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Happiness is a choice, Especially When You Are Living With HIV

Happiness experts talk a lot about how people who believe they don’t have enough “things,” or who are not happy in their jobs, can improve their lives with positive thinking.

But what about people living with a chronic illness such as HIV? Especially the newly diagnosed. Aren’t they entitled to brood now and then? Should they really be expected to buy into the happiness Kool-Aid, too?

It’s up to you, Shawn Achor argues. He says happiness really is a choice.

Shawn Achor is a Harvard happiness guru made famous by Oprah Winfrey. The author of the book “The Happiness Advantage,” Achor and Buick Regal created a special motivational podcast for Buick’s “24 Hours of Happiness Test Drive” content series. I spoke with him on the telephone for HIV Equal as he was in Los Angeles for the project.

Achor explained that when people are diagnosed with a chronic illness such as HIV, one of the first things they do is “divorce themselves” from one of the greatest aspects of their happiness and success – social support.

Many people with HIV have said the first thought that enters their head upon diagnosis is “I’ll never have sex again” or “Nobody will want to be with me.” Another example of this sort of isolationist type of thinking was the topic of HIV Equal Senior Editor Tyler Curry’s most recent “Ask Tyler” column: “I’m too afraid to tell my friends I am HIV-positive.”

People newly diagnosed with HIV may think that their diagnosis would be a dark cloud as a topic of conversation. Or, they may no longer want to see Facebook posts from all of their seemingly happy, worry-free, HIV-negative friends. But Achor said the truth is that most people want to help you get through something as devastating as the diagnosis of a chronic illness or, at the very least, better understand why you’re feeling blue.

Achor teamed up with the National MS Society recently for a project called “Everyday Matters.” People with Multiple Sclerosis often live with debilitating pain, suffer from depression and isolation due to lack of mobility, and other woes. Living with MS can be a real downer.

The project involved creating an entire curriculum created around positive thinking while living with a chronic illness. You can check it out in easily digestible videos by clicking here.

Retraining your brain to think positive really isn’t that hard, Achor argues. The glass isn’t half empty; it isn’t half full. It’s refillable, so long as you have a pitcher of happiness to pour from.

“We asked, ‘Can you still choose happiness if you have chronic neurological pain and fatigue, and the answer was an overwhelming yes,” Achor said in an interview Wednesday with HIV Equal. “We asked (five people with MS) to journal about a positive experience each day for two minutes. You can even do it on the back of a napkin at Starbucks. While doing that, the brain just stamped a memory as meaningful.”

The gratitude exercises create a new habit – a positive habit of acknowledging something good, or a few good things, every single day.

Achor relates the exercise to playing Tetris, the famed video game involving shapes. Anyone who grew up with Tetris, or who plays a version of it today, knows that when you’re done playing you can see shapes raining down in your head for quite some time after.

And of course, since Achor was in L.A. pitching Buicks, he couldn’t resist pointing out ways to be happy in the car. “View that activity not as a threat to happiness, but a source of happiness,” Achor said. It can be a time for reaching out to contacts on the telephone (hands-free of course) or even quiet, contemplative time.