Stop Saying Happiness Is a Choice, Because It's Not

As if mindlessly scrolling through Instagram didn't make me feel bad enough — perfectly airbrushed selfies, aesthetically pleasing apartments, endless vacation pics on some remote island, your designer handbag I'll never be able to afford — coming across so-called "inspirational" messages from health and wellness accounts is a gamble between being motivated and just feeling worse about myself.

A common trope among the wellness crowd is the idea that your mood is entirely within your control. More specifically, that happiness is a choice. "Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy" a popular text image declares. "You're as happy as you choose to be," another reads. While I understand the sentiment of choosing to be positive and grateful — it's better to look at the glass half-full, right? — it undermines those of us who live every day with a mental illness.

If happiness were a choice, I wouldn't need to visit a psychiatrist every month and take two different medications a day to function. If happiness were a choice, I would never choose to have some days so bad, I can't peel myself out of bed or put on real clothes. If happiness were a choice, I would just be able to wish away the suicidal thoughts that plague my brain when things get really bad. If happiness were a choice, I would have made the decision at age 14 not to be diagnosed with clinical depression and definitely wouldn't have made the choice to be diagnosed with bipolar II in my 20s.

Although understanding the specifics of what causes depression and how it's impacted by brain chemistry is complicated, it's generally thought to be the result of faulty mood regulation by the brain, genes, stress, and medical problems, among other issues, according to Harvard Medical School. Thinking of depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain may be too simplistic, but it encompasses the issues of malfunctioning neurotransmitters, regions of the brain, and the genetics of it all. The point is depression is complex, and each person experiences it differently. For some, treatment may require antidepressants or mood stabilizers to correct brain chemistry, in addition to therapy and other lifestyle changes. Other people may forgo medication altogether but acknowledge they need to manage their mental illness in a proactive way in order to function.

Sure, how you frame your outlook on life can impact your mood, but it can't create happiness; gratitude and happiness aren't the same thing. I choose to be grateful: I'm grateful for my loving husband, my supportive friends and family, my full-time job in my chosen industry, living in my dream city, a roof over my head, and a healthy body that carries me through life. I can also be grateful and still have days when I feel awful mentally, when I don't feel like life is worth living and there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Reconciling these two feelings also adds a layer of guilt, which just makes the downward spiral even worse.

If people really want to spread the message of finding happiness, they should focus on taking care of yourself, starting with your mental health. And not in an eat-a-pint-of-ice-cream-and-take-a-bubble-bath bullsh*t type of self-care, but in a way that prioritizes your mental and emotional needs. By pretending depression is "all in your head," they're trivializing mental illness and making the stigma worse for those of us who live with it every day.

No, happiness is not a choice. But I choose to take medication, I choose to go to therapy, I choose to eat well and exercise, and I choose to keep scrolling past memes that tell me otherwise.