Happiness is a choice, my @ss

Happiness is a choice? Not if mental illness takes it off the menu - graphic of 4 coloured feathers

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.


Visit the Mental Health @ Home Store to find my books Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Psych Meds Made Simple, a mini-ebook collection focused on therapy, and plenty of free downloadable resources.

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56 thoughts on “Happiness is a choice, my @ss

  1. Donnalee says:

    I think that a lot of people do do this weird blame-the-victim thing, but I think that in some situations, including ones we’ve spoken about, I can choose to fixate on this person/thing that pissed me off, thus making things suck for me, or I can choose to focus on something a little nicer, thus breaking that cycle for that minute. I have severe ptsd so I know that sometimes the idea of ‘letting something go and thinking of something else’ would result in me cursing and completely not doing it because I can’t and the idea would give me fits of rage, but at other times I can do something like say mantras or affirmations or just list to myself stuff that I love, from food to pets to nice things outside, and that is a way of the jargony ‘choosing happiness’. The way many people say it is so bogus-sounding to me, like ‘choose to be gorgeous and young and great and rich’ and then they look at you like you’re bad if you didn’t do it yet.

      • Donnalee says:

        I think that is the problem with that The secret thing–it’s too bogus without a real system of how to go about it. I really like the Abraham-Hicks books (they were actually in that movie but pulled out when they saw it was just a sort of fake thinking infomercial) where they say that feeling good is the most important thing in life, and that when you feel like crap it’s worthwhile to ‘reach for a better-feeling thought’, even if it’s just the teeniest bit less sucky. Their book Ask and It Is Given is great, since it lists about 30 states of mind people can be in, from great to the worst, and how to improve what you’re feeling depending on what you’re feeling. I enjoyed it and look through it every few years and find a lot to use every time.

  2. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    I truly believe it’s different types of way’s to deal with stress and anxiety. It might work for one person, and not the other. For instance, meditation… Some say it works wonders for them, but there are others that claim it doesn’t do anything for them.
    It’s an individual experience.
    Great post!

  3. Luftmentsch says:

    Too right! Although it probably is true to some extent that for some mentally healthy people, happiness can be chosen, it doesn’t apply to everyone. I don’t think it’s a deliberate attack on the mentally ill, so much as ignorance and thoughtlessness.

    Though I have to say that trying to live according to my values hasn’t really turned out very well for me, although I can’t think of an alternative.

  4. Barb says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I want to throw up when a particular family member tells me to just “be happy, and lists a bunch of stuff I should be happy for/bout.” That it’s a choice is total BS.

  5. Kerry says:

    It’s like when people say ‘turn that frown upside down’ or ‘it takes less muscles to smile than frown’. Some days I’d like to reply ‘it takes even less muscle to punch you in the throat and it would definitely turn my frown upside down’.

    There are days everything takes time and effort and happiness is just not there. I don’t think people should be faulted for it. I definitely don’t think it’s a choice to not feel happy.


    Those who chase happiness, certainly get unhappiness because life exists in duality.. Life is full of dualism.. say Good-Bad, Success-Failure, Love-Hate, Happy-Sad.. and be noted that the one who chase positive polarity in dualism other polarity is also there and certainly that person will suffer. Optimistic attitude fails and pessimism is born…
    Living can be beyond this.. a conscious/aware living in which the person look at life in its totality, who is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, who simply accepts life as it is.. beyond Positivity and Negativity, that is the true living.. be the witness of everything, never be identified with anything you are only the conciousness Witness of everything that happens.. simply be conscious and then you will be beyond dulism called the blissful state..

    Interested People may visit my post “Beyond Positivity” with following link..


  7. Marie Abanga says:

    “Saying that happiness is a choice is just a short hop, skip, and a jump from saying that mental illness is a choice”. If happiness were a choice, why would I choose to have dark days and unable to get out of beg nor just be happy? I recall not too long ago being told by my own mother I decide to be weird and goofy…it hurts. I get more sympathy for swollen inflammation and Rheumatoid Arthritis, than for any PTSD symptoms and yet, I didn’t chose any. This is why I damn it and say it all as it is on my blog. No more faking or trying to be normal. There are good, very good, bad and very bad days – I go through all of them with grace but each experience is different

  8. lavenderandlevity says:

    I wonder if the folks who say that know that I also think not “choosing” to undergo emergency cranial rectum extraction – when they so obviously need it – is a choice I blame them for… 😉

  9. The Colour Of Madness says:

    Interesting, we have choices that will help us feel certain ways, yes. But I can literally ‘feel’ happiness or sadness wash over me with a mood swing when there are no outside factors in play. For example there is this ‘lightness’ that overcomes me when I am hypomanic, the same set of circumstances that had me wanting to end my life a day earlier will suddenly cease to even matter, that isn’t me ‘choosing’ to look on the bright side, happiness is just the emotion that overcomes me at the time. Same goes for depression only its a feeling of ‘heaviness’ as the sadness takes over. At either point I have choices that I can make which may impact those moods further.

  10. Chris says:

    ACT is a brilliant approach I use it, coupled with CFT (Compassion Focused Therapy or Training for those who don’t like the word therapy!). There is crossover between the two approaches , makes a real difference to me. Russ is very good. I would also recommend ACTivate Your Life by Jon Hill, Dr Eric Morris and Dr Joe Oliver. Eric and Joe are both highly respected in the ACT world.

    Linked I would also recommend Dr Susan David book Emotional Ability. She refers to the tryanny of positivity. She has just done a fantastic TED talk. It shares similar principles to ACT.

    My view is that we need a balanced diet of emotions to be healthy.

  11. superheroes009 says:

    Haha.. Roger that!! 🖐️Happiness is not a choice.No one chooses Not-to-be-happy in the first place,with or without mental issues!!The choice is of working on, focussing,exploring and filtering our certain behavioural attitude or pattern in our deep-drag moments.The choice is to remain in fighting Spirit, searching and thus creating positivity, and that aura around us! If happiness was merely a choice,then this planet would have had all the happier heads!! 😀

  12. Brazokie says:

    It is a big reason of why I cannot watch TV, all the “good” versus “bad” in commercials and fiction. People believe it and suffer for not achieving it. How many brands say they bring happiness when all they really are is a beverage? Quick solutions must sell really well, because those promises just keep poping up in books and magazines also.

    Here is one that at least makes satire of the others:

  13. Kaitlyn says:

    This was a really well thought out and insightful piece Ashley! Thank-you for sharing it, you really made me think, and I especially liked the bit about it being part of the human experience to have a spectrum of emotions, so thank-you! 💛

  14. easetheride says:

    Thank you for giving our community a voice with this; it’s amazing how few people understand this. I am saving this to my bookmarks so I can keep coming back to it as much as I need.

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