Chances are, you’ve heard the quote “happiness is a choice” or read it on a letterboard, bumper sticker, or kitschy canvas somewhere. It’s an easy phrase to accept at face value. But do we really believe that happiness is always a choice?
One of many signs with a similar catchy phrase... "happiness is by choice, not by chance."
Happiness Is Not Something We Can Always Choose, Find or Seek
The phrase "happiness is a choice" is not only problematic, it’s not true. Plus, it works against our ability to cultivate self-love and self-acceptance for a variety of reasons. Here's why...
Reason # 1 - Happiness is one of many feelings and emotions we experience as humans, not the only one.
A quick glance at the well-known psychology tool, the emotion wheel, shows just how many words we have to describe the different emotions we experience as humans.
A watercolor emotion wheel illustrated by artist Abby Vanmuijen.
Feelings and emotions are treated differently in the world of psychology. Feelings are things we experience consciously. Emotions belong more in the subconscious realm of the brain. This means a person can go a lifetime without being able to pinpoint certain emotions. So to suggest that someone can make a simple, transactional, conscious decision to “be happy” is not real life.
The complexity of both what we feel and emote as humans cannot simply be distilled down so tritely as the phrase “happiness is a choice” suggests. And it’s important to acknowledge that a fulfilling life is characterized by understanding and experiencing a whole range of emotions.
Reason # 2 - Self-discovery and self-love require honest recognition of ALL emotions.
The idea we can all just “choose happiness today” goes against the non-linear path of self-discovery that many of us are on. This is another reason why happiness is not a choice.
The intention of this type of “think happiness” or “see happiness” manifestation may be good. The intention may be to encourage us to focus on positive thoughts, being grateful, seeing the bright side and the good in the world around us, every single day. But that’s simply not the way true happiness is found. And it’s not the way many of us process our own journeys through life to find personal growth and development.
Self-discovery is a journey with ups and downs.
The terms we use to describe feelings and emotions matter. What “happiness” means to you may not be what it means to me. And it’s important to treat others and ourselves with love and respect.
Reason # 3 - We don’t always get to choose how we feel; mental health struggles and other factors impact our feelings and moods.
After thinking about it for a minute, it’s easy to see why happiness is not a choice. If it were, why wouldn’t we choose happiness all the time? 24/7?
Think about the phrase “happiness is a choice” and all the adjacent phrases that are equally catchy like “choose joy,” “ happiness comes to those who look for it,” “experience happiness,” and “today I’m finding happiness”.
These all contradict the peaks and valleys we experience in our mental health over a lifetime. For many of us, dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar, mood disorders, and other mental illness driven by chemical imbalances and other factors, the idea of happiness being something we could just choose is downright insulting.
Happiness is simply not a choice we get to make at times.
Sometimes happiness, or the symptomatic joyous mood that is suggested by the word, completely evades us. No matter how dedicated we are to finding it. No matter how many “pick-me-ups” we indulge in, it’s nowhere to be found. It can’t be mustered.
So, why is it important to claim “happiness is NOT a choice”?
Well, in short, it’s important to identify and call out the untruth in phrases like these. Because they do more harm than good. And they are contrary to the personal growth journeys we are on.
When we’re surrounded by toxically positive phrases like “happiness is a choice”, whether we want it to or not, the falsehood seeps into our consciousness. In fact, research shows that forcing positivity to the point of rejecting what you’re really feeling or experiencing has negative physical and mental health effects. And the impact this can have on our subconscious is profound.
We have to teach ourselves self-love and self-acceptance.
Phrases like these teach us the wrong thing about what it means to show love and acceptance to ourselves. The inner voice of love we want to curate is being fed false information about what we should or ought to feel. And it will come back to haunt, not comfort, us at times when we need self-care the most.
In other words, if “happiness is a choice” is a phrase you’ve subconsciously adopted, what do you think your brain is telling you on a rough day?
Brain: “You’re choosing to be miserable right now. This is your fault. Snap out of it! What is wrong with you?”
That’s not a voice of self-love. That’s a voice of shaming.
Identify untruths for the sake of self-love
Happiness is not a choice. And the unhelpful and untruthful one-liners that suggest otherwise do harm that we aren’t even aware of. Sadly, these are the phrases lining the art aisles of home decor stores and are often hashtagged on social media posts we see every day.
The truth is that happiness is not a choice, not always. Often times there are things beyond our control affecting our ability to “choose happiness.” And how we love and talk to ourselves when difficult (unhappy) times happen is a reflection of what we believe.
So, the next time you see a phrase that strikes you as overly positive or oversimplified, take a moment to evaluate it. Ask yourself these questions…
Is it doing more harm than good? Do you actually agree with it? And how does claiming the real truth contribute to you taking care of yourself in a better/deeper way?
For more tips on living a well-examined life, check out the Silk+Sonder blog!