why the “choose happiness” obsession makes me ragey.

i promised this post on twitter and i was shocked by how many people responded saying they’d like to hear my thoughts. i know several in my circle are fans of this idea, and i don’t begrudge anyone that. but try, for a second, to see it from another point of view.

three years ago, i was deeply sad. i was coming off the loss of two important friendships, and my romantic relationship was rocky and troubled. my visions of love and trust were shattered, and i thought the next step was accepting the cold wasteland that lay ahead, learning to live without any real connection ever. i practiced. i tried every day to disconnect further and further from anything that resembled warmth. i believed in my deepest heart that i’d come to the correct answer, finally, that this was how life was intended to be lived. i frequently fell into intense bouts of crying, lamenting, and just hurting. the bouncer would tell me over and over to try to be happy, to try to reach out to new friends, to have perspective. i fought him tooth and nail, insisting that these were my FEELINGS and i could not change them and how dare he invalidate them.

i learned after a while that i was wrong, and this is not a thing i say unless it’s really very true. i was, yes, so sad during that time, and with good reason. but i recognize, looking back, that i wallowed, on purpose, and i didn’t make any real effort to improve my situation. once i started trying a little, things got much better.

so, i understand the value of “choosing” happiness. i understand the value of logical perspective. i understand the futility of believing any circumstance or hurt is forever – the only constant is change. i understand that while you may not have direct control over all of your emotions, it’s good to try to steer them sometimes, and do-able. i do understand that you can play an active role in improving your mood, your circumstance, your life. that you are very often the one standing in your own way.

that said…

a phrase like “choose happiness” is glib. it makes it sound easy, and it’s not. often, it’s one of the hardest things to do. darkness can be so comfortable because when light shines brightly on you, you will be seen and for real, that’s scary as shit. it makes it sound as though when faced with something difficult, you can just “choose” happiness and the difficulty of the situation will just vanish. and just, no. this isn’t the way anything works.

and let’s talk for a second about feeling things that aren’t happiness…

i believe all emotions are valid. i believe we’re being taught to be chipper animatronic little robots all of the time, and i believe it’s bullshit. i believe when your best friend unceremoniously dumps you, when your boyfriend ignores you, when someone is out and out cruel to you, you should be sad about it. slapping on a grin and going for a drink under the guise of choosing happiness is a destructive and ultimately ineffective answer, because i promise you, your unresolved shit is coming back to bite you. i believe the choice of happiness as a panacea for the “problem” of feeling anything negative is troublesome and problematic. we have a spectrum of emotions for a reason – we’re supposed to use them.

and then, maybe most importantly, we’re brought to the times when there is no choice…

i believe there is a significant portion of the population that suffers from valid and varied levels of psychiatric illness, and it’s probably more than you think it is. even if you swear it isn’t the case, i promise you that every day, you encounter someone who had a legitimately difficult time leaving bed, or will be choked and crumbled from panic at some point in the day, or fought a self destructive urge. it is hard to be a human, guys. for all of the beauty we are given in this world we are also given terror. remember what I said last week? we are beings working in shadow and light, always. sometimes, the shadow is stronger.

i have a history of depression and anxiety and probably other things that i’ve never figured out. i have had traumatic shit happen, and because i know that i am not a special snowflake, i bet you have too. i promise you that when i am reeling, it isn’t because i just haven’t chosen happiness hard enough that day. the very best I can do on some of these days is leave bed. believe me, i feel guilty enough about my occasional inability to participate in the world – telling me to choose happiness is a slap in the face. it won’t do anything anf furthermore, it shows a complete lack of sympathy, or even an effort towards sympathy

sometimes, no, it’s not a choice.

i get it, the idea behind it, i do. finding joy is about a search and a conscious effort. sadness can be so easy, and escaping it requires bravery, requires a concrete decision. you’re in charge of your life, you’re in the driver’s seat and you’ve got to act it. perspective is valuable. all of that acknowledged, a phrase like “choose happiness” is overly simplistic, and to me, offensive on several levels.

19 thoughts on “why the “choose happiness” obsession makes me ragey.

  1. I think this is really well put and I could have probably written something along a similar sentiment. I have found the whole sentiment of “choose happiness” to have been both helpful and detrimental depending on the circumstance on when it’s been brought up to me… On the one hand, on my darkest of days “choose happiness” has seemed trite and condescending… but at the same time… it’s been a helpful mantra to keep in my back pocket on days when things could go either way.

  2. OMG YAS. I want to point every single person that preaches this to this blog post because holy wow, what you have written here is much more helpful than my “choose deez” in response.

    For me it really is this: if one could simply choose happiness then we’d all be happy all of the time. Because hardly anybody actually enjoys feeling angry or sad or so low that they don’t know what to do with themselves. And as you said, ALL your emotions are valid and deserve to be felt and worked through. So yes, yes and yes again to this post.


