Don't Choose Happiness

I’ve been to a lot of therapists in my life — I think I started going when I was nine, when therapy was just drawing marker pictures and playing non-competitive games with names like “Feelings” and “OK or Not OK?”.

I have mostly hated my therapists. There was one I liked in New Orleans, but it was because she chain-smoked through our meetings and told me about her ex-lovers; the utter lack of professionalism worked for me. I like my therapist now, but it took me a long time to come around to her. (Six months passed before I stopped saying, “I hate my therapist.”) There’s something about the process that feels uneven, you know? Like, you’re in a relationship where emotional equality cannot exist. In fact, that’s a good definition of therapy, so if that’s the trouble I have with it, I am never going to be satisfied.

My least favorite therapist by far, however, was a blonde woman who was probably about two years younger than me. When I told her I was polyamorous her lips got very small and she said, “Uh huh. And how is that working for you?” She was always telling me to do yoga. She didn’t say this with any sort of empathy or reasoning, but with a sideways-judgmental air that seemed like she was sort of telling me that I looked like I should work out more. You know: “Uh, I’m going to guess you don’t do a lot of yoga. I think that could help you out with … well, let’s just say with a lot of things in your life."

The thing I hated most about this therapist was a sign that hung in her room. It said, “Happiness Is A Choice.” This is a popular idea, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before. There are a lot of Huffington Post articles about this notion; there’s even a pop-science book with the same title. But the implications behind that sentence really bother me. They bother me enough that now, six years and ten therapists later, I’m going to tell you, the internet, why.

First, the idea that “happiness is a choice” implies that happiness is the best choice. Being happy is like having a clear complexion or being able to run six miles with relative ease. You work on it, and then you achieve it. But the other side of that is that there is something inherently wrong with being unhappy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having acne or maintaining a consistent 20-minute mile, either. There are a lot of ways to be a human, and self-betterment is only functional insofar as it helps a person get more in touch with themselves. You can’t choose to do everything “right” all the time; it simply isn’t possible. You make choices about how you spend your time and what feels most fulfilling. But if happiness isn’t at the end of the road, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Happiness is just one of the emotions we humans come equipped with. There are biological reasons we don’t experience it all the time. 

Second, happiness is not always a choice. Brain chemistry is tricky, and it isn’t fully understood, but for the time being, humans know that depression — and its many iterations — is a real illness, just like diabetes is, or chronic allergies. If you have flulike symptoms, you can’t just make the choice to heal. You can do things that may help you feel healthy again, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll work. Our bodies are still pretty mysterious, and there are so many factors contributing to why we feel the way we feel. Telling people that happiness is a choice is damaging and hurtful — especially when they are people who deeply want to feel happy, but inherently can't.

The shift has to be towards taking this happiness emotion off its pedestal. It’s the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, size zero emotion of the bunch. We privilege this feeling because it’s the emotion we see others projecting, so we assume it is the one we should feel. (This, I think, was the essential moral of the movie “Inside Out.”) 

I have been very sad for a few weeks. This happens to me fairly often. (See opening paragraph, in which I admit to getting therapy since the age of nine.) There is no reason for me to feel sad: I just got engaged, I live in the shade with two insanely charismatic cats, I have a bunch of time off, I was born into a privileged race and class, there are a lot of people in the world who love me, I’ve got several great summer dresses with birds on them. But I wake up every morning and my chest tightens and drops. I want to go back to bed to avoid being conscious. I don’t like feeling this way, so I make a bunch of “happiness choices”: I call people to hang out; I make healthy meals; I go on walks or runs; I see movies; I attempt to make art. When I don’t feel better, a little personal demon emerges and whispers in my ear, “What’s wrong with you? You should be happy. Why aren’t you happy? You are failing.” Stupid demon. I will believe that a voice like that is protecting me; keeping me on my feet. In truth, voices like that are only contributing unnecessarily to one's discomfort.

My current therapist asks this question when I report deeply uncomfortable emotions: “What would happen if you accepted that you felt sad?” My answer is, of course, “I would have to keep feeling sad, and I don’t like it.” But the truth is that a lot of the pain I’m feeling comes from believing I have to be different. My whole life, I’ve learned that being sad is a problem; it’s a symptom of brokenness. The deepest hurt comes from essentializing myself as broken. 

My sister — the strongest person I know, and, incidentally, my chemical and emotional doppelganger — says to me three big things when I’m sad like this.

  1. I’m so sorry you feel that way; it sounds really painful. 
  2. It’s ok to feel the way you feel right now.
  3. You won’t feel like this forever.

These are the only useful things to know when I’m uncomfortable, so I wrote them down and tacked them privately on the inside of my bed-side table. 

Our pain is informative and important. The image that has been most helpful for me is to think of life like a river. If you flow with the life-river, you’ll get where you’re going as safely as possible. If you come up against some rocks, and they’re painful, trying to swim back against the current will only bring you more agony. You’ll get exhausted and frustrated, and you’ll find yourself coming up against the same rocks again and again, because you can’t go back; there’s only forward. Eventually, the river will carry you forward. You have to trust that you are going to move. Sometimes, that is all you can do.