I think we’ve all heard the phrase “happiness is a choice” tossed around every now and again. Sometimes we hear it used seriously, by people who actually, genuinely believe that it is true. Sometimes we hear it used sarcastically, by people who are struggling, in one way or another, and cannot imagine how such a thing is possible.
And I have to admit, coming from the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression and who, chances are, will always live with anxiety, I do come to this phrase with a slightly… different perspective from what might be considered the average person who takes it seriously.
I mean, I know that happiness sometimes isn’t a viable choice. When my depression returns, and my mood takes a shocking dip into not-okay territory, I can’t instantly stop that just because I don’t want it to happen. If I could, I would do it, because you know what? Being depressed isn’t fun. I don’t like waking up and wondering what the point of my life is. I don’t like feeling like I haven’t contributed anything to the world, or like nobody would really care if I stopped being here. Those are all feelings that I would choose to avoid if I could.
The same goes for my anxiety. I mean, have you ever had a panic attack? They’re embarrassing at best and exhausting at worst, and most of the time, even I’m aware that they’re about nothing. I know the world won’t end if I don’t finish this project on time, or if I take on something new, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t worry me.
That’s just the nature of living with a mental illness; you can’t just banish it because you don’t want to deal with it. Trust me, I wish I could. I have wasted hours, even days of my life, wishing that I could just think and be like any neurotypical person would.
But at the same time, I still sort of believe that happiness is a bit of a choice.
And I know, I know; what I just said sounds incredibly contradictory, and like I’m turning my back on my mentally ill brothers and sisters. But hear me out:
While not everyone who uses this phrase will understand that happiness isn’t an immediate choice for people living with depression, anxiety, or any other breed of mental illness, I don’t think that means that it can’t be a long-term choice.
We can’t banish a depressive episode because we don’t want it. We can’t suppress a panic attack because we choose to. But what we can do, what we do have power over, is how we choose to react to the fact that we have these issues.
You have two options when you’re faced with these issues: you can choose to seek help, in whatever way that might mean. You can try to talk to people, whether that be a friend, a family member, a doctor, a therapist, a support group, a journal, an online blog, your guinea pig, or whatever. And, yes, sometimes this can be a bit outside of your control too: sometimes the people we choose to talk to don’t understand us, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. And if we feel comfortable and if we can afford it, there is also the option of medication, which has been proven to improve the lives of countless people living with mental illness – not by making them neurotypical, necessarily, but by making the more dangerous and harmful parts of their mental illness easier to deal with. Not only that, but there are several other options that have been proven to make life easier for people living with mental illness, such as healthy eating, exercise, and meditation.
Or, you can take the second option: you can choose to suppress it. You can not talk about it. You can not seek help. You can never awknowledge that there might be something causing you to feel the way that you do, and as a consequence, you can continue to suffer under the weight of your mental illness. That is your choice.
And I know – trust me, I understand that sometimes, the lines between these two choices get blurred when you’re dealing with a mental illness, especially if you haven’t been diagnosed yet or you’re still questioning whether the way you feel is valid or not. When you’re depressed or anxious, your mind – which is, I repeat, ill – might repeatedly tell you that you’re wrong, that you’re just looking for attention, that there’s no way to help you and you should just give up. But there are options for people living with mental illness. If one doesn’t work, then you try another until you find something that does. People can and have found ways to make their life not only bearable, but happy and worthwhile, despite dealing with mental illness.
We talk about people who are depressed or anxious or otherwise mentally ill as though there is no possibility that they can ever lead a happy, fulfilling life, but that just isn’t the case. I might get depressed from time to time, I might have to make a point of moving gingerly around my anxiety lest I set it off, but that doesn’t mean that, overall, I’m not happy with my life. I am. I am taking strides to make life easier for me in the long run, and I am working toward my goals and dreams as best I can.
And when we say ‘happiness is a choice’, I think we too often confuse it for ‘constant happiness is possible’. It isn’t. Even if you aren’t dealing with a mental illness, there are going to be times when life, quite frankly, sucks. Sometimes, people die, or tragedies strike, or our relationships crumble, or we get let go of jobs. And when that happens, of course you are going to be sad, of course you are going to be hurt and angry and resentful. But the difference between people who choose happiness and the people who don’t, is that those who choose happiness eventually try to do something about their bitterness, and even if it doesn’t work immediately (heck, it very well might not), they do eventually let go of it and move on. Those who choose otherwise don’t. They hold onto their pain like a lifeline, feeling justified in being cruel and miserable because life wasn’t fair to them.
I have known too many people who have become addicted to misery, who feel lost without something to complain about and feel slighted from. And by knowing these people, I came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be that. So, while it isn’t always easy, while it’s not consistently possible at every moment of the day, I work hard for my happiness.
And that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have panic attacks that make me miserable and pull the proverbial rug out from under my feet. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have depressive episodes that last for days, sometimes even weeks. All that means is that, when I hit rock bottom, my goal is always to pick myself up and start climbing again. And maybe all that is difficult and exhausting, and maybe it sometimes does feel impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile.
I don’t choose constant happiness because that isn’t an option; what I choose is overall happiness.