Why 'Happiness by Choice' Doesn't Always Work

November 11, 2015

Why 'Happiness is a Choice' Doesn't Always Work

“Happiness is by choice, not by chance.”

I’ve been seeing a lot of this quote lately, usually in the context of an inspirational Instagram post. On the surface I agree with what I think the speaker is trying to say–basically that a positive attitude can change your perspective and ultimately lead you to happiness. But the more I see this caption, sandwiched by heart emojis underneath a jumping-for-joy-on-the-beach photo, the more I question the message. Is happiness really a choice or is the result of circumstance? Or is it, as I suspect, a combination of both?

Happiness is an emotion. Emotions are somewhat difficult to define, but can essentially be boiled down to psychological responses to stimuli. This definition might seem like a fair argument against the happiness-is-a-choice theory, though that stimuli could very well come from within. Say you are feeling homesick, so you decide to call your mom. After chatting with her for a few minutes you find yourself feeling better, feeling happy. Is this an example of choosing happiness?

Not really. This is an example of choosing an action or behavior, which in turn makes you happy. But suppose she didn’t answer. Suppose she didn’t call you back until a few days later. Would the fact that you had tried to reach her combat your homesickness make you happy, or would the sadness linger? The source of your happiness was talking to a loved one, not picking up the phone to call them. This is because happiness, or any emotion, really, is not often by the luxury of choice. We as humans are hardwired to experience sadness, anger, embarrassment, longing, etc. Happiness is only one color within an entire rainbow of emotions. And it is not the ultimate destination reached after an otherwise colorful journey. Whether or not we want to admit it, feeling crappy, hating ourselves, and having bad days are all part of it. And most importantly, we are not failing ourselves when we are unhappy.

There is another big complaint I have with this quote. From a psychological perspective, I find it misleading and almost dangerous to advertise happiness as if it were on sale. For anyone who has ever had to endure the VERY REAL impacts of depression or anxiety, or watched a loved one suffer the same, it is all too easily understood that we cannot choose our emotions. We can choose to seek treatment and support, true, but this is not really the same thing. If we actually could choose from the start, no one would suffer from diseases of the mind. Why would we? To say that we can choose to be happy with no influence from our surroundings belittles the experiences of those with depression, and in a way belittles genuine happiness, too. When you wake up to a present on your birthday morning, receive a hard-earned raise at work, or are hugged tight by a close friend, you will experience genuine happiness and it will not be because you chose to do so. It will be because happy things happened to you.

Now for the tricky part—influencing your own happiness through that which you can control. For some this is much easier than others. It starts with identifying what it is that makes you feel incandescently happy (I’m looking at you, Mr. Darcy) and surrounding yourself with it. Got puppy fever? Volunteer at an animal shelter. Interested in a person romantically? Invite them to hang out one on one. Want to run away to Costa Rica to drink pina coladas out of a coconut in a hammock on the beach? Quit your job and buy a plane ticket! …Just kidding about that last one. I know it’s not always easy to surround yourself with the things you enjoy and people you miss, financial constraints being one of the major roadblocks. Besides, most of us have responsibilities we can’t walk away from, no matter how tempting the hammock on the beach may look. But we can choose to take time for ourselves when we are overworked, or ask for help if we’re feeling down, or even just call our mom when we’re homesick.

Instead of trying to maximize our jubilance by repeating mantras to our reflections until we believe them, I think we can look at happiness as a wonderful part of life we get to experience and will undoubtedly experience again. But it’s okay to not feel it 100% of the time. Don’t feel pressured by the Instagramer-turned-life-coach jumping on the beach to deny yourself the beautiful gift of emotion you’ve been given. Cry when you’re sad. Yell when you’re angry. Forgive yourself for outbursts because you’re only human and you do not owe anyone false happiness—especially not yourself.

“Who ever said we’re supposed to be happy all the time, anyway? We’re not. And the pressure to do so might be what’s making us unhappy to begin with. It’s OK if you’re not completely content with your life twenty-four hours a day. Can you imagine what a boring person you’d be if you were? Going through shit storms, feeling uninspired, hating the way you look and having guilt over not accomplishing enough are just some of the things that make you interesting, relatable and human.”

Kelly Rheel


Also by Francesca: I Tried It – Eating Only Local for 5 Days

Also see: Letting Go v. Taking Control – Which Leads to Happiness?

4 Things to Let Go to Be Happy

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Photo: lisabliss_ via Instagram

Currently based in Portland, OR, Francesca is an enthusiastic student of the stars. She spends her time writing, dancing, hiking, looking up at the sky in awe, eating plants, playing with her cat, and working (when it becomes absolutely necessary). Her aspirations include traveling the world and learning to walk in heels. Follow Francesca on Instagram at @francescayoungsilks and at francescafarfalle.wordpress.com.


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