Ever felt like life is just one big crapshoot? That if the universe were different or people were nicer, then maybe you could be happy? We all have times when we question whether or not happiness is in the cards for us. For some, these moments stretch out into years. Every now and again, especially when you’re in one of these soul-sucking, crap-flying situations, it’s important to remind yourself that happiness isn’t instantaneous. Joy isn’t the result of immediately getting what you want. It’s a process that starts with understanding one basic truth: happiness is a choice. It doesn’t happen by chance, by fate or because you think you deserve it. Contentment is a process that boils down to answering these four simple questions as honestly as possible.

1. Do you want to be happy?

This sounds like a no-brainer. Of course, you want to be happy. Who doesn’t want their cup of joy to runneth over? As it turns out, a lot of people see the glass half gone. For many valid reasons, you can get stuck in negativity. Caught up in sadness, you project this same feeling out into every facet of your life. By asking this simple question, ‘Do I want to be happy?’ you are reminding yourself that you do have a say in the outcome. You are shouting, ‘I’m in control here!’ This doesn’t change the fact that there are variables in life that are beyond our control. Sickness, unemployment, the death of a loved one – these are all beyond our power to change. By focusing on your answer, on how you are reacting to life, you can take that power back. Do circumstances dictate how happy you are, or do you acknowledge your misfortunes and decide for yourself?    

2. What is getting in the way of your happiness?

Here’s where the deep thinking comes in. It’s easy to admit we want to be happy or that we’re in a rut, but it’s a whole lot harder to identify what exactly is waylaying us. Whether there is one cow in the road or a whole herd of bison, this question may generate a long list of obstacles from childbirth to the present. Whatever the case may be, there is a difference between recognizing what your problems are and setting up a tent in Lonesome town. Huge stumbling stones (like discouragement, abuse or loneliness) can totally derail you from where you want to be. But if you don’t identify what it is that’s stopping you from getting there, then you’re that much further away. Naming what’s eating at you helps to relieve the sense of unidentified angst you are feeling. By admitting the obstacles are obstacles, you take ownership of them. Once you see the lonely bull or the stampede of bovines for what they really are: large, smelly farm animals, then you can begin to find ways around them and avoid becoming roadkill. 

3. Can you change it?

Of the four questions, this may be the hardest to answer. You know you want to be happy; you know what’s holding you back, but how do you change it? More importantly, do you know if you can change it? Avoiding what isn’t working is like driving a car with one flat tire. Sure, you might be able to get to Dairy Queen, but eventually, she’s going to blow. How do you assess if something is within your control? Simple, reach out your arms and make a circle in front of you until the tips of your fingers touch. You might look like a beginning ballerina minus the tutu, but that’s okay. The new space you’ve created is your answer. You. You control your thoughts, your words, your actions. That’s it. If someone or something is making you unhappy, the only ‘thing’ you can change is your response. Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ When you repeatedly avoid your unhappiness or try only one way to solve it, then the outcome will be the same. Einstein reveals two options. You can either go insane or try something else.  

4. If you can’t change the circumstances, can you accept them?

When you reach this place of frustration, the quest for happiness can seem futile. What’s the point? If you have tried everything under the sun and still can’t solve the problem, then how can you be happy? By realizing that the obstacle isn’t the end of your journey — it’s just pointing you down a longer path. At this moment, yes, you’re stuck. But, again, what’s the other option? Insanity! To stay there and hang out by the boulder in the road, waving the white flag while saying, ‘That’s it! I surrender!’ 

If you don’t keep moving through unhappiness, then you become the kind of wallowing, self-indulgent person who not only sabotages their own chance for future felicity, but who also sucks the joy out of everyone around them. People who are unable to consider how their sadness affects others are doomed to an unhappy fate, not because they’re bad people, but because their outlook defies the very definition of happiness. At its root, contentment doesn’t occur when you’re thinking about yourself — it’s found when you are thinking of others. This is why parents keep becoming parents despite their sleep deprivation, children keep deciding to share despite their innate selfishness and grandparents keep offering to babysit despite the mishaps that may occur. Choosing to give to others despite what you are personally going through reassures you that you are not alone on your journey – and ultimately, this is happiness.