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.

104 thoughts on “Happiness Is Not a Choice”

  1. 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!! 😀

  2. 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:

  3. 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! 💛

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 bullsh¨*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!

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