On a fairly regular basis I come across people online talking about how happiness is a choice. It bugs me whenever I see it, even when I can tell the poster is trying to be motivational and positive, so I thought I’d dive into that a little deeper.
A quick search on Amazon reveals a multitude of books entitled “Happiness is a Choice”. A Huffington Post headline claims “This is Scientific Proof That Happiness is a Choice“. There’s a whole field of positive psychology that focuses heavily on happiness. Then there’s the law of attraction business that essentially says if you put positive (or negative) stuff out there into the world then you’ll attract positive (or negative) stuff in return.
I call bullsh*it. Saying that happiness is a choice is just a short hop, skip, and a jump from saying that mental illness is a choice. It’s one thing to say it’s good to look for the positive, and try to reframe things in a more positive light, but to say that happiness can be had as long as you want it badly enough and try hard enough is a slap in the face to those of us dealing with mental illness. A common symptom of multiple mental illnesses is anhedonia, or an inability to feel pleasure or enjoyment. Our symptoms involve our thoughts, emotions, and bodies, making it seem like there’s little that’s under our control. How does all of that fit in with “happiness is a choice”, pray tell? I can feel my blood pressure rising even as I write this.
I don’t think these positive psychology cheerleaders are necessarily trying to make us feel badly, but there really does seem to be a fundamental lack of understanding. The way I look at it, mental illness tends to (at least temporarily) limit our capacity to experience certain things, including positive emotions. This is not a choice we make, it’s an illness. We can’t choose our illness out of existence, but with effective treatment we can at least start to gain back the capacity that we lost. To suggest that it all comes down to a choice, whether that choice be about happiness or mental illness, is cruel and insulting.
Is happiness even a good thing to focus on? Dr. Russ Harris, an expert in acceptance and commitment therapy, challenges that idea in his book The Happiness Trap. He argues that being perpetually happy is neither realistic nor desirable, and it is the human experience to feel a range of different emotions. Instead he suggests that we should work on mindfully accepting we are experiencing, and make choices that keep us more in line with our identified values. Sticking to values can offer a much more meaningful existence than chasing happiness because it’s what we society thinks we “should” feel.
Probably the reason this idea of happiness as a choice bothers me so much is that it feeds into stigma. This most likely has more to do with well-meaning ignorance than intentionality, but the end result is the same nevertheless. If people are being told that happiness is a choice, they may be more likely to think that other emotional states are also a choice, and that can set us back in the fight against stigma. Mental illness offers us a certain menu of emotional options, and often we can’t control what does or does not end up on that menu. If happiness was a choice, I would have made that choice already.