Unhappiness is a choice

What if I told you that unhappiness was optional: that no matter your circumstances, you could choose to be happy? Feels sort of offensive, right? As if I'm claiming that you're complicit in your own suffering. This was my initial reaction to The Option Method.

The Option Method, created by Bruce Di Marsico in the 1970s, is a powerful yet simple approach to understanding and eliminating unhappiness. The lore that I heard was that it was mostly forgotten, and has been resurfaced through work by Ari Nielsen with Bruce's widow, Deborah Mendel. Ari and Andrew Blevins introduced me to the approach, and I've found it to be an incredibly valuable tool.

This is my attempt at distilling the core concepts in my own language, both to selfishly continue internalizing the attitude and to increase the surface area available to others.

At its core, the Option Method holds that unhappiness is never necessary — it is always optional. The de facto modern worldview argues that you "should" be happy, implying that unhappiness is a moral failing. But the Option Method takes a different tack. It simply demonstrates, through a Socratic process of questioning, how you create your own unhappiness by believing it is necessary in certain circumstances. Change the beliefs, and the unhappiness evaporates.

In short, you are unhappy because you think you should be. Indeed, this feels weird.

The goal is not to judge yourself for being unhappy, but to realize at a deep, experiential level that you are the active creator of your unhappiness—for good reasons!—and therefore have the power to let it go if you desire. Happiness is your natural state, always accessible to you if you can just drop the belief that something else needs to happen first.

Happiness is Not Rooted in Circumstance

The foundational principle of the Option Method is that your emotional state in any given moment is the result of your beliefs and attitudes, not what is happening "out there."

This is a radical idea. We're deeply conditioned by society, culture, family and our own experience to believe that happiness depends on things going a certain way. If I get the promotion, make a certain amount of money, find the perfect relationship, then I'll be happy. If I don't get what I want, or if "bad" things happen to me, then I'll be unhappy.

The Option Method questions this assumption. It asserts that the real cause of unhappiness is never the external event itself, but your belief that the event means you must be unhappy. Change the belief, and the unhappiness evaporates—even if the circumstance remains the same.

Consider some everyday examples:

  • Your friend is 15 minutes late to meet you for coffee. You feel irritated, believing her lateness means she doesn't respect your time. But what if you dropped that belief and simply enjoyed your coffee while waiting?
  • You feel lonely and dejected after a romantic rejection, believing you need a partner to be happy. But what if you recognized that you are a whole, worthy person on your own, and don't need external validation to be good enough?
  • Your startup is running out of money, causing you to feel like a failure. But what if your company shutting down says nothing about you as a person?

In each case, it's not the circumstance itself that's causing distress, but your interpretation of it. Change your mind, and you change your experience - even if the situation remains exactly the same.

Of course, this doesn't mean you never take action to improve your circumstances. It's great to make more money, find meaningful work, and create loving relationships. But you don't need to wait for any of that to give yourself permission to be happy.

... the stance here is that we are the only ones with the power to make ourselves anxious and unhappy, and that we do it actively and repeatedly not because we like it and not because it works well for us, but because we anticipate and fear that it will happen. We anticipate it because we think it has to happen, because we don’t actually see that it’s us terrorizing ourselves from a few recursive layers out. Because at some point we picked up the mistaken belief that this was the only or best way to get what we wanted; which is also the mistaken and internally incoherent belief that perfect happiness requires delaying perfect happiness, again and again, until some imagined moment which (by design) never actually arrives.
How to Be Happy

Beliefs, Emotions and Happiness

To understand how the Option Method works, we need to unpack the relationship between beliefs, emotions, and happiness.

The Option Method draws a distinction between two kinds of beliefs:

  1. Practical, concrete beliefs about how the world works. Example: "This hammer is a good tool for pounding nails." These can be objectively true or false.
  2. Emotional beliefs about what you need to be happy or unhappy. Example: "I need my partner to appreciate me more to be happy." These are always false, because nothing external can make you happy or unhappy. Only your thinking makes it so.

When an upsetting event happens—let's say your partner criticizes you—and you feel unhappy, it's not their words that are directly causing your distress. It's an emotional belief that being criticized means you must feel bad about yourself. Said differently, the words themselves only carry weight in so much as they are attached to meaning that you give them.

Let's look more closely into how this works. Their criticism triggers a belief like "If my partner thinks I did something wrong, that means I'm a bad person." This belief creates an unpleasant emotional sensation in your body, which you label "feeling bad about yourself." Then you blame your partner for causing you to feel this way.

