Happiness is a choice: Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and Stoicism

Have you ever felt like your emotions are out of your control? Like you’re a victim of your circumstances, and there’s nothing you can do to feel better?

If so, you’re not alone. Many people believe that our emotions are simply reactions to what happens to us. But what if that’s not the case? What if we have more control over our emotions than we think?

Being defiantly happy

In his recent book of lockdown interviews ‘Faith, Hope & Carnage’, singer Nick Cave, when discussing the almost overwhelming impact of losing his son, says of himself and his wife:

I think we both worked out that we could be happy, and that happiness was a form of insubordination in the face of, I don’t know, life, I guess. It was a choice. That’s it, a kind of earned and considered arrangement with the world, to be happy.

No one has control over the things that happen to them, but we do have a choice as to how we respond. There was a defiance there, in the face of the world’s indifference and apparent casual cruelty.”

This idea that we have a choice, that when something happens to us, no matter how good or bad, we have the emotional choice and responsibility to decide how we go on to feel about it, is the central idea behind Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), one of the cognitive-behavioural therapies under the umbrella of CBT. REBT was developed by Dr Albert Ellis in the 1950s, and it’s based on the premise that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are all interconnected.

It is our thoughts, or beliefs, and our behaviours that help maintain our emotional state. If we can change how we think (and behave) about something, we can eventually change how we feel about it.

The power to choose

This is one of the key concepts in REBT, the idea that we are largely responsible for how we feel. This doesn’t mean that we’re to blame by the way. Responsibility means that we have the power to choose how we react to our negative experiences, and we do not have to be stuck in suffering.

For example, let’s say you lose your job, or like Nick Cave, experience a bereavement. These are undeniably negative events with potentially massive impact on our lives. It’s perfectly normal to feel emotional pain and be very upset about them. But you don’t have to let that feeling consume you, and you don’t have to remain ‘stuck’ in that powerful and negative emotional state.

The loss of a job or a loved one could lead to feelings of depression, believing that hope is gone and we will never recover from our losses. These, however, are unhelpful, untrue beliefs that keep us stuck in suffering. Instead, helpful or rational thinking, and REBT in particular, helps us accept the ‘badness’ of the situation including personal tragedies and their reality, whilst at the same time understanding that we can tolerate these hard times, and be able to carry on with our lives, even though they may be different. We can look for another, maybe better job. We can continue to think fondly and with love for the person we’ve lost, for example.

And from these decisions, eventually, happiness will return.

Of course, choosing to be happy isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it takes a lot of effort. But the good news is that it’s possible. And the more you practice choosing rational and helpful thinking, the easier it will become.

REBT and Stoicism

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus was one of the first to write about the idea that happiness is a choice. Epictetus was a Stoic, and Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches us to focus on what we can control and let go of what we can’t control. It is a great influence on the thinking behind REBT.

Epictetus believed that our emotions are provoked by our thoughts and beliefs. So, if we want to change our emotions, we need to start by changing our thoughts.

One of Epictetus’ most famous quotes is:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”

This quote perfectly encapsulates the Stoic, and REBT, belief that we are in control of our own happiness.

Another important Stoic teaching is the idea that we should only focus on what we can control. We can’t control everything that happens to us in life. But we can control our own thoughts, our own actions, and our own reactions to events. Words echoed, thousands of years later, by Nick Cave, and every REBT therapist you will meet.

If we focus on what we can control and acknowledge what we can’t control, we will be much more likely to be happy.

How to choose happiness

So, how do we choose happiness? Here are a few tips:

Identify your unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts. The first step to changing your thoughts is to become aware of them. Pay attention to the thoughts that go through your head throughout the day. Are you thinking irrational things about yourself, others, or the world around you? Are you demanding things be other than they actually are?

Challenge your unhelpful thoughts. Once you’ve identified your unhelpful thoughts, challenge them. Are they really true? Is there any evidence to support them? Or are they just unhelpful beliefs? How helpful is it for you to continue to tell yourself these things?

Replace your unhelpful thoughts with rational ones. Once you’ve challenged your unhelpful thoughts, replace them with more true, rational and helpful ones. This may take some practice, but it’s important to be patient with yourself. Focus on accepting things as they really are, rather than how you might wish they would be.

Focus on what you can control. Don’t waste your time and energy worrying about things that you can’t control. Instead, focus on what you can control, such as your own thoughts, actions, and reactions.

Choosing happiness is a journey, not a destination. It takes time and effort. But it’s a journey that’s worth taking. Because when we choose happiness, we choose a better life for ourselves.

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