Mental health

Happiness Is a Choice, My Ass

Happiness is a choice? Have you heard of mental illness?

This was originally posted in 2018 in the early months of this blog.  I’ve decided to pull a few posts out of the archives where they were gathering dust, give them an overhaul, and bring them back to life.  It’s a bit of an experiment, and here’s the first one.

“Happiness is a choice.”  It’s a message that you probably come across fairly often.  While it’s probably meant to be motivational and positive most of the time, I think it’s an idea that, if you start to poke at it a bit, has some fundamental flaws.

There’s a whole field of positive psychology that focuses heavily on happiness, but beyond that, there’s a lot of messaging that ventures into toxic positivity territory, where only happiness and other “positive” emotions are considered acceptable.  I wrote about this recently in of acceptable thoughts and emotions during the current pandemic, but this post will focus on the happiness is a choice messaging.

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“. Then there’s the law of attraction, which suggests that toilet paper (and anything else that might make you happier) vibrates at a certain frequency, and as long as feel that toilet paper enough that your thoughts start vibrating at toilet paper frequency, you will have all the happy bathroom experiences you could dream of.

I call bullshit.  Saying that happiness is a choice is just a short hop, skip, and a jump from saying that mental illness is a choice.

If things can be framed in a more positive way in order to help you live the life you want to lead, great.  All the power to you.  However, saying that happiness is right there in your closet waiting for you to put it on if you just choose to walk into the closet is basically a slap in the face to those of us dealing with mental illness.

Multiple mental illnesses affect emotions, whether it’s intense levels of certain emotions, or more of a lack of emotion with numbness, apathy, and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure).  Besides our emotions, our symptoms involve our thoughts, bodies, and sensory experiences.  It’s complicated.  That’s why we need therapy and/or meds to try to get the whole shebang running a little more smoothly.   How does all of that fit in with “happiness is a choice,” pray tell?

I don’t think these positive psychology cheerleaders are necessarily trying to make us feel bad, yet 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, and this can include positive emotions.  This is not a choice we make, it’s the direct effects of 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. 

Happiness isn’t hanging in the closet for you to put on, because the illness monster took it and put it in a thrift store donation bin somewhere.  You can choose to go into the closet ’til the cows come home, but that doesn’t change the fact that your happy t-shirt is hanging in a thrift store somewhere rather than in your closet.

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’s part of the normal human experience to feel a full range of different emotions.  Instead, he suggests that we’d be better of working on mindfully accepting what we’re experiencing, and then making 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.  While it probably has more to do with well-meaning ignorance than intentionality, 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 (like depression or anxiety, for example) are also a choice, and that can set us back in the fight against stigma.  Mental illness affects what’s hanging in our closet, and often we can’t control what stays in the closet vs. what goes in the donation bin.  If happiness was a choice, we probably would have made that choice already.

You can find more posts about negativity and toxic positivity on the blog index.

Stop mental illness stigma; image of a hand with a dialogue box in the palm

You can find more about stigma on the Stop Stigma page.

123 thoughts on “Happiness Is a Choice, My Ass”

  1. 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.

      1. 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. 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!

      1. I do know first hand that happiness is hard to accomplish when mental illness is involved. We suffer daily to be the so called “Normal”, but that is a pipe dream to most of us.
        However, I do try to stay positive as much as I can even though there are days I want to scream my brains out and cry. 🙂 🙁

  3. 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. 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. 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.

  6. 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..

      1. Whether it is state of perfect health or illness be conscious.. be witness of everything..if you loose witnessing you fall asleep in unconsciousness and in sleep you can assume urself happy/sad , broken or dead nothing matters all will be dream only.. truth is only being the witness of everything..

  7. “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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  15. I have some choice in the matter: I can choose to do something about it or choose to suffer. I believe the crux of your post to be true. People who say that happiness is a choice aren’t talking about choosing to get therapy or medication, they’re claiming that you can simply will yourself into bliss. I’ve only found this to be true when I was already feeling fair.

    Some might say I can also choose to eat better, exercise, get enough sunlight and social contact, and so forth. These habits would help to balance my mood but I can only choose to do these things when I’m in an accommodating mindset, else they likely won’t cross my mind.

    1. I know in a Buddhist sense suffering is always a choice, but depending on a given individual’s illness there may be ongoing symptoms even with appropriate treatment. So suffering in the sense of ongoing symptoms may not be something people can control.

