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.

105 thoughts on “Happiness Is Not a Choice”

  1. 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 don’t have a clue what it is like!! Thanks for sharing the post!!!

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

  3. 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.

  4. I hate this phrase maybe most of all. When I’ve been depressed and people have said this to me I want to yell back “do you think that I WANT to feel like this?”

    I also think it’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. It’s the fear of feeling like that. They don’t want to admit that those states of being fate out of their control.

      1. Exactly. It’s a form of victim blaming. “They wouldn’t feel like this if they did x, y, or z.” You see the same things happen with cancer patients. It’s disgusting and makes me want to punch people in the throat when I hear it.

  5. “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 excitation— which I live for more than moments of calm, haha— 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 don’t have a primary doctor right now and it’s really hard to get an appointment. I haven’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 doesn’t last forever. It’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.

  8. 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.

  9. Pingback: Can Happiness Be a Choice Despite Mental Illness? - HappyHealthyMindset.Net

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