There are two ways to read this quote.
Lincoln might be telling us to “accentuate the positive.” That managing our emotions and deciding to be happy will make us feel happy. In which case, this quote is kind of ironic, given that poor Abe struggled with depression. Seems like there’s a little self-loathing mixed into the words.
I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole “decide to be happy” philosophy, which is popular these days. It’s a good thought and something to strive for. Choosing to see the best in life is a good strategy. Finding fault in stuff all the time is choosing not to be happy.
On the other hand, “choosing happiness” can also be an obstruction when it’s used to talk yourself out of your feelings. You stay in the job that sucks the life out of you, but at least it’s a job. And the relationship that’s more pain than pleasure, but not all bad. There’s no such thing as a perfect job/relationship, we tell ourselves, hanging in there, choosing to be cheerful. We smile with gritted teeth and wrestle tentacles of discontent and unhappiness into submission.
I like spinning this quote another way.
Perhaps Lincoln wasn’t talking about making the best of things, but about pursuing that which brings you happiness. Perhaps he’s saying that if you are in a place that is unhappy for you, it is your responsibility to identify what will make you happy and make the changes in your life that will get you there. Maybe Abe didn’t believe in stumbling upon happiness, and was spurring us into action.
This time of year tends to bring all kinds of emotions to the surface, making it a good time to pause and take stock of life, examine our happiness and figure out what is genuine and what is smiling through gritted teeth (or tears).
And then, in the new year, make up our minds what to do about that. (Yeah, that’s the hard part.)