There’s lots of memes floating around the internet world these days. I see a lot of my friends and family post some version of “Happiness is a Choice”. Particularly “Happiness is a Choice. You are the only person who can make you happy. You’re as happy as you CHOOSE to be.”
There’s some goodness in this Rick Warren quote. “You are the only person who can make you happy”. Definitely true. I think there’s also a lot to be said for training your mind to the right perspective. Choose to have a positive view of the world – it’s a great thing! In fact, there’s even a scientific theory that 40% of happiness is under our control. I think it’s probably true that there are techniques that you can work on to make yourself ‘happier’.
Being intellectually honest here, the quote has some value as it’s trying to remind us that there is some element of control and we should maximize that which we can control. We should absolutely do whatever we can, within our power, to be happy. We should not attempt to derive happiness from other people or things. Build happiness from within.
I can get on board with that. Yet I wonder at the damage that this quote can do. Used without nuance, that quote really speaks to the misunderstanding and misconceptions concerning mental health. When you are suffering from postpartum depression, clinical depression, bipolar, generalized anxiety, etc., you can’t choose to be happy. When you’ve got postpartum depression, you can’t choose to feel bonded to your baby. You can’t choose to feel that special connection and love for that baby. When my treatment finally brought me out of postpartum depression, I was amazed to see that the fatigue, hopelessness, panic and anxiety had dissipated into the air. The chemicals and hormones in my body had created a toxic environment and my brain was the hostage.
So when seemingly innocent quotes like this go viral, how do they impact the mental health community? Do sufferers see this and think, “Why can’t I do that? What’s wrong with me? Why is it so simple for others?”
Do people who don’t struggle with mental health issues see the quote and think, “See, we’re just over-medicated in America. People just need to snap out of it.”
I’m pretty sure that no one likes depression. When I thought of killing myself, it was because I hated how I felt. My brain, cloaked in the fog of depression, couldn’t see any way out of it.
In a viral world, where information is at our fingertips, it’s easy to be careless with a seemingly innocuous message. When we talk about happiness as a choice, it implies that those who aren’t happy (due to depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc.) are choosing to have these conditions. When we talk about choices and responsibility, it erodes our ability to empathize and minimizes the herculean struggles of those who are impacted by mental health illnesses. Sometimes those struggles are just to find the energy to get out of bed, get dressed and walk out the door.
Happiness is not always a choice – but being educated and informed always is.