Trigger warning: talk about mental illness, suicide.
There are a couple of memes going around my Facebook timeline presently that assert that happiness is a choice.
The thing is, if you are going to say that happiness is a choice, then you’re allowing that unhappiness is also a choice.
Would a person really choose to be unhappy? Sometimes, maybe, yes. Maybe, in the twisted logic of distress, one would choose to be unhappy (perhaps as a way to punish someone else or even oneself).
If it is a matter of choosing our emotions, do we choose to be frightened by loud noises? Do we choose to be angry when someone taunts us? Do we choose to be sad when someone we love dies?
If unhappiness and its more serious and sometimes chronic cousin depression are choices, then unhappy people should be able to snap right out of it simply by choosing to be happy, right?
I suspect that anyone who believes that has never been in the jaws of depression. So deep in the self-hatred and feelings of failure that every move, every decision is a painful one. So agonized that suicidal ideation becomes a release; death becomes an option (however fleeting), because the dead don’t feel.
The idea that we can choose our emotions also leads to a disturbing phenomenon that’s already too prevalent in our society: victim-blaming. Blaming sad people for feeling sad. Ultimately, blaming the mentally ill for being mentally ill. (People with depression are exceedingly capable of blaming themselves, so we don’t actually need help from society at large on that score.) I mean, if sadness/depression/anxiety/fear/anger/jealousy/etc. are all choices, we only have ourselves to blame for feeling them, right?
And that is just not helpful.
It is true that we have control over our emotions, at least some of the time. I’m sure a number of you reading this know all about forcing happiness at work, especially if you have a customer service job. I know about that. I also know how emotionally harmful it can be. Controlling your emotions or forcing yourself to display a particular emotion, however, is not the same as choosing to feel one emotion over another.
Let’s go back to an assumption regarding the memes: that choice is simple. (Yes, the memes do not explicitly say the choice is simple. However, it is implied.) Not all choices are easy. Some are gut-wrenching, soul-tearing, difficult decisions. Many range in difficulty levels between those two extremes. Arguably, choosing to be happy could be simple, excruciatingly difficult, or somewhere in-between depending on the person.
Allowing that choices aren’t all simple, can we really choose our emotions? Can you really wake up in the morning and say, “I choose to be happy today?” I think that’s far-fetched. What you can choose to do is to face the day with a hope that you will feel positive most of the day and a determination to face any challenges that come along. That is not the same as choosing your emotional state.
As Zero Dean says on this blog post:
“No. Happiness is not a choice. Attitude is a choice.”
This idea is better than the whole happiness-is-a-choice one. Even with attitude, though, changing your attitude can be as difficult as moving a mountain. (Remind me of that the next time my kid is acting up, and I say, “Change your attitude.”)
Not everyone can change their attitude and feel better every time, as Therese Borchard discusses in this article:
“That’s what bugs me about ‘happiness is a choice’ philosophies. I think they work on mild and moderate depression, definitely on situational depression. But for some forms of severe depression and treatment-resistant depression or complicated mood disorders — at least for those periods of time when you’re on your knees begging God to take you — my experience has been that any attention to your thoughts only makes it worse.
…The trick is knowing when to apply optimism, cognitive behavioral therapy, and all the brain exercises that can form new neural passageways, and when to turn the brain off and just keep swimming.”
We humans need all our emotions, and it’s okay to feel them. It is okay to feel sad or mad or glad or silly. Feeling a wide range of emotions is healthy.
And I get it. Memes don’t take into account every person, every situation, etc. They are sound bytes in a world bombarded with messages. They are images thrown into the vast sea of social media to inspire or to ridicule or to attempt levity in a world that has exploded with seriousness, because we have up-to-the-minute access to the terrors in our world.
I also know that these little bombarding bits of information add to the overriding culture. A drop in a bucket may be only a drop in a bucket. But many similar drops in the same bucket change the whole amount in the bucket.