mental health

You Can’t Simply Choose Happiness When You Have A Mental Illness

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.

20 comments on “You Can’t Simply Choose Happiness When You Have A Mental Illness

  1. Great post. So clearly explained. I think attitude is a part of the bigger picture which you already discussed. And then there’s that whole ‘chasing happiness can make you more unhappy’ aspect. In my experience happiness is something that arises on its own depending on conditions vs something you make happen. I feel like happiness and attitude are two different things. Keep em coming.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I was just going to post something like this as well. I had read a post with hints hot to bounce back from depression. It pissed me off.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Once again a spot on post. I wish it was that easy.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I hate when people say choose happiness. That is like telling me to swallow coal.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. “When I am depressed, I choose happiness every day. I just generally fail at achieving it.”
    I love that line, and I bet I’ll be using it in the future. Great post, both for those with mental illness as well as a good read for loved ones struggling to understand what someone is going through, and how well-intentioned remarks or advice can sometimes be damaging and exhausting. Thanks for laying this all out and for including the ingredients for a recipe to recovery, as well as noting that that recipe changes based on personal tastes, and personal tastes change over time (lol am I overdoing my recipe metaphor?) Super stuff, keep slayin’ 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Great post, Beverly, thanks for speaking my mind. I’m in my recovery from depression and sometimes I lose track of how much I’ve achieved. It’s hard to remind me of that every day so I can keep going.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. seeing sanity

    I love everything you just said and agree wholeheartedly! Happiness is a complicated and difficult thing, especially when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode. Thanks for the reminder to keep fighting for it though.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Such a great post. As someone with a mental illness, I can totally agree. It’s not that easy, you can’t just choose happiness just like that. Those kinds of quotes also make me cringe sometimes, depending on how I’m feeling.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you so so much for writing this! It’s so vital to dismantle the latent discrimination in catchy quotes and general self help culture. I found the read a little long for tired me, but it’s well written! Kudos!


  10. You might be right but I fins that depression does lift. I may not be so mental ill because some things I can do to bring me out of depression.


  11. Hits so close to home! I often hear “if you keep telling yourself youre sad, you will always be sad”, or “youre not making any effort to get better”. Can be so infuriating trying to make people see that I’m not actually crazy, I really would choose happiness over hell any day. I find that explaining to loved ones that what may not seem like any effort being made towards recovery to them, may be a huge step/achievement for me. Ie. some days getting out of bed at all is a big win some days. Baby steps!


  12. Hi! Since few months now. it’s my new philosophy of choose happiness in simply things of life with Borderline and Anorexia. It’s not easy all time almost on very bad times, but choose happiness in simply things to change my life. It’s very important the little things of life.


  13. Hi Bev!

    I agree with pretty much everything you say in this post but I do want to add something different to the discussion. The inspirational quotes you are reading, what you must remember is that they aren’t aimed at people with mental health issues. When you look at these things in isolation, some are actually correct in their message.

    The famous Wayne Dyer quote “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” is spot on. But it’s not actually saying “choose happiness”. It’s saying that you need to try to change your perception of life, try to find the positives, try to find things to be grateful for. When you can do this more consistently, change your internal thinking, it will lead to external changes in your environment. This is true and I can personally testify to that, having had anxiety most of my life but now overcome it.

    Some of the other quotes you mention are suggesting that happiness IS a choice; these are wrong. No one can choose happiness. You either are happy or you aren’t! We all want to be happy, as you say. It’s what we are all striving for in life and it’s a difficult thing to obtain because so many of us are not happy – mental illness or not.

    What these quotes really mean is that you can choose to do things which make you make you feel good, better, move yourself in the right direction so you can maybe become happy. And here’s what so many people with mental illness don’t understand (including myself for large periods when I had an anxiety disorder) – you have to take action to TRY and become happy, otherwise nothing will change. You write about this so well and I’m glad you mention this because I see too many people with anxiety and depression who complain about these quotes but are still repeating the same negative patterns which keep them down.

    So yes, SOME of these quotes are wrong BUT if you want escape certainly anxiety and depression, you DO have to make a choice and that is to move towards positive thinking. Happiness is only a byproduct of positive thinking but just trying, making an effort, taking action to move towards that, is still a choice. Getting angry at a quote isn’t going to help with that and whilst I understand people’s frustrations, it doesn’t do any good. If anything, it’s the exact opposite of what Wayne Dyer is trying to tell us in his quote.


    Liked by 1 person

  14. rainicorn

    Choose life. That really helps me alter my perspective and my intentions. So many platitudes come our way through social media, at least mine. One that gets me is hastag blessed. My mind rebels and say f* you. Guess I feel sad really, like why do I need to work so hard at something many others can take for granted, but everything passes, and I’m not sad for long; just at my low points, like what you describe so well. Thanks for your helpful post. I’m thinking about comment about choosing life.


  15. I feel as if more young people are starting to be affected by mental health and this issue is really important to me for people to be aware about, that’s why my first blog post was dedicated to it which you may want to read. Also, I think that it isn’t just mental health influencing happiness there are also others such as, family, friends and arguments etc.


  16. richardjalba

    Based on my personal experience, there are some people who simply won’t feel happiness. At best they are content or undisturbed. Sometimes I even wonder what it means to be happy. But I know that I’d rather have success than happiness – it’s something that I value more. But that’s my own personal philosophy. I’m not going to offer you solutions because I don’t know your perspective. I wish you the best though. And yes, those motivational quotes are especially annooying.


  17. Reblogged this on Living with depression and commented:
    I stole this because this is 100% how I feel about those stupid motivational quotes.


  18. While I like some motivational quotes, I do agree that many are simplistic and a little too cheery. What I really don’t like is for strangers to say things like, “Smile! It can’t be that bad.” It’s been a long time since anyone’s said this to me, but when I used to hear it I wanted to tell them off or smack them. But, being a nice girl, I’d just give them a little smile. Anyway, I digress. Happiness isn’t a choice, but as you said, there are things we can do to help ourselves deal with our mental illnesses.


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