The Option Method gently challenges this chain of assumptions. It asks: is it really true that if your partner criticizes you, you must feel like a bad person? As in, is there some law of the universe that requires you to feel bad about yourself if your partner is displeased with you? Even if the criticism is valid, must that immediately carry the weight of what it means?

Or is that just an optional belief you picked up somewhere along the way—from your family, your culture, or your past experiences? If it's optional, what would it be like to drop it?

Maybe you could believe that you're a good person who sometimes makes mistakes (like all humans), and that your partner's criticism reflects a way you could improve, or perhaps is just a clumsy attempt to get their needs met—not a reflection of your worth. From that perspective, you can hear the criticism with an open heart, apologize if appropriate, and let it go. You can even have compassion for your partner's pain without taking it on as your own.

By rigorously questioning the beliefs underlying your unhappiness, you can literally change your mind and change your life. You stop being a helpless victim of circumstances, or of other people's opinions and behavior, and start being the creator of your own emotional reality.

Not convinced yet?

The Desire Behind the Unhappiness

One of the key insights of the Option Method is that unhappiness is often a distorted expression of something you deeply value and desire.

In the example of feeling bad when your partner criticizes you, why would you choose to believe their criticism means something terrible about you? It's not because you enjoy feeling worthless and miserable, right?

It's more likely because you care about being a good person, being kind and skillful in your relationship, and being appreciated by your partner. Those are beautiful desires! But somewhere along the line, you internalized a misguided belief that being a good person means never doing anything "wrong" in your partner's eyes.

So, their criticism seems to invalidate your deepest values and longings. That's what makes it so painful: it triggers the belief that you're cut off from what you want most. But that belief is false. Criticism doesn't negate your good intentions, your efforts to learn and grow, or your inherent worth as a person. Those remain intact regardless of what anyone says or does.

The Option Method invites you to recognize that your unhappiness is often pointing to something precious and important beneath the surface—a clue to your true desires. This is actually interesting, because unhappiness becomes a signal about flawed beliefs that represent true, deeply held values. The problem is that you've gotten confused and started believing that you need a specific situation to fulfill those desires.

So, you end up chasing after external conditions like a perfect relationship, when what you really want is to feel loved, capable and appreciated. But you can find ways to fulfill those desires right now, by loving and appreciating yourself and being the partner you want to be, regardless of how your mate responds.

Step-by-Step Instructions

In practice, the Option Method is a technique you can do for yourself. Here's a simple step-by-step process you can use to apply it to any situation where you feel unhappy or upset:

  1. Identify the specific situation or event that triggered your unhappiness. Example: Your partner snaps at you impatiently when you ask them a question.
  2. Clarify the specific emotions you're feeling in response. Example: Hurt, angry, anxious, diminished.
  3. Ask yourself: What are you believing about the situation that's creating those emotions? Example: "If they're annoyed with me, it means I did something wrong. I'm a bad partner and a burden to them."
  4. Question the belief: Is it absolutely, objectively true that your partner's annoyance means something bad about you? Is there any possible scenario where they could be impatient and you could still be a good, lovable person and partner? Dig deep and be radically honest.
  5. Identify the desire or value underneath the unhappiness. Example: Wanting to be skillful in relationships, to be appreciated and treated with respect.

Interestingly, this by itself if often enough to cause the mistaken beliefs to diffuse, and the underlying desires to shine. Andrew Blevins calls this the via negativa approach. He told me about his own processing using the method, where he recognized that he had the belief "I must be a good person". Once recognizing that this belief was bringing him unhappiness, he was able to joyfully let it go.

It's also possible to take the technique slightly further, by forming new beliefs—a via positiva approach:

  1. Re-frame the belief in a way that affirms your desire and your inherent "deep okayness". Example: "I want to relate skillfully with my partner and I'm committed to learning how to do that. Their impatience reflects their own struggles and isn't a verdict on my worth. I'm a good person and partner, even when I make mistakes."
  2. Consciously choose to adopt the re-framed belief. Relax your body, breathe into your heart area, and imagine dropping the old belief like a heavy suitcase and walking away. Claim the new perspective as your own. Feel how much lighter and freer you are without the burden of believing you need to be perfect to be happy.

You may want to experiment how far to take it. There's power in just recognizing the flawed beliefs without replacement, and many people have the most success with that. Others find better outcomes by recognizing what beliefs they'd prefer to have.

