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Ch-2: We Can Choose To Be Happy:
Internal and External Routes to Happiness

Part 2

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 2; Part 2, From the book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, Tom G. Stevens PhD
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External and internal routes to happiness

 We are never helpless
 Creating our own Worlds 
 Do not get too attached to any one route
 Finding and risking commitment to some routes is necessary



Sometimes we may think that a situation is hopeless. We may believe that we are in a situation for which no routes to happiness exist (at least for us). I have seen many people who feel little hope and believe that there is no way out. The problem is not that a route to happiness doesn't exist; the problem is how they view the situation. Following is one such case.

My client was talking of killing herself. She said that she could not think of any reason to live, because she had been depressed and unhappy for so long that she was sick of it. She thought that her life would only get worse. She had no hope for the future. To her there were no routes to happiness open to her--only routes to despair.

Why was this woman--who was young, attractive, intelligent, healthy, and living in a society full of opportunities--so depressed and pessimistic about her future while another client--who had cancer and was facing a high probability of death--felt happy and hopeful about the future?

The client with cancer had found routes to happiness and the other had not. It was my job to help the depressed client find her own paths to happiness. A new belief that she could find more controllable worthwhile goals and happiness gave her a renewed sense of meaning, control, and hope. Getting her more involved in activities with higher immediate payoffs also helped--these included music, reading, centering, appreciating beauty, decorating, getting chores done, talking to old friends, and biking.


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An important underlying cause of hopelessness, powerlessness, and depression is a belief that we cannot find any possible route to happiness. Do you ever think that you have no choice except a path that will make you unhappy? The next time you feel trapped, unhappy, or depressed ask yourself, "Am I assuming that I can't find one route to happiness in this situation?" "Am I assuming that I have no choice but to be unhappy in this situation?"

Challenge that "no choice" belief. Tell yourself that no matter what the situation is, you have many routes to happiness! Perhaps you have not yet found those routes. However, someone in this world has learned how to create happiness in a similar--or even worse--situation. How did he or she do it?

Once you believe that you can achieve happiness in that situation, that belief will give you hope. Hope will allow you to start looking for new, creative routes to happiness that you may have previously overlooked.

Seek happiness and you will find it. This is a positive self-fulfilling prophesy. It is amazing how many people have never valued their own happiness highly and have never learned how to play, have fun, or create happiness.

Seeking happiness is partly choosing to find interesting things to do, but it is mostly a mental skill--learning how to make every activity as interesting and fun as it can be. The more we begin to look for creative ways of generating interest and enjoying ourselves in difficult or unpleasant situations, the more skilled we become. I have seen people learn how to be happy in many "impossible" situations.

One of my own pet peeves has been standing in lines or waiting. I used to get irritated and upset when I had to wait too long and thought about how I was wasting my time. Once I realized that I was responsible for my own happiness--even when waiting in a line or in the doctor's office--I decided to take control of that time and use it productively for myself or for working.

I realized that the time was only wasted if I chose to remain unhappy. Now, I usually take a book with me if I anticipate a wait. If I have no reading materials, I begin thinking of something enjoyable or begin thinking about something that will add to my life or my work. The time is no longer wasted because I no longer choose to waste it.

Knowing that there are many potential routes to happiness for every one of us--

no matter what the situation is--

gives us hope and strength to face any uncertainties about the future.

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We have both external and internal routes to happiness. External routes to happiness include any actions that utilize our external environment to contribute to our happiness. In a typical day we take many actions like eating breakfast, talking with family members, working, playing golf, or going to bed. These actions generate external effects that, in turn, affect our internal world. It is as if we use the external world as a mediator between our actions and our senses so that we can achieve more desirable internal states.

Our happiness is dependent upon the satisfaction of our values--current and anticipated. The most common way to satisfy our values and find happiness is through external routes to happiness. If we are hungry, we eat and satisfy that hunger. If we want the love and fun of a friendship, then we can be a friend to others.

We can set goals, plan, and take actions to get money, friends, material goods, or the job we want. Or, an activity may provide interest and fun in itself. By choosing to do that activity, we get immediate increased happiness. Many of us are so focused on these external routes to happiness that we may even assume that they are the only routes to happiness.

Our Western culture emphasizes these external routes to happiness. Indeed, they are important! They produce our food; build our houses, schools, and factories; they give us art, music, and philosophy; and they give us our family, friends, and lovers. Developing our knowledge and skills to use these external routes can lay a strong foundation for happiness.

However, think of the famous people who have "had it all"--yet killed themselves. Why would someone with more money, popularity, sexual prowess, and success than you or I will ever have kill themselves? To be maximally happy, we cannot depend exclusively upon these external routes. We must achieve inner harmony to be happy. No amount of external goods or success will ensure internal harmony.

While many who "have it all" are unhappy, others--like my client fighting for her life against cancer--achieve happiness with limited external resources. How can she be happier than the person who has so much?

How can we be happy when the external world is not to our liking? What happens when we don't have the resources to get what we want? Sometimes we fail no matter how hard we try. What happens when we lose something or someone we love dearly? In some cases, internal routes to happiness may be our only means to finding happiness.

