, and quietly says, “You don’t need to compete.” Like Damon I try to fend Him off, to hem and haw. “It’s really not that big of a deal,” I offer. Or I point out that “You probably have a lot bigger problems than this to deal with.” But the Spirit comes closer still and whispers again, “You don’t need to compete. You don’t need to even compare yourself to others.”


You might be expecting me to say that at that moment a transformation took place and in a flash my mind was illuminated with truth. But that was not the case. Rather than illumination, that moment with the Spirit was an invitation, an invitation to discover why I craved the approval of others, why I was so focused on my needs at the expense of others, why I found it so hard to be happy when others were successful, and why fear was such a part of my life. I became a researcher. I wanted to know why I was self-centered and insecure. The Bible says, “Seek and you will find,” and that is how it was for me. One of things I did was to do what our pastor at the time, Morris Venden, continually encouraged us to do, that being to read the Desire of Ages, a book about the life of Jesus. Without any of my friends knowing I started to read it in the morning. And what I read began to point me to a life far different than the one I was living. There were no demands, no guilt trips. Instead it was like one of the heavenly spirits in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce coming to me and asking, “Do you want to be free?” I was coming to see how imprisoned I was by my concern over how I looked to others, and how handcuffed I was by the fear of failing, by the worry of not being good enough, of not being better than you. I was addicted to other’s approval, and competition was my drug of choice. After a game or an award or somehow getting what I wanted, I might experience a high, but it was fleeting, and I would need to go looking for the next fix. You might ask, “How could anyone live this way?” Or “Why wouldn’t you jump at the chance to be free?” But I would remind you that as tenuous as the competitive existence is, there is a sense of control, if you will, based on a belief that buys into the notion that these are the rules of the game here on earth and we might as well play by them. Think about it. Is your existence that different than mine? You may not be that involved with sports, but this goes deeper than basketball courts and football fields. Are you telling me that you don’t worry about how you look compared to others? That you aren’t concerned about whether you are pretty enough, buff enough, thin enough, smart enough, witty enough, or just plain cool enough. Isn’t life like a game of musical chairs, where there are always fewer chairs than players, and where the quicker, the sneakier, the more aggressive are rewarded? Are you saying you’re not involved with this game? That when you come to the short section of passing lane as you’re driving up the hill, you don’t push down on the accelerator just a bit harder?

Grainger Hall (men's dorm), Pacific Union College

Grainger Hall (men’s dorm), Pacific Union College

I have not meant to preach. I can only talk about my own journey. I can only describe how driven I was and how afraid I was and how the Spirit came to me in room 324 of Grainger Hall, came to me even though I was unconverted and insecure and selfish, and began asking me, “Do you want to be free? Do you want to be fearless?” For me, as I was growing up, the world was a place of musical chairs, where I had to be faster or funnier or friendlier, but Jesus said “that’s not my game, that’s not how my kingdom operates.” It was my first lesson, the lesson on which all the other lessons were built.

And so, whether you live in Grainger or Newton or Nichol or Winning or Andre or Graf or McReynolds, or whether you live off-campus, or whether you are just visiting PUC this weekend, the Spirit, our Counselor, comes to your room, comes to your home, and asks –

Do you want to be free? Do you want to be fearless?


* Six years ago I was asked to give a talk to PUC students based on the idea of what you would share if you had ten minutes to live. Other faculty were invited to speak on this topic as well. As a result, this talk is very specific to my life and very specific to Pacific Union College, in general. For instance, Luke, Boaz, Chong, and Simon, were PUC students who were killed in a car accident while going down the hill to St. Helena. The four white crosses at the side of the road remind us of that terrible loss, and hopefully remind PUC students to be especially careful when they drive. While specific in this way, the talk emphasized principles that are not bound by time or location. Hopefully these principles are helpful in some way.


Take note of the Soul Shaper workshops scheduled for PUC this summer.

Soul Shapers 1: June 22 – 25

Soul Shapers 2: June 29 – July 2

You can contact me directly if you have questions at


Signed copies of Soul Shapers can be purchased through me for $14. Let me know at

Now priced at $14.76 on Amazon.

Now priced at $14.76 on Amazon.

Being the Best Me


I really like the February 15 post on the Mental Health & Happiness website. ( Readers were asked to think about how they wanted the world around them to be different – maybe a loved one behaving differently or a circumstance changing. Then readers were asked to think about a world in which everything was indeed as they wanted it – all the changes they preferred had come to be. Sounds good. We’d all sign up for that.


After being asked to reflect on how they would think and feel in this perfect world, readers were then challenged to act as if they actually lived in this world. How would you behave in a world that was just how you wanted it? Do you have a sense of what it would look like to not be burdened with anxiety? How would you enter the house after work if you were happy? Can you imagine how you would be with your friends if you didn’t worry about what they thought of you? How would you act with your spouse if the two of you were best friends and really trusted one another? You get the idea.

So (you probably know where this is going), readers were then challenged to live as if they were actually living in their “perfect” world, challenged to behave as if these pictures were reality. If I have a picture of what it would look like for me to walk in the front door of my house in a happy state of mind, what prevents me from going ahead and doing it?


This collection of thoughts really got my attention for some reason, and I am still thinking about the implications of accepting this view of things. It is empowering to think that I can choose my behavior and that I can literally choose how I show up. In other ways, though, it feels disempowering when I think about not being able to use angering and depressing and sadnessing and headaching as a way to convey my difficult circumstances to others. Could it be that I can enter my house happily, even when I’m in the midst of a difficult circumstance? Could it be that I could talk to my spouse about how I felt about the difficult circumstance without needing to anger or withdraw?


This is such a great Quality World activity. The theory behind the Quality World describes how we place need-satisfying pictures in our heads because this picture in some way helps us to feel better or to feel in control. Once a picture has been placed in our Quality World we go about behaving in a way that will help that picture become a reality. Why not choose to behave in a way that mirrors the world in which you want to live? Pretty cool!


Welcome to those of you from the recent ASDASA conference who are now following The Better Plan blog. The Leading the Quality School breakout sessions went well, I think, and I am excited about the number of Adventist principals and superintendents who are drawn to a choice theory approach to education.

Principals and superintendents – I encourage you to share The Better Plan blog with your teachers and staff. Just have them enter in the URL address bar. It’s that simple. Once at The Better Plan, take a moment to enter your email address on the left hand side of the page and then click on the FOLLOW link. You will get an email asking you to confirm this request.


Signed copies of Soul Shapers or Champion of Choice can be ordered from me. You can also quickly order them through Amazon using the links below. There is also a digital version link for those of you with iPads and Kindles.

 Soul Shapers: A Better Plan for Parents and Educators

Available new on Amazon from $14.75; used from $5.19.

Available new on Amazon from $14.75; used from $5.19.

William Glasser: Champion of Choice

Now priced at $18.57 on Amazon.

Now priced at $18.44 on Amazon.

Click here for electronic version of Champion of Choice.

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