A woman sits with her back toward the camera, facing a sunrise.

Life can be almost more challenging than we can bear — or so we believe.

Scott Stabile’s parents were murdered when he was 14. Nine years later, his brother died of a heroin overdose. Soon after that, Stabile joined a cult that would dominate his life. Through all these challenges, Stabile grew stronger and more committed to living his life from love. He forgave the man who murdered his parents, found compassion for his late drug-addicted brother, and finally walked away from the cult leader who had controlled his life for 13 years. This is an excerpt from his bestselling book, Big Love, which reminds us all how to be happy.

I’m a big fan of happiness.

Shocking, I know. That’s like proclaiming, “I’m a big fan of peace, or love, or chocolate.” Obvious much? We all want to be happy, as often as possible.

Although happiness is a common objective, it’s never a given. Being alive doesn’t automatically equal being happy. It often equals the opposite.

Regular tastes of happiness take intentional choice and concentrated effort. Even then, unfortunately, it’s not a sure thing. Effort definitely improves our odds of finding happiness, however, and it beats sitting on our butts waiting to be struck by joy.

We have to be willing to work for the things we want, right?

The Happiness Challenge

With that in mind, I announced a Happiness Challenge on my Facebook page. I asked the community to consider the following questions:

• What is one thing you will do every day this month that serves your happiness and well-being?

• What one thing will you do, every day, that speaks to your willingness to take care of yourself?

(I chose February, because it’s the shortest month of the year and thus automatically improved our odds of finishing the challenge. Self-care is damned hard work. I’m for any shortcuts that help make it easier.)

I committed to doing at least one hour of yoga each day for the month. Though I love how yoga makes me feel, I’d never stuck with a consistent practice. Like doing Pilates, eating spirulina, or swishing coconut oil in my mouth for 20 minutes each morning (oil pulling, anyone?), yoga became one more holistic practice to skip. I wanted to change that trend.

Many members of my Facebook community took the challenge—one planned to take photos of each sunrise throughout the month, another committed to painting daily, and another to dancing around her apartment for at least 10 minutes every day.

Several joined me in a yoga commitment. Several more vowed to walk or jog each day. A whole bunch chose meditation as their challenge.

One woman, who struggled to relax, committed to doing absolutely nothing for at least 20 minutes every single day. She planned to sit on her butt, close her eyes or stare at the wall, and do nothing. That is so not a challenge for me, by the way, and is, in fact, how I spend some part of most days. I’m quite expert at doing not a thing.

February arrived, and the challenge began. I checked in daily with words of encouragement and to report my own progress. I was downward-dogging like a champ. Many community members shared their progress as well. We kept each other energized, and it made a difference.

It’s usually more fun, and motivating, to take on a challenge with others. I’m about a thousand times more inclined to show up at the gym if I’m meeting a workout partner there. Five thousand times more inclined if we’re meeting at a bakery, but whatever. With the Happiness Challenge, I felt accountable to the community, and it kept me focused.

I did yoga every day that month and kept up my practice three to four times a week after that, for a few more months. Um, anyway, let’s just say I’m off the yoga kick for now. (But I did start swishing coconut oil again last week!) The challenge, however, confirmed some things about happiness for me.

We Can’t Choose Our Feelings

Happiness is not a choice. Really, it’s not.

If it were, who would ever choose to be angry or jealous or depressed?

Wouldn’t we all be choosing happiness all the time?

I used to believe that happiness was a choice. In my book, Just Love, I even wrote the following: Happiness is work. So is misery. Both are choices. Only one comes with smiles. It’s not that simple, though.

I believed that if we focused hard enough on being happy, we would, in fact, become happy. That all moments offered the possibility of choosing happiness. Of course, I couldn’t understand why I found myself unhappy so much of the time. Shouting to the heavens, “I choose happiness!” didn’t seem to be making any difference to all my other emotions.

My Anger just scoffed, “You can scream all you want about happiness, but you’re mine today, and pissed off is on the menu.”

“I’m gonna need some time with him after you,” my Sadness mumbled.

“Not before we complain about the state of this effed-up world,” grumbled my Disgust.

If human beings weren’t designed to feel all the emotions, all those emotions wouldn’t exist. And that’s the thing: happiness is an emotion. A feeling. We can be choosy about our thoughts, but we can’t choose our feelings. We feel how we feel, no matter what we think.

Just consider all the times you’ve tried to think yourself out of feeling something. It doesn’t work. If a loved one dies, or your partner leaves you, you’re not going to be able to think yourself away from feeling sad about it. If you get fired from your job for no good reason, you can’t think yourself out of anger or fear.

Thoughts and emotions are different animals. If our thoughts are domesticated horses that we can often manipulate, our emotions are wild stallions, free and unpredictable.

The idea that we can choose happiness has taken the personal-development world by storm. The problem there, for everyone not lucky enough to be happy all the time—which is all of us—is that we begin to think we’re doing something wrong when we’re not glowing with joy. We convince ourselves we are flawed somehow, or that we’ve missed the happiness ship in this lifetime.

So we become disappointed and sad. I’d often attached happiness to my spiritual growth. I believed my inability to live in constant unbridled joy suggested I wasn’t nearly as spiritually evolved as I thought myself to be.

Full disclosure: I realize several times a day I’m not as spiritually evolved as I think myself to be, but that has nothing to do with my happiness level.

Acknowledge Pain

Many of us put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time. I used to be the consummate Pollyanna, always smiling, relentlessly optimistic, full of “It’s all good, bro.” That’s some serious bro-shiz. It’s not always all good, and it doesn’t need to be. That’s not how life works, not if you’re a human being with a human heart and mind.

Optimism is great, but not at the expense of authenticity. I’ll take real over happy, most days, anyway. I walked around for much of my life with a perma-smile plastered on my face—in part because I have a naturally positive attitude, for which I’m grateful. And in part because I wasn’t willing to look at the fullness of my life honestly enough to account for my shadow.

My smile spent much of its time on the surface, refusing to acknowledge my pain. I don’t believe there’s a Pollyanna alive without a landfill of pain beneath all that joy. Sometimes we use happiness as a defense against the world. We smile to keep from having to feel. That’s okay, but it’s still a wall, one that prevents us from realizing an even deeper, truer happiness.

Don’t worry, all is not lost in the world of happiness and choice.

I launched the Happiness Challenge not to suggest that we can choose happiness but to remind us that we can make choices that stand a good chance of leading to happiness. The more we do things that tend to make us happy, the happier we’re likely to become. That’s common sense, right? One-plus-one-equals-two spirituality,

About the Author:

Scott Stabile is the author of Big Love. His inspirational posts and videos have attracted a huge and devoted social media following, including nearly 350K Facebook fans and counting. He conducts personal empowerment workshops around the world. This article was excerpted from his book “Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart,” by Scott Stabile. Copyright ©2017 by Scott Stabile. Printed with permission from New World Library.