Happiness Is Not a Choice

Happiness is not a choice - it's an emotion that mental illness sometimes off the menu of options

“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, if you start to poke at it a bit, it has some fundamental flaws. I believe that happiness is not a choice, at least not when something like mental illness takes it off the menu of options entirely.

The fallacy of happiness as a choice

There’s a whole field of positive psychology that focuses heavily on happiness. Beyond that, though, there’s a lot of messaging that ventures into toxic positivity territory, where only happiness and other “positive” emotions are considered acceptable. During the current pandemic, I’ve seen various people talking about feeling like they’re only allowed to have certain emotions.

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 you want and believe you have 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. Mental illness is not a choice, and happiness is not a choice either.

You can’t wish mental illness away

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

Multiple mental illnesses can 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?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

I don’t think these positive psychology cheerleaders are necessarily trying to make us feel bad, but there really does seem to be a fundamental lack of understanding. Mental illness tends to (at least temporarily) limit our capacity to experience certain things; this can include positive emotions. This is not a matter of choices we make; these are the direct effects of illness. We can’t choose our illness out of existence. However, with effective treatment, we can at least start to gain back the capacity that we lost.

Perhaps happiness isn’t hanging in the closet for you to wear because the illness monster tossed it in the thrift store donation bin. You can choose to go into the closet until 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.

The happiness trap

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 off 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. That, in turn, 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 and what goes in the donation bin. Happiness is not a choice, and if it was, we probably would have made that choice already.

112 thoughts on “Happiness Is Not a Choice”

  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. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™

  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.

    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..

  6. “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

  7. 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… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. I really like this post, you make great points. I hate the law of attraction stuff. To me itโ€™s victim blaming. Itโ€™s your fault if something bad happens because you didnโ€™t try enough or whatever.

  11. Haha.. Roger that!! ๐Ÿ–๏ธ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!! ๐Ÿ˜€

  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! ๐Ÿ’›

  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 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.

  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 institutionsโ€”family, schools, mediaโ€”regularly seem to portray happiness as coming from material achievement (experiences with โ€œfamilyโ€ 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 themโ€”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 traumasโ€”ie medical emergency).

    We were several years into recovery when we discovered that we did not understand these key and commonly used words: โ€œfeelingsโ€ and โ€œsensations.โ€ Trying to learn those is helping us see that no emotion or sensation lasts uninterrupted for us. Some predominateโ€”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 donโ€™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 โ€œshop to be happyโ€ 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.

    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.

  17. 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.

    1. Thanks for your lengthy comment, and think that was very well put! I think the making the best of things approach requires a certain level of acceptance, which then makes it easier to move forward where possible.

  18. This should be plastered all over walls in town, schools and malls! And maybe living rooms as we need to stay in.

    I couldn’t agree more. Happiness is a choice, what a bullshยจ*tty thing to say. I’ve been told that I ‘wanted’ to be depressed. Well, I can tell you that wanting and mental illness live on planets apart. You can ‘chose’ and’ want’ and ‘try’ till the cows come home and all you will get is some exhaustion with a sprinkle of hopelessness.
    A disease is disease and we can’t control that. It that was the case nobody would be ill no more.

    On the other hand I find it also a bit rude to say things like that. I guess all the doctors, scientists, nurses, psychologists and counselors would be redundant and must be thinking ‘what are we even doing here? They just chose the wrong dress to ware today’.

    If life was that black and white, it would be so boring. I believe that that toxic positivity is one a most boring things I’ve ever encountered, just sucks all the ‘joy’ out of life with plastering it all with ‘smile’ and ‘you’re awesome’. Bah!

  19. What an amazing, down to earth way to put it!! Happiness is not a choice…. for some it is even an unrealistic dream…. When I hear the statement- I know that they truly just donโ€™t have a clue what it is like!! Thanks for sharing the post!!!

  20. Happiness being a choice makes it sounds like those with mental illness choose to be depressed, anxious, etc. Do they really believe itโ€™s that simple?!

  21. This just seems so relevant right now, especially during COVID. There are times when it feels like you can’t just “choose” to be happy. I also think this relates well to toxic positivity, which I posted about last night and which you also have talked about on your blog, I’m pretty sure.

  22. I hate this phrase maybe most of all. When Iโ€™ve been depressed and people have said this to me I want to yell back โ€œdo you think that I WANT to feel like this?โ€

    I also think itโ€™s what people tell others to make themselves feel better. That the depressed person is just not doing enough to help themselves and that clearly everything that they themselves are doing is right. Itโ€™s the fear of feeling like that. They donโ€™t want to admit that those states of being fate out of their control.

      1. Exactly. Itโ€™s a form of victim blaming. โ€œThey wouldnโ€™t feel like this if they did x, y, or z.โ€ You see the same things happen with cancer patients. Itโ€™s disgusting and makes me want to punch people in the throat when I hear it.

  23. “Is happiness even a good thing to focus on?”

    Exactly, this is one of the big things I’ve learned in the last 2 years, and an important tool for rising above OCD-type thoughts. In any given situation, the less I focus on how good I want to feel, the better I actually feel! Trying to feel good is actually exhausting.

    And for example how much better is it when you get to sit down to do something when you’ve had to wait for it, or when you’ve had to do some boring things first? There’s a lot of value in accepting the natural ride throughout the day.

    The more fundamental thing to strive for, for me, is maintaining inner calm, more consciously at some times than at others. Though I also have moments of exhilarated excitationโ€” which I live for more than moments of calm, hahaโ€” but they have to be even more brief.

    1. Striving for particular emotions doesn’t seem to work very well in general. Working on a creating a backdrop of calm and acceptance makes more sense.

  24. I laughed so hard at your title. I laughed so hard at the reply that mentioned less muscles were needed to punch a throat. These are so hilarious because like all of us replying I’ve been there too. I have Major Depression, Bipolar, Anxiety and Schizophrenia. By the grace of Jesus they are mostly controlled by medication. I work for an Assertive Community Treatment Mental Health Agency as a Michigan Certified Peer Support Specialist.. I was shocked by how many mental health professionals have no clue what it is like to be mentally ill. But they do listen when I talk about what it has been like for me. Thank you for your post.

  25. I love this so much. I was diagnosed with chronic depression years ago. I have had my run with medication and quite honestly I probably should be on medication now. The problem is I donโ€™t have a primary doctor right now and itโ€™s really hard to get an appointment. I havenโ€™t tried virtual appointments yet but plan to very soon. My depression is not as debilitating as others. I can control my emotions to a degree by being intentional and focusing on the good stuff. But doing that without a break, wearing that mask, is exhausting. I eventually break and nose dive into a dark place where my thoughts are not pleasant. I share these thoughts with my husband and it scares him to hear me speak so lowly of myself. So yeah, as one who suffers from mental illness, I try to choose happy, but it doesnโ€™t last forever. Itโ€™s like that fad diet where you lose all the weight but the second you stop it comes back with a vengeance

    1. Yes! And when there are barriers to treatment and the need to mask because people don’t consider mental illness acceptable, the idea of choosing happiness really starts to be ridiculous.

  26. Thank you. Im exhausted by people telling me its up to me and then throwing research in my face to back it up. I end up asking myself what am I doing wrong? Whats the secret to happiness no one is telling me because I’m literally doing everything possible to feel it again. And it never comes. This post is a breath of fresh air and takes some of the panic away. I’m doing my best.

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