Creating our own worlds. To the degree that we cannot find or obtain environments we want, we can strive to create them ourselves. Dr. McFerrin Stowe once said that no matter how inhospitable or crazy the world may seem, and no matter how badly others may treat you, it is possible to create your own world that reflects your own values. For example, in your family the husband can be treated like a king, the wife can be treated like a queen, and the children can be treated like princes and princesses. Each person can treat the others as if they are the most important people in the world. Even if you came from a family that was more like hell than heaven, you can make your own little version of heaven right here on earth--even alone in your own home and daily life.

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Victor Frankl lived in worse conditions than hopefully any of us will ever be exposed to. He spent several years in Auschwitz and similar camps. Many "realists" would have said to Frankl that he had no hope. Yet Frankl chose to live. He considered death, but believed that life was too precious to give up so easily. He quoted Nietzsche,

"That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

Once he chose to live, then he chose to live life as positively as possible. He had few external routes to happiness available, so he focused upon internal routes. Victor Frankl developed a positive inner world to overcome the terrible external conditions at Auschwitz. He knew that he was creating mental images that were a fantasy. Yet spending hours each day creating thoughts and a complex and positive inner world made his life interesting and even enjoyable for much of his day.

This rich inner life helped him survive, and also allowed him to create a more positive world for others. He not only helped those in the death camp, but his books have helped millions more since then.

Whose way was the most rational? The "realists," who focused on the reality of the terrible conditions in their environment and died--or Dr. Frankl who developed fantasies and survived. After the war, Dr. Frankl led a very successful and happy life. After the war, the "realists" were still dead.

If we look at the lives of the happiest people and the people who have had the biggest impacts on the world, we usually find that they were not "realists" in the sense that they saw only what was there in their world. Instead they were dreamers who first created a mental image that was better than the image they saw in the external world.

Developing positive internal worlds not only gives us direction, but it gives us positive feelings and energy to move in that direction. Our positiveness and enthusiasm can also help motivate others. Even if we believe that we have little hope of ever making that image a reality, the image can still enrich our lives the way Victor Frankl's image enriched his.

Some major internal routes to happiness. Internal routes to happiness can include almost any mental activity--from appreciating a tree or enjoying music to contemplating life. We can learn new beliefs, skills, or habits which can dramatically affect our personal power and happiness. We have seen how making happiness a conscious top goal is important. Awareness that each choice we make affects our happiness is also important.



   In his book, The Pursuit of Happiness. Dr. David Myers reviewed a wealth of research about the causes of happiness. What were his conclusions?

So far, we identified things that matter surprisingly little. Happiness is similarly

available to those of any age, gender, race, location, education,

even to those with a tragic disability. We have pondered things that do matter--

physical fitness, renewing sleep and periodic solitude, traits such as

self-esteem, sense of personal control, optimism, and extroversion;

work and other activities that enhance our identity and absorb us into flow;

close, supportive friendships and marriages.

   Along the way, we have exposed falsehoods, most notably the idea that more money, and the pleasures and possessions it buys will make middle-class people happier.

   Dr. Myers also points out how important one’s more general beliefs--such as their religious beliefs--can be for determining happiness. He points out that evidence supports the idea that people who genuinely care for others and act altruistically are happier than people who are too self-centered. He quotes a Gallup survey that concluded “The highly spiritual were twice as likely to say they were ‘very happy.’”

   My own (and others; Howell & Howell, 2008) research has come to similar conclusions about income—our correlations were nearly zero with happiness in developed countries. Happiness is most determined by the cognitive factors described in this book--Internally Centered and Higher Self Values, Positive World View, Self-Worth and Self-Confidence, Internal Control, Good Emotional Coping, Self-Management Skills, and Assertive Interpersonal Skills. These factors were also strongly related to low depression, low anxiety, and low anger. They were also associated with good relationships and career success.[8] See Stevens, 2009, for detailed results—and keep reading this book.

We have less control over our environment and people in our lives than over our own thoughts, actions, and emotions. Of these, the most important is our thoughts--for they have most control over our emotions and actions.

Yet, most of us fail to notice the obvious connection between our thoughts and our emotions. We make no attempt to discover or understand the hidden mental structures that generate those thoughts. Yet, these underlying mental structures are at the heart of our personal power and happiness. If you want to be happy--especially in the long-run--explore and develop these important parts of yourself.

  • Develop your HIGHER SELF--that part of yourself that unconditionally loves you and others.
  • Develop a POSITIVE WORLD VIEW--you can learn to feel gratitude for all you are given, and learn to accept (feel calm about) all aspects of life--even the most frightening.
  • Develop your positive LIFE THEMES and ROLES--and learn to overcome old negative ones. Develop good role-models, self-expectations, and goals for every role in your career, family, groups, or play.
  • Resolve inner conflicts--that underlie your daily negative emotions.
  • Create INNER WORLDS and PLANS--create visions in your mind as a first step toward creating both internal and external reality.
  • Learn, think, and problem-solve--keep expanding your mind. Involve it in interesting and challenging activities. Keep learning and growing in a variety of interest areas. Keep growing as a person. Optimal challenge and growth underlie happiness.

