Is Happiness A Choice? How To Be Happy

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You may have seen the phrase "happiness is a choice" on a social media post or heard it repeated by a motivational speaker. While the people who say that "happiness is a choice" may be well-intentioned, their sentiment could ignore some of the realities of happiness and how happiness can occur. 

Happiness is a temporary emotion. The phrase "happiness is a choice" can be reductive, and it disregards that many people don't have a choice regarding their mood or state of mind. For people living with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions, feeling happy might not be a decision to make, regardless of effort.  

Learning the hurts beyond this phrase and considering alternatives can be beneficial if you want to spread and grow happiness in your life. 

Do you need help figuring out how to be happy?

Happiness can be complicated

If happiness could be chosen at any given moment, it may be inferred that many people would choose to feel happy. However, happiness comes from a complex mix of elements, and many of these elements are out of one's control. 

Several studies have found a relationship between happiness and socioeconomic status. Additionally, evidence shows connections between happiness and geographic location, gender, and age. Mental health concerns can also have a significant impact on happiness. Finally, physical health, job, and social support might cause a difference in whether someone is happy often or not. 

So many of the factors that lead to happiness may not be easily changed or controlled. For some people, a few alterations may help them achieve happiness. However, for many, it can be more complex and take a few more steps. The idea that people can choose to be happy is an oversimplification that disregards research. 

Can people with mental illness choose to be happy?

Major depressive disorder (MDD) causes an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that can lead to prolonged sadness and difficulty finding pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. Depression often makes it hard for people to perform everyday tasks, including those that relieve symptoms. For this reason, the notion that people with mental health disorders like depression should "choose to be happy" is unhelpful and unrealistic. 

Mental illnesses like depression are often treated with medication and therapy simultaneously. A therapist can help people with depression manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes that may improve happiness. However, if a chemical imbalance occurs, happiness may be short-lived. 

A stigma surrounding mental health concerns can make living with them more difficult. The idea that mental health is a choice can increase this stigma and discourage people from seeking help. These sentiments can make it seem like the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses are someone's "fault." 

Saying “happiness is a choice” can make those who are unhappy feel worse

Telling an unhappy person their mood is within their control can do more harm. If someone is already struggling and is told they can choose to change their feelings, it may cause them to feel as though their lack of happiness is a personal failing. Studies have shown that emphasizing finding happiness can lead to symptoms of depression.

It's healthy to experience all emotions, including sadness, grief, fear, disgust, and grief. The more communities normalize these emotions and decrease the stigma surrounding them, the less shame may surround them. Urging someone to choose to be happy can further stigmatize mental health concerns. Validating someone's experiences and offering them hope and love may be more effective. 

If happiness isn’t a choice, how do you find happiness?

Happiness not being a choice doesn't necessarily take away from the possibility of happiness for anyone. People with or without mental illness can feel happiness as an emotion. If you're looking for a phrase to replace "happiness is a choice," you might try "happiness comes from within" or "happiness is an emotion to cultivate over time." 

It can be challenging to derive happiness from external sources instead of from yourself. You can connect with yourself in several ways to increase the opportunity for happiness and moments of joy in your life. Below are some proven ways of positively impacting your mental well-being.

Foster close relationships

Studies have shown that one of the most vital indicators of mental and physical health is the presence of close relationships in a person's life. Having a support system can significantly contribute to your mental well-being. Consider reaching out to a friend you haven't spoken to in a while or getting lunch with an acquaintance you'd like to get to know better. If you don't have a social support system, building one might be difficult, but there are ways you can get started, including the following: 

  • Finding a support group in your area
  • Joining a club at your university
  • Going to a meet-up in your city
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Attending group therapy
  • Joining online groups for people like you 
  • Volunteering abroad or in your community
  • Getting to know people with different backgrounds than you 
  • Attending a religious or spiritual community gathering

Practice gratitude

Expressing gratitude for the people and situations you appreciate can help you focus on the positive. Try writing down what you're grateful for in a journal once daily or telling someone you're close to that you appreciate their friendship. Each day, you can take a moment to think about what makes you feel the most appreciated. Try to find ways to honor that or give back through opportunities like volunteer work. 

Donate your time

Volunteering can benefit your mental health. Volunteering your time is a rewarding way of giving back, finding satisfaction, and feeling more socially connected. Consider contacting your favorite local community organization or non-profit to see if they have any opportunities available. The Red Cross may also have local volunteer opportunities in multiple areas. 

Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness exercises can help you focus on the present moment and become more aware of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions, as well as what's going on around you. In one study, researchers found that the ability to remain present and mindful is connected to improved mood. Standard mindfulness practices include deep breathing, meditation, and thought-acceptance exercises. 

Limit your screen time

A study by Nielson Total Audience found that American adults spend around ten hours daily in front of a screen. Their research has shown that the more time people spend on social media, the more likely they may be to experience symptoms of depression. Although social media can help you connect with others, it may isolate you and cause feelings of loneliness or inadequacy due to self-comparison. 

Care for yourself

Taking time to nurture your body and mind can significantly impact your mental health. Self-care may include taking a bath, walking, or reading a book. Studies have shown that getting enough sleep each night, eating a healthy diet, and exercising can all positively affect your mental well-being.

Do you need help figuring out how to be happy?

Consider therapy 

Happiness may be less abundant when your mental well-being is negatively affected by a mental health condition, stress, or a conflicted relationship. Whether you're living with a mental illness like depression or want to address complex feelings related to sadness, loneliness, or stress, talking to a professional may benefit you. 

Some people face barriers to treatment that can also cause barriers to happiness, such as financial challenges, availability challenges, or rural living. If you face these barriers, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp might be most advantageous. 

Studies have shown that online therapy is an effective method for treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions that can negatively affect mental well-being. Online therapy allows you to participate in therapy remotely via live chat, phone, or video. If you're struggling to get out of bed some days, an online therapist can talk to you where you're at without requiring you to get dressed, shower, or prepare for an in-person session.  

Takeaway

Happiness is an emotion that many people strive for. For some, it feels like an unobtainable future goal. However, learning how happiness works and reminding yourself that all emotions are valid and necessary may be beneficial. If you'd like to increase the moments of joy you experience in your life daily, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for guidance or try the lifestyle tips above.
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