You’ve likely seen the phrase “happiness is a choice” scrawled across a scenic landscape on a social media post or heard it espoused by motivational speaker during a TED Talk. While the people who say that “happiness is a choice” are usually well-intentioned, their sentiment largely ignores the reality of what happiness is and how it comes about—and it can actually be quite harmful.
Yes, it’s mostly true that happiness comes from within. But the phrase “happiness is a choice” tends to be too reductive, and it disregards the people who do not have a choice when it comes to their mood or state of mind. For people who live with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions, feeling a certain way is usually not a decision they can make, no matter how hard they try.
Below, we’re going to discuss why telling someone that “happiness is a choice” can be damaging and then outline some alternatives that can improve mental well-being in those who are able to pursue them.
Happiness Is Complicated
The fact is, if we could all feel happy by simply choosing happiness, most of us would. Happiness comes from a complex mix of elements, most of which are out of our control. Several studies, for instance, have found that there is a relationship between happiness and socioeconomic status; and there is plenty of evidence of a connection between happiness and factors like geographic location, gender, and age. As we’ll discuss later, mental health concerns can, of course, also have a huge impact on happiness. Things like one’s physical health, job, and family connections can all have an effect on our happiness.
So many of the factors that lead to happiness are not things that we choose or can easily change. For some people, a few small alterations may be all that’s necessary to achieve happiness. Happiness, in a way, may be a choice for those people. But for many, many more people, their happiness is greatly affected by things that are out of their control. The idea that people can make the choice to be happy is an oversimplification that seems to disregard what we know about happiness.
“Happiness is a choice” Ignores Those Who Live With Mental Health Concerns
For many people, choosing happiness—no matter how you define it—is simply not an option. Major depressive disorder, for instance, is largely due to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that leads to feelings of sadness and difficulty with enjoyment. Depression often makes it hard for people to perform everyday tasks, much less do things that may decrease symptoms. So, the notion that people with mental health disorders like depression should simply make the decision to be happy is not only unhelpful, but unrealistic and problematic.
Mental health disorders like depression are typically best treated with a mix of medication and therapy. There are things that people with depression can do to feel better when they’re able; but those are often complementary practices. Someone with a mental health condition may not be able to perform those tasks—and even if they did, they may not derive nearly as much benefit from them as others would.
There is still a stigma surrounding mental health concerns that can make living with them more difficult, and telling people who experience them that “happiness is a choice” can reinforce that stigma. The saying makes it seem as though the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other serious mental health disorders—which are often the default for people who live with them—are inherently inferior.
Saying “Happiness is a choice” Can Make Those Who Aren’t Happy Feel Worse
Telling a person who is unhappy that their mood is within their control can do more harm than good. If someone is already having a hard time and is then told that they can make the choice to change their feelings, it may cause them to feel as though their lack of happiness is a personal failing. In fact, studies have shown that placing a large emphasis on finding happiness can actually lead to symptoms of depression.
It's healthy to experience emotions like sadness or grief or anger. And it’s possible that the more we normalize these emotions and decrease the stigma surrounding them, the less conflicted we’ll feel when we experience them. So, urging someone to make the choice to be happy can further stigmatize mental health concerns and have the opposite of the intended effect.
If Happiness Isn’t A Choice, What Can We Do?
So, if it isn’t necessarily true that happiness is simply a matter of making the choice to be happy, what is the path to contentment? It could be that we need a different way of expressing the sentiment behind “happiness is a choice.” Perhaps the axiom “happiness comes from within” is a better way of putting it. It is true that if we try too hard to derive happiness from external sources, instead of from ourselves, it is often difficult to find. And there are many things you can do that may help with opening up the path to happiness, as opposed to choosing happiness. Below are some proven ways of positively impacting your mental well-being.
Foster Close Relationships
Studies have shown that one of the most important indicators of good mental and physical health is the presence of close relationships in a person’s life. Having a support system can greatly contribute to your mental well-being and help you get through trying times. 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.
Expressing gratitude for the people and things you appreciate in your life can help you focus on the positive. This can happen in several different ways. Try writing down the things you’re grateful for in a journal once a day or telling someone you’re close to that you appreciate their friendship—or just take a moment to think about the things you’re thankful for in your life.
Donate Your Time
Volunteering can not only benefit others, it can also benefit your mental health. Volunteering your time is a rewarding way of giving back as it can provide us with a sense of satisfaction and also help us feel more connected socially. Consider reaching out to your favorite local community organization or non-profit to see if they have any opportunities available.
Mindfulness exercises are meant to help us stay in the present moment and become more aware of our feelings, thoughts, and emotions, as well as what’s going on around us. In one study, researchers found that the ability to remain present and mindful is connected to improved mood. Common mindfulness practices include deep breathing, meditating, and thought-acceptance exercises.
Limit Your Screen Time
A study by Nielson Total Audience found that adults are spending around 10 hours each day in front of a screen. And an abundance of research has shown that the more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression. We think of social media as a good thing because it allows us to connect with others, but it tends to do the opposite. Instead of helping us build real relationships, it can cause us to compare ourselves to others.
Care For Yourself
Taking time to nurture your body and mind can have a big impact on your mental health. Self-care can include everything from taking a long bath to going for a walk to reading a good book. Studies have shown that getting enough sleep each night, eating a healthy diet, and exercising can all have a positive effect on your mental well-being.
How Therapy Can Help
As discussed above, happiness is often harder to experience when your mental well-being is negatively affected by a mental health condition. Whether you’re living with a disorder like depression, or you want to address complex feelings related to sadness, loneliness, or other mental health-related concerns, talking to a professional can help. A licensed therapist can work with you to get to the root of the problem and find solutions to improve your mental wellness.
Studies have shown that online therapy is an effective method for treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders that can negatively affect mental well-being. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp is a convenient and accessible way of connecting with a licensed mental health professional. BetterHelp gives you the ability to participate in therapy remotely, via live chat, phone/video call, or messaging. The qualified therapists at BetterHelp can provide you with the support and guidance you need as you take the next steps on your mental health journey.