girl with glasses smiling

The Problem With Saying “Happiness Is A Choice”

By Kimberly Zapata

Lately, my Facebook feed has been full of inspirational quotes; quotes like “stars can’t shine without darkness” and “falling down is an accident. Staying down is a choice.” Most of it is uplifting; most of it I can get on board with. But a dear friend posted an “inspirational” quote on their wall the other day that bothered me.

No, more than that — it caused me a great deal of grief and anguish. It upset me. This quote pissed me off.

“Happiness isn’t just a random feeling,” it read. “Happiness is a choice.”

Make no mistake: I know this quote was not meant to be malicious. In fact, all of these quotes share the same beautiful sentiment; all of them are meant to be inspiring. But happiness isn’t always a battle of the wills. Happiness isn’t always “within your reach,” and happiness isn’t always a choice, especially when you live with a chronic illness — when you live with a mental illness — and blanket statements like these aren’t just inaccurate and misguided, they can be detrimental to those who aren’t happy. It can feel like a punch in the gut to someone who is suffering, and it can be dangerous.

And I would know because, when I am in the grips of a depressive episode, these words torture me. When I am drowning the the darkest depths of my disease, this idea torments me. Because I know I have so much — so very much — to live for. I know I should feel grateful. I should be happy. But I’m not.

Why can’t I just get it together? I wonder. Why can’t I just smile and “snap out of it?”

Of course, I know the answer: I know depression is a “serious medical illness, [and one] which can be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.” I know depression is more than a feeling or a lack of happiness, it is a disease, and it a disease which cannot be prayed away, wished away, or willed away.

And I know nothing — not faith, money, love, or so-called happy thoughts — can cure depression. 

Nothing can cure MY depression; it can only be treated and monitored.

My depression can only be managed, but that is because I have lived with my disease for 17 years, and counting. That is because most of my life has been dictated by my illness. But even today, nearly two decades after my initial diagnosis,  there are times when “everything I know” doesn’t matter. When logic doesn’t matter. Because in the proverbial darkness of depression, these  acts blur and become buried beneath intense and overwhelming feelings, feelings which are symptomatic of my disease. Feelings which are the core of my disease. This “truth” cannot be heard, because the negative self-talk is too loud and too damn consuming, and so I torture myself for not being happy. I berate and belittle myself for not being able to enjoy the little things, and for not being able to appreciate all of the #blessings in my life, and I tell myself I am a failure.

C’mon. Get it together and be happy. Why can’t I just be happy?

Before long, my apathy turns to anger, that anger turns inward, and the fact that I cannot make this so-called choice infuriates me. It makes me feel pathetic and crazy. It makes me feel insane. And I consider what I can do, i.e. if I cannot choose happiness than what can I do to make myself better? 

How can I survive without help, and without hope?

And that is the problem I have with this phrase, not the sentiment or the ideal it is meant to convey but the one which it implies. The thought that if you aren’t happy you aren’t trying hard enough. You don’t want it enough. 

The implication that if you aren’t happy you are choosing to be miserable and imagine how that would feel to someone who is depressed and wants to be happy, but no matter what they do — or how hard they try — they cannot be. They cannot laugh or smile or see anything worth celebrating in their life.

Imagine how that could, and would, feel to someone who is praying to God for help — who may be screaming and crying on their knees, begging for salvation; begging to be saved — but their prayers are met with silence. 

Imagine how you would feel, if your prayers went unanswered. If help seemed beyond your grasp, and then imagine what you would do.

I mean, what do you do when the world is telling you “happiness is a choice” but it appears to be a choice you cannot make? 

What do you do when you feel hopeless and guilty? When your life seems worthless and like a failure, and everything seems beyond your control? Well, in some cases your depression spirals out of control. You become empty and hollow and a shell of the human being you once were, and in other cases you shift your thoughts to what you can control.

In some cases, you begin entertaining suicidal thoughts.

But the truth is happiness isn’t always a choice: there are days, weeks, and months my life in which I am not happy not due to a lack of trying, but because I cannot be. Because my disease — my depression — doesn’t allow me to be. But that is OK. (It sucks, but it is OK.)

Because the only choice I do have is how I handle my depression: i.e. I can face it head-on or turn away. I can “go with the flow” and ride each and every wave, or I can swim against the current. I can kick and flail and fight a disease which mentally, I cannot control. And while I may come through either way, if I fight apathy with anger — if I turn against myself — those  waters will surely break me down. Eventually, those waters will tear me apart.

So please, stop telling me happiness is is a choice when it isn’t, when the only choice I can make is whether or not I keep going. 

When the only choice I can make is whether or not I lay back and relax and keep my head above water or drown while kicking and flailing. While fighting a disease as if it were a feeling.

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