  3. God, you sum up my feelings about this so well. There are times when mental illness when the best thing you can do is not actively sabotage yourself – when it is just a case of waiting the situation out, waiting for meds to kick in, or for brain chemistry to stabilise, or for external circumstances that have made the head weather worse to improve. Last autumn I was severely depressed and convinced I was going to die, and I couldn’t think myself out of it. Couldn’t have done so in a million years. Changing my antidepressants helped, but in a very low-key way – gradual improvement rather than the Hallelujah Chorus. My insomnia gradually lessening helped. Learning to deal with the nights when I couldn’t sleep by getting up and reading helped. Making sure my other basic needs were taken care of helped. But it was not the stuff of feelgood movies.

    I think that a huge part of the problem with the “choose happiness” thing is that it’s marketed, corporate. It’s no different from all the other stuff people are selling that they claim will make us happy – the clothes, the cars, the beauty treatments – except that it poses as being more authentic, more real, because it’s about our emotions. But in the end it’s pushing the same ideas that more concrete marketed things do: that we should be continually striving for happiness like it’s some sort of ever-perfect yet ever-receding mountain peak: something which is somehow, impossibly, both the pinnacle of joy AND something that we’ll need to replenish with the sequel to the self-help book, where they convince you that although the previous one was all you’d ever need to be happy, suddenly they’ve discovered some other innermost secret, some holier-of-holies, and now you need to start trying to get THAT into your life.

    1. yes! i’m going to be honest, I never considered that, and you’re so right, about the corporate-ness. and the issues with mental health and the phrase are what rile me up most of all – how dare anyone so quickly invalidate that struggle.

  4. Oh God, I am so glad you posted this. Your wise words echo so much of what I think and feel and cannot explain, and once more, reading you is like thinking out loud. I need to sit with this for a while and then I want to come back and talk to you about it some more, and maybe write a little on it myself. But for now — I am so glad you wrote this. I love you.

  5. I’ve been looking forward to this. I love to read other people’s opinions on this. Whereas I don’t agree with 100% of what you’ve written, I am with you on the fact that it’s not a simple thing.

    I will often say that happiness (or sadness) is a choice. When my friends complain a lot about not ever being happy, I have on occasion snapped at them ‘Well, you have to CHOOSE it.” Having had the same thing said to me when I was in dark places, I can agree it’s not always the most helpful thing to hear.

    But I also think it’s a mistake to think it’s as simple as waking up one morning and deciding to wear your happy shirt, and thusly, be happy. When I say you’ve got to make an active decision to be happy, that’s really just the starting point for happiness, in my mind. It’s not a switch you can flip, it’s not an outfit you can choose to wear, but it is, a starting point.

    Happiness takes a lot of work. When people are stuck in a rut, a dark place, or suffering from an illness or chemical imbalance, you can choose to accept it and just live with it. That’s an option. I know, because I tried it. I’d gone through some pretty traumatic things and had decided to just withdraw from everything. The thing I wanted to most be in the world was invisible. It wasn’t pretty. It got really bad (I’m not going to go into HOW bad, but…you can probably guess at what I’m referring to).

    After I hit complete rock bottom, I started to realize what my life looked like wasn’t what I actually wanted from it. I eventually came to the realization that I was going to have to do something about it if I wanted things to change. So I did.

    So I will admit that I over simplify things when I make the mistake of saying ‘Choose happiness’. It isn’t that easy. But it is a starting point.

    Thanks again for a great blog post! 🙂

  6. I love the idea of “choosing happiness,” but it’s not that simple. I do think we’re in charge, sometimes, of being able to set our sights on the good or the bad, that sometimes we do choose to wallow and feel bad for ourselves, but I also know that sometimes mental issues come into play and that depression is a real thing that no, it’s not that easy. Sometimes life is awful and no amount of picking and choosing is going to make it feel less awful.

  7. I am so grateful you wrote this, so grateful that someone found the words to articulate something I have been feeling for some time. I am an optimist and a generally ‘sunny disposition’ human being — and yet, that is not born out of an ignorance of negative emotion. I love how you shed light on the value of acknowledging our own sadness, and the need to stop stuffing “oh, just be happy” down everyone’s throats as though it were an easy proposition.

    This was my favorite sentence: “i believe all emotions are valid. i believe we’re being taught to be chipper animatronic little robots all of the time, and i believe it’s bullshit.”

  8. I believe that you once again have taken some of the things that I couldn’t seem to get to make sense in my mind enough to put into words.

  9. So glad I found your post and site via Roxanne. I have been contemplating the same issue for a while. You have articulated this so well:

    “i promise you, your unresolved shit is coming back to bite you. i believe the choice of happiness as a panacea for the “problem” of feeling anything negative is troublesome and problematic. we have a spectrum of emotions for a reason – we’re supposed to use them.”

    Yes! Emotions have a purpose, they are meant to flow, express, and even become trails pointing us in the right direction, an inner compass of sorts. Thank you for giving voice to our emotions, the space of the heart. Bravo!

  10. I think the thing that bothers me most about “choose happiness” is that unless I asked for someone’s opinion, I don’t want their advice on how I can fix my shit up. Sometimes, as you’ve said here, it’s just not TIME for me to move on to anything remotely like happiness. And to assume that I want to or need to is to assume that they know way more about me than they do.

    You kicked ass with this post, you know. You really did.

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