“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.