Each of the above internal routes will be addressed in later chapters.

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Life is a journey through time and space. In this journey we are explorers, and each of us finds our own unique path. In our own private journeys we will visit many places--some happy and some not. Our goal is to learn, create, and be as happy as possible.

If we focus on continual learning and growth, we will increase our abilities to understand life, to harness our emotions, to enjoy our time alone, to develop intensely satisfying relationships, and to create productive careers. The traveler who not only travels--but learns about traveling--will not only live, but will live well. This traveler will become self-actualized.

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No matter how self-actualized we may become, sometimes we will feel anxiety, depression, and anger. Those feelings are not bad. They are simply internal feedback that our inner subparts are out of harmony with themselves or their environment. These negative feelings are really opportunities for growth. They are telling us that our current approaches are not coping well, and it is time to learn a new way of thinking or a new route to happiness. Many of our greatest personal growth spurts occur because strong negative emotions help us focus on outdated beliefs or habits.

I frequently see clients who are growing rapidly because they were challenged by crises. We can face and overcome emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. The self-exploration and problem-solving methods described below are the same tools I use with myself and my clients almost daily to turn these negative emotions into growth.

Once we understand the causes of our emotions, then it is time to find new ways of coping with these causes. We can change our thinking and our actions. We have external and internal routes to happiness. External routes to happiness focus on our actions and the world outside our skin. Internal routes to happiness focus on mental means of achieving happiness. These mental means include examining our beliefs, our sensations and perceptions, our stream of thoughts, and all other internal phenomena to achieve more harmony and happiness. Some internal systems, such as the executive self and the Higher Self, are potentially centers of great power and control. These parts can attain direct control over our thoughts and actions (and will be topics in later chapters).

Do not get too attached to any one route to happiness. A client came to my office who had been extremely unhappy for more than two years. For the last year she had been in a relationship with a man whom she said did not treat her well, but she was "miserable with him and miserable without him." What had begun as a wonderful, exciting relationship with a man who fulfilled her dreams turned into a nightmare. Now, he was demanding, manipulative, and inconsiderate of her feelings.

When she would tell him she was leaving, he would use his gift of charm to get her back. "He made me feel so special. . .down deep I thought he had a kind heart and really loved me." She wanted to believe that if she would hang in there long enough, he would change. Instead, he used her hope to keep her bonded to him. He had no intention of changing.

What was the essence of this bonding--this addiction to him? In her words, "Very early in the relationship we had a magic between us that I had only read about in books. It seemed like we were fated for each other." How could she fight fate? She had developed a powerful underlying belief that he was the only man she could ever be happy with. The belief that she had only this one route to happiness kept her locked into the relationship.

An important element of getting free of the relationship involved observing her own feelings. She began to keep a mental record of how she actually felt when she either thought about him or was with him. Most of the time she felt anxious, depressed, guilty, hurt, or angry! Not only was this man not her only route to a happy relationship, he was not any route to a happy relationship. Overcoming the belief that he was the "right," "fated," or "only" man for her opened the possibility that she could find happiness with someone else.

The story of this client illustrates an important lesson. Whenever we allow ourselves to believe that a certain person, object, career, home, lifestyle, or anything is the only route to happiness, then that belief alone will undermine our happiness. This belief in exclusivity makes us much more dependent upon that one route. Then, any threat to that one route will profoundly threaten our happiness--because we believe that that one route is our only route to happiness.

My wife and I love each other deeply and have a wonderful relationship that we hope will last forever. However--as happy as we are--we both know that if we lost each other, we could still be happy as individuals. Because, we both know that we can create many other routes to happiness. Otherwise, we could be consumed with fear of the other leaving or dying.

Finding and risking commitment to some routes is necessary to achieve happiness. I have just described how some people become so committed to one happiness route that they become inflexible--even when they are miserable. However, many other people make the opposite mistake. They fail to commit to any route.

For example, I talk to many college students who keep taking classes and avoid facing a choice about what career they want. One client became a senior before he really got serious about researching and choosing a major. Then, he decided to major in business. If he had chosen business as a freshman, he would have been able to graduate in four years. However, choosing it as a senior meant that it would still take him three more years to graduate--the cost of not facing his anxiety.


Harmonious functioning is a state of healthy peak functioning of our mind and body. It represents being interested--even fascinated--with what we are doing. Being passionately involved in doing what we love causes us to lose track of time and become almost "at one" with what we are doing. We may experience this feeling in optimal moments of sports, sex, movies, conversation, reading, solving a problem, or some other form of work or play. These are moments we may remember as peak experiences in our life--not unlike the ones that Maslow's self-actualized people experienced.

Understanding what causes us to get in this state of "flow" or harmonious functioning can help us learn how to achieve that state more often and spend more of our time being interested and enjoying what we are doing. Learning how to achieve this state of peak performance, peak learning, and peak happiness will be a topic of later chapters. You will learn specific methods and routes to happiness for converting negative emotions to happiness.

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