“Happiness is a choice.” I’ve heard this many, many times before, but then again, who hasn’t? We have this bizarre cultural obsession with happiness. It’s so ingrained that much of the time, we don’t even question it. Of course we want to be happy. Why wouldn’t we? And if some happiness is good, then more is better. We like bright yellow and lollipops and smiley faces. Scowls? Not so much.
In one episode of Modern Family, Mitch and Cam go to a conference with their daughter’s strict second-grade teacher and comment on the frowny-face stamp she uses to mark her students’ work. The teacher responds, “I had to special order it from Germany.”
Do you know anyone who is really, truly always happy? Wouldn’t that be weird? And artificial? And maybe creepy?
The expectation that we’ll always feel happy or good sets us up for failure, an issue that’s further compounded when you factor mental illness into the equation. While people with mental illness do make choices, many of which may be symptomatic of or perpetuating the disorder(s) in question, the illnesses themselves are not choices. In fact, many diagnoses may not even reflect discrete entities, and even if they do, they’re far too complicated to be boiled down to a single decision. But the idea that happiness is an ideal state + the belief that one can choose happiness + the notion that happiness is the opposite of illness = blaming people with mental illness + minimizing said illness.
This is why I’m thoroughly sick of happiness culture. All these conceptions of happiness are so simplistic and condescending, brimming with all manner of implicit judgments, and reflecting our society’s tendency to view health on a purely individual level. To assume that good health is an accomplishment, and bad health, a failure. To neglect the systemic, environmental, and social factors that affect people’s health and lie beyond their control. To equate illness with personal inadequacy. When someone declares that happiness is a choice, what they’re really saying is that if you’re not happy, you’re not trying hard enough, which is utter bullshit. Here’s why.
And my mum gave me this pen
She said it lights up when you press it
And you are so still depressed
List of things that should make me happy: kittens, good movies, genuine accomplishments, hot coffee, friends, my GPA.
List of things that do make me happy: none of the SSRIs, at least one SNRI, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, friends confirming that reality is not an illusion and the world is not ending (yet), hot coffee, anxiety meds, more mood stabilizers.
Psychologists and psychiatrists make a distinction between exogenous and endogenous depression, the former being the product of external circumstances (grief, unemployment, other illness, divorce), the latter having no apparent cause. Mine is the second type. It’s not entirely internal, because I don’t think anything is–humans are more complicated than that, nature/nurture is a false dichotomy, etcetera–but I don’t get depressed about things. And I certainly don’t get undepressed about things. During the latest greatest episode, I finished high school, gave a speech at graduation, traveled internationally, spent time with friends, spent time with family, watched a lot of SNL skits, bought books, painted a pretty damn good mouse, and watched a stag wade across a river in Oregon. I’m incredibly lucky in almost every area of my life expect for this one thing, which happens to be the thing that ruins everything else.
There is no apparent reason why I am depressed when I am depressed, and the reasons that do exist are tangled and messy, requiring a lot of reverse-engineering and self-reflection and perhaps an understanding of neurochemistry that I most certainly do not possess. It’s not just that happiness isn’t a choice. It’s that it’s not a choice that’s relevant to me, or available to me–which, I suppose, makes it not a choice. It takes a hell of a lot more than a light-up pen to reverse this sort of thing. It’s funny how it changes / when nothing really changes at all…
Why would somebody do this on purpose
When they could do something else?
Another painfully, glaringly obvious flaw in the happiness-is-a-choice logic: if I could have chosen to be happy, I would have. Major depressive disorder is hell. In moments of extreme desperation, I’d bargain with myself and fate, wondering what I could do to make the pain stop, how far I’d go. Cut off a finger? Three fingers? A whole hand, both hands, both arms? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, except a) cutting off the second arm would be hard and b) that’s not how this works. If I’m willing to go to such extremes, how could anyone possibly think that I would consider the notion of “choosing happiness” and decide, meh, I’ll hack off a limb instead?
Also important: some people seem to think that psychotropic medications are a “quick fix,” a “crutch,” or a “cop-out.” Aside from this being offensive to people with physical disabilities, it’s just plain wrong. Most psych meds are not quick, particularly the ones that work on mood. The fast-acting drugs tend to be for anxiety and/or psychosis and/or sedation. They’re the type that are often administered involuntarily in hospitals by way of injection, when patients are in states of tremendous distress and dysregulation. But antidepressants and mood stabilizers usually take at least a few weeks to work, and even then, you might a) need a higher dose, so that’s a few more weeks or months; b) have side effects that necessitate more treatment; c) need a second or third medication to complement the first; or d) not respond to the drug at all.
No, meds are not a quick fix; yes, they can be crutches, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means; and no, they are in no way a cop-out. Please, please, please don’t tell me to choose happiness. You may think you’re helping, but you’re not, and besides, there are so many things to say instead. Tell me about the geometry of fractals and the baffling impossibility of trying to measure the English coast. Tell me about glaciers in Patagonia and how they make toothpaste and when the next Taylor Swift album is coming out. Tell me about the world so I can hold on, so that the realness doesn’t slip away. Tell me bad knock-knock joke–maybe you’ll make me laugh. Heaven knows I need it. Tell me stories, tell me lies, tell me your Social Security number, tell me what’s trending on Twitter, tell me the truth, or better yet, just listen.
The gif in this post is from the movie Heathers. The title was inspired by the Phoebe Bridgers song, “Would You Rather.” The epigraph of Part III is from “Chinese Satellite,” also by Phoebe Bridgers. The epigraph of Part II is from the song “Sweet” by Porridge Radio, and the lyrics “it’s funny how it changes / when nothing really changes at all” are from Gabrielle Aplin’s 2018 single, “My Mistake.”