      1. There’s been a lot of debate in my mind lately as to whether treatment helps most mental illnesses. There are methods to alleviate the symptoms of diseases like schizophrenia and others but it seems that for people dealing with things like depression, it is simply a lifelong burden.

  16. Wow. A lot to think about.

    We agree that perpetual happiness is not a worthy goal. We agree that living a life with purpose according to core values is (1) probably attainable for many people and (2) possibly fulfilling in some sense.

    We think not enough attention is given generally to how we are raised, educated, and socialized. These institutions—family, schools, media—regularly seem to portray happiness as coming from material achievement (experiences with “family” may vary). If you are raised on those ideas and build your life around them, you might not even know what a core value is, let alone that you have them—or that you could change them.

    Everything in our therapeutic journey has been about practice. Anything we want requires practice. We are very slow at changing intentionally because our core beliefs that we are damaged (from abuse/neglect) and that we deserve to be punished and suffer (also because of abuse/neglect and our random traumas—ie medical emergency).

    We were several years into recovery when we discovered that we did not understand these key and commonly used words: “feelings” and “sensations.” Trying to learn those is helping us see that no emotion or sensation lasts uninterrupted for us. Some predominate—we have patterns.

    We think acceptance will be the key for our reduction in suffering. We have no delusion that perpetual bliss is realistic or worth pursuing. We may be able to reduce our suffering by challenging those core beliefs somehow. They don’t fit our core values, so that may be a rope for us. Meditation in several forms does seem to benefit us if for no other reasons than to either focus awareness on how we are right now or getting our mind off how we are right now.

    Getting to know oneself (or selves) can be scary. Therapists might help. Support helps us. This is a challenge because birth-family, schools, and media continue to bombard us with “shop to be happy” messages that occupy time and space. And we are a parent and spouse while on this journey. May everyone find relief in contemplating this topic. Love to all.

  17. Wow, comments from two years ago! Trippy!!

    I think it’s condescending and also ridiculous. If you lose a competition, you won’t be happy. It’s not possible. Like, I get contest results on Wednesday night at midnight (oh, that’s tomorrow?), and if I don’t make it to the next round, I’m not going to be yelling, “YAY! Yes! I lost! Oh boy!!” That’s just silly.

    I would try to remind myself that there are other contests, but come on. I’d be unhappy.

    And I was lectured once while I was freakin’ suicidal that I should choose happiness. I was begging my loved ones to talk me off the cliff, and one of them (I don’t recall who, but I think it was my sister) said, “You’re just making bad choices. You need to try harder to be happy instead.” Mind-boggling. She’s a social worker/counselor now, you know.

    1. Huh, too bad that particular person didn’t happen to slip off that cliff and get caught by a very pointy branch sticking out of the cliff a few foot down…

    2. Why is it that these roles seem to attract both the most empathetic and compassionate people and also the least? 🤔

      I feel like there might be some people out there who would do it for the admiration, in a kind of narcissistic way. Not suggesting that’s the case with your sister of course, just that I can imagine that being a potential state of mind which exists! Because it’s hard to imagine otherwise why non-empathetic people would end up in jobs that they’re naturally so bad at.

      I think that kind of outlook can also lead to intense chasing of money (the ‘psychopathic CEO’ stereotype). Perhaps when people lack empathy enough, combined with a narcissistic trait, there are a few such career paths that they might follow, for slightly different reasons.

      1. Interesting question!! My sister’s a pretty horrible person. She’s committed assault and battery against me a half a dozen times or so. Most notably, she threw me into a wall, snapped my wrist, bruised my tailbone, and left claw marks on either side of my wrist to lift me by. It would be easy to say she’s evil, but in her defense, I’ll just say that she’s always been very emotional and turbulent. I would guess she’s attracted to social work because it’s the only thing she’s good at. She’s a definite people person. She’s very sociable and into popularity and fashion and trends, and therefore she has the energy to be a social worker (she does office work, counseling poverty-stricken women on how to get ahead) that I wouldn’t have. Prior to that, she wasn’t much of a career woman. She worked as a server at several establishments, but she then got the higher degree to get a better job.

        1. Wow, I admire how fair and objective you’re trying to be, given all of that. I respect that. I definitely understand how having stronger emotions can cause reactions to be more extreme, without intending them to be.

          Is it more perhaps that she’s extroverted than she’s a people person? In my experience people who are too focused on popularity and fashion, aren’t very good with people. Of course I’m not saying that for every case, but more often for me, striving too hard for popularity or fashion comes from being dishonest with yourself.

