Do you want more happiness? Its your choice…

Do you want more happiness? Its your choice…

Architect or victim? It’s your choice

By Benna Sherman, For The Capital

Published November 15, 2007

How do you think about your life? Are you its architect or its victim?

Sandi is 30 pounds overweight. She’d tell you that she’s been fighting her weight her whole life. She’d say that her body hates her and she hates it. She’d tell you that she gains weight just by looking at a donut.

If you asked her about exercise, she’d make a discouraged face and say that she’s really committed to exercise, but that she’s a wife and mother and professional, that her kids take a lot of time and that her elderly mother needs attention. If you spent a day with her you’d see that she often ignores or avoids opportunities for exercise. She looks for the closest parking spaces, she consistently chooses elevators over stairs, she drives the three blocks to the playground, and she asks the grocery store to provide someone to carry her bags.

If you asked her about her eating habits, she’d tell you that she’s very familiar with nutrition and healthy eating, knows the calorie count of just about everything, and that she’s committed to healthy eating. But if you shared a meal with her, you’d see that her choices didn’t match her “commitment.” If asked about that, she’d say something like, “Oh, well, I’ll make it up tomorrow.” But of course she doesn’t. Tomorrow she’ll again choose the highest calorie count for the lowest nutrition value. She figures that choosing three cookies instead of one, or one soda instead of water, or two tablespoons of dressing instead of one, well, it’s all too little to matter, isn’t it?

Sandi is a classic example of someone whose intentions are excellent but whose choices are poor, and consistently so.

Life hands us choices every day, some big and some small. Some matter a lot and some matter very little. But over time we create a pattern of choices, and that pattern leads us in one direction or another. Does any one of those choices determine a life path? Sometimes, but not often. What does determine that path is the pattern of choosing.

Sandi feels like a victim. She’d say that her best efforts produce no results. She’s not recognizing that her best efforts haven’t happened yet. All day every day, Sandi is making choices. And although her knowledge is good and her goals are laudable, she’s stuck on making the choices that are easy and comfortable in that moment, even when they won’t lead her any closer to her goals in the long run.

But Sandi could be the architect of a life, or a body, that was more pleasing to her. She could make the choices, big and little, that match her goals. None of the choices is actually all that difficult. Just like an architect designs a building that will be constructed one small bit at a time, so does an individual make a pattern that constructs a life, or a body, one choice at a time. Sandi’s not the victim of her body; her body is the victim of her choices.

Weight is just one example, albeit a common one, of people feeling like the victim. The psychological literature is now full of research that shows that people can make all sorts of choices that make them the architects of their own lives.

Martin Seligman is the founder of a school of psychology called “Positive Psychology.” One of its most fundamental principles is that people can, through patterns of choices, create happier lives. He talks about how grumpy people, for example, choose to obsess about the disappointing things in their lives. Happy people are those who are more likely to find the positive in even the most mundane daily details. And if something disappointing happens, they don’t sit and ruminate about it, thinking over and over about the pain or the loss or the sadness. They willfully choose to direct their thinking in other, more productive directions.

Dr. Seligman’s work came out of his research on depression. He found that people who were helpless – or who thought they were – were more likely to be depressed. But people who made choices and believed that those choices influenced their lives were not only not depressed, they were in fact resistant to depression. People who think of themselves as victims are likely to be unhappy. People who see themselves as the architects of their lives are likely to be happy. And if life throws them a curve, they recover better, with less damage, than those who feel victimized by life’s events.

Some people are born happy and some are born grumpy. But all of us can choose how to live our lives. And each choice can move you closer to happy or closer to unhappy. As the guardian Knight said to Indiana Jones, “Choose wisely.”

Dr. Benna Sherman