I repeat, happiness is not a choice. Okay? Here’s why.
I was recently looking for images to share on the Slay Girl Society Instagram page. I like to share inspirational and motivational quotes, as well as interesting facts and stories about mental health. I cannot tell you how many images I saw that had, in my opinion, problematic phrases. Stuff like:
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” or “Happiness is all in your attitude” or “The moment you start acting like life is a blessing, it starts feeling like one.” or “Keep choosing happiness daily and happiness will choose you right back” or simply “Choose Happiness”.
I’m not going to argue that these can’t be inspirational to you because they might really resonate and that’s great. But to me, as someone with a mental illness (bipolar disorder), they make me cringe. They even make me a little angry. Especially when someone without a mental illness throws them in my face as a solution to my depression. When someone does that, it truly shows me that they haven’t taken the time to understand how mental illness works.
First of all, someone with depression typically does not enjoy their mental illness or mental health issues. When you are stuck in a depressive episode, you are pretty miserable. It is almost unbearable. So much so, that people often end their lives because they can’t take the pain. So suffice to say, most people with depression would give anything to have a reprieve and feel happy. If they were able to decide their way to better mental health, they would definitely choose happiness over the complete hell and soul-sucking world of depression. When I am depressed, I choose happiness every day. I just generally fail at achieving it. Why? Because there are a lot of complex factors that play into the process of recovery and reaching optimal mental health. It would be amazing if a good attitude could solve mental illness and depression. If it were that simple, we would have a cure for mental illness and everyone would be living their best lives (if we also solved all of the other issues in the world, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.)
I’m not saying that people with mental illness don’t have any control over the fate of their depression. In fact, choices do play a huge role in the process. Something that I have learned from the past few years of dealing with bipolar disorder is that I need to take action if I want to feel better and if I want to be happy. I used to sit around and wait for my mental illness to “clear up” as if it were the flu or the cold. I’ve realized that I will never recover if I do nothing. So I made the choice to fight. Of course, it takes tremendous strength to fight your mental health battles every single day. Sometimes, you will lose the fight. Sometimes, you won’t have the energy to fight. But to have any chance of surviving your mental illness and reaching a point where you are thriving, you need to choose to try to fight every day. You need to actively seek out the tools that will help. Therapy, medication, exercise, nutritious food, socializing, finding purpose ─ these are all treatment options that have worked for many people. To achieve positive mental health, you need to find what works for you and fight each day to fit it into your life. Of course, a tool might work for a while and then stop working. The nature of mental illness and depression is that it is a dynamic, complex beast. That’s why we can’t simply “choose happiness” or “choose recovery”. Recovery is not a linear process. There will be setbacks and challenges. It’s also not permanent. You need to constantly fight to be healthy, even when you feel great. That means engaging in self-care acts regularly.
Happiness as a goal is also complicated. Happiness is a feeling and a state of mind, but it’s not a lifestyle. Some people are naturally cheerful and enjoy their lives the majority of the time, but those are definitely not people with mental illness. A lot of people, even without a mental illness, will only be happy in brief, fleeting moments. Much of the rest of the time, people will feel other emotions, such as stress, anxiety or just kind of neutral. But that’s what we work hard for, is to achieve those brief, fleeting moments of happiness. We also work hard for other emotions, such as a sense of achievement, accomplishment or pride in our actions. We don’t necessarily need to always be happy, but we do want to feel human and connected to our communities and the people around us.
So the next time someone tells me to “choose happiness”, I’m going to tell them that I choose life instead. It’s a lot more realistic, attainable, and fulfilling.