          Then again, was she stressed by environment herself, e.g. in childhood?

          I guess, at the end of the day if she’s genuinely good at her job, and she’s helping other people, that’s only a good thing. It’s realllly hard though to tie your comments about her reactions to you being suicidal, and actually being able to empathise with people.

          1. Actually, yeah, I think she might be an extrovert. Good point! No, she was never abused as a child, but she wrestled with envy and slight emotional/academic neglect, as our parents had her as the “baby” of the family and didn’t put as much attention into her as they had with me and my brother, close in age. It’s quite odd, though, as my brother and I doted on her and thought she was adorable and special; but when she reached toddlerhood, she became so vicious with her fingernails that we quit trying to love on her all the time. She quickly became spoiled and demanding during out parents’ divorce, insisting that our every-other-weekend dad buy her presents all the time. My brother and I would roll our eyes at this and not request anything. The sad thing is that I experienced actual abuse in spades, and I don’t think she experienced any; but yes, her childhood might have stressed her out. I’ve learned to shut her out of my life, and I think it’s mutually beneficial and not harmful to anyone for us to be separated. It would be easy to think, “Oh, she’s a psychopath” based on her actions; but what I really suspect is that she’s very emotionally immature and confused. I can’t remember the time she got a comb stuck in her hair without wanting to weep. She was so panicked and hysterical. Her vulnerability scares me at times like those. Thank you for complimenting me on my objectivity!!

      2. What I’ve sometimes seen in the mental health care field is that people can confuse paternalism and compassion. Paternalism may be well-intended, but it doesn’t come from a place of empathy.

        1. Yes!! This is a very good point. Paternalism is what I’ve had from my parents and brother. But man oh man devoid of empathy, either emotional or cognitive, or both depending on the person!

          It was very good that I learned the terms to describe these things, because it was otherwise very hard to explain to people the contradictions between their actions.

          And that was exactly the feeling that I had from my aunt, too (my dad’s sister). A strong feeling, almost duty, of paternalism, but questioning me a lot through lack of empathy. And I had that horrible lonely feeling when I was around her— more lonely than actually being by myself.

            1. Yes, although I don’t see it as a lack of being willing, as more just plain unable. Or it’s probably a combination of both especially given the history. But I try to give the benefit of a doubt and they definitely lack ability to understand people.

                1. Actually just one last thing— with my aunt I saw that trait just in her driving, which was sometimes dangerous and scary when I was in her car as a passenger, just through her inability to empathise. Like one time a car was turning in the road ahead of us, and as soon as the car had reversed across to one side of the road, she just went straight on through the gap without hesitating or slowing, when the car had been expecting her to wait for it to turn properly out of the way! It made me tense up wondering if the guy would notice in time! She’s not an impatient person at all, and she just didn’t even bat an eyelid at that, lol, was totally oblivious. It was very disconcerting to me! 🤦‍♂️

    1. I think this is the first time I’ve ever republished an old post rather than copying into a new post. It’s kind of fun to see old likes and comments.

  18. I think this is a great post! For my own personal mental health journey, my OCD was making me so depressed, that I woke up one day and decided I wasn’t going to be depressed anymore; but like you said, happiness wasn’t exactly sitting in the back of my closet. I certainly didn’t get out of depression with the flip of a switch, it took years (2+ years) to make happiness. I strongly agree, happiness is not a choice when it comes to mental health. For me, happiness was a goal, a motivation that helped me overcome the suffering of my OCD. I couldn’t achieve happiness, unless I found a way to better manage my OCD (the thing making me unhappy).

    Happiness is not a choice, and not just for those struggling with mental illness. Happiness is not a choice for lots of different people, like those who struggle financially, those being bullied, those having a bad day (spilling coffee on their lap before a meeting), those stuck in a situation they can’t easily get out it. I don’t think anyone, facing any kind of problem, can just be happy and move on. A friend of mine, used to sing to me, “Be Happy, No Worries,” in which I really wanted to just deck him, but at the same time, it reminded me of my OCD goals. Happiness doesn’t solve problems. Problems are solved by having goals and finding the motivation to achieve those goals.

    But, in regards to happiness itself, I strongly believe “happiness is what you make it.” That is why, I try to focus on the approach of making the best of what we have, rather than struggling and setting ourselves back for something we don’t have. I am beginning to learn that Happiness is not something that can be sustained without appreciation of the little things.

    Sorry for my lengthy comment.