It may take some practice before this process becomes second nature. You're unlearning mental habits that have been with you for decades. But eventually, even the most painful situations will lose their sting. The gap between trigger and response will widen, and you'll be able to move through upsets quickly and gracefully. What's on the other side is default happiness.

Objections and FAQs

It's normal for concerns and objections to arise. Your mind has spent your whole life believing that external circumstances control your happiness, so it will naturally resist such a radical reframe. Let's address some questions that I had:

Q: Isn't unhappiness sometimes useful as a motivator? Don't we need fear, guilt and shame to keep us in line and make sure we do the right thing?

This is a very common belief, but it's exactly backwards. Unhappiness is a terrible motivator. It saps your energy, distorts your thinking and narrows your possibilities. Happiness energizes you, inspires you and connects you with your innate creativity and drive.

A much more effective motivator is to consciously connect with your authentic desires and values. If you want to make a positive change like being kinder in your relationships or taking better care of your health, anchor that intention in your deepest values rather than in fear or self-judgment. Focus on what you want to see more of and how good it will feel to move in that direction, rather than on what you want to avoid.

Q: But what about serious situations like abuse, poverty or life-threatening illness? Are you saying we should just think positive and be happy about those?

Absolutely not. This isn't about spiritual bypass or denying real hardship. It's about empowering yourself to make real changes from a centered, grounded place rather than from frantic unhappiness. Think "empowered" instead of "powerless".

If you're in an abusive relationship, the problem is your relationship. But you'll be far more effective at leaving if you move from a place of clarity and self-love rather than from guilt, self-doubt, and despair. Unhappiness keeps you paralyzed and stuck. Challenging the beliefs that create it restores your power and choice.

Unhappiness doesn't make you safer. Finding your equilibrium and affirming your right to protect yourself, on the other hand, could save your life. You can take positive action without making yourself miserable in the process.

Q: I'm on board with the theory, but I'm having a hard time applying it. I've been unhappy for so long that it feels impossible to change. What should I do?

Go slow and be very gentle with yourself. Remember, you're unlearning thought patterns that have been with you since childhood. It's like learning a new language or a musical instrument. It takes consistent practice over time.

Start with small, low-stakes upsets and gradually work up to more challenging material. If you get stuck and feel like you're going in circles, remember that your worth is never in question, even if you can't find your way to happiness in a particular moment.

Read books on the topic (linked below). This post is just a summary. But most of all, keep experimenting. Every time you question an unhappy belief and find your way back to peace and clarity, you're strengthening this new muscle. It gets easier.

Q: I'm clinically depressed, and this keeps making me feel like I deserve unhappiness if indeed it's my choice. What should I do?

While the Option Method suggests that beliefs create unhappiness, this doesn't mean you're choosing depression or that it's your fault. Depression tells you that you're broken, defective, unworthy of happiness. But that simply isn't true. You are not your depression. It's also not as simple as just deciding to be happy. Happiness becomes the default state behind flawed beliefs about yourself.

The Option Method can be a valuable tool, but it's not a substitute for comprehensive professional care if that's what's needed. Use it to cultivate self-compassion and gradually loosen the grip of depressive thoughts—not to blame yourself. You are worthy of happiness, love and healing. The path out of depression is rarely quick or linear, but it is absolutely possible.

Liberating unhappiness

At its heart, the Option Method is a deeply empowering and liberating approach to life. It doesn't sugarcoat the human condition or promise a quick fix. It requires sincere self-reflection, courageous honesty and a willingness to take full responsibility for your inner world. Likewise, it doesn't even claim that you should choose happiness.

If offers a joyous, loving path, reconnecting you with your innate wholeness, wisdom and wellbeing. It frees you from the tyranny of external circumstances and affirms the primacy of your own heart and mind in creating your reality.

If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to explore them further. Practice the steps I've outlined here and track your results. Notice how your experience of life begins to shift and open up.

If reading this has stirred up both hope and skepticism, congratulations: you're in the perfect position to test drive the Option Method. Andrew Blevins has several additional resources at the bottom of his essay that may be helpful. Approach it as an experiment. Start noticing your moments of unhappiness and asking "What would I have to believe to feel this way? Is that belief really true?" Be gentle and patient as you unravel old patterns.

You can unlearn the habit of unhappiness. It may just be the most important work you ever do.

Photo courtesy of Noah Maier

Special thanks to Andrew Blevins and Ari Nielsen for their feedback.

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