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When Happiness Isn't a 'Choice'

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Happiness is a choice.

I read the words over and over — on social media and in books, and I hear the statement from well-meaning co-workers and friends and people I’ve never met in the checkout line.

Happiness is a choice

But is it really?

When I first started struggling with depression, I believed it was a choice. I believed it was completely under my control. I was convinced I just had to think more positively or get more sleep or try harder. However, I soon became frustrated because nothing I was doing was working. My inner mantra changed from “Try harder” to “There’s something wrong with me.”

No matter what I did, happiness always seemed out of reach. In depression, there is no “on/off” switch for happiness.

Outside the realm of depression and mental illness, perhaps happiness is in part a choice. Perhaps “looking on the bright side” and “shaking things off” produce happiness for some people.

However, depression involves symptoms such as persistent sadness and feelings of hopelessness. If I could choose to be happy, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. I would break free of the very definition of depression!

Though I may not be able simply to “choose happiness,” I believe there is something we can choose, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. I believe we can choose gratitude.

During my darkest days of depression, I could not choose happiness, but I could choose to be thankful. I could start lists of things for which I was grateful, from getting out of bed in the morning (or afternoon… as long as I got out of bed I counted it a victory!) to receiving an encouraging text from a friend.

When I experienced great trauma and grieved major losses, I could not choose happiness, but I could choose gratitude for what I still had and for the good times in the past.

When I faced suicidal thoughts, I could not choose happiness. Yet I could choose to whisper prayers and be thankful for the air in my lungs and the beating of my heart had lasted another day.

Today, even if I cannot choose to be happy, I will choose to be grateful. I will choose to be grateful for the ability to express my feelings. I will choose to be grateful for the gift of writing. I will be grateful for today, and I will celebrate the way thankfulness stirs up something inside me deeper than happiness and stronger than sadness: hope. I can and will choose to be grateful for hope.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: October 10, 2017
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