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.