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When Social Media Tells You to 'Choose Happiness' – but Depression Won’t Let You

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With what feels like an ever-thickening smog of bad news in the air these days, cute little memes reminding us to “think positive” are all over my social media accounts. Well-intentioned friends are sharing the often-repeated advice to “choose happiness.” “Every morning you make a choice,” they say. “Choose to be happy today!” they exclaim. While I’m a big fan of positive thinking – like most millennials with occasional hippie tendencies – I have to disagree with this message. I disagree because there are millions of Americans who have mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. For them, happiness is not simply a choice they can make as they get themselves a bowl of Wheaties in the morning.

I’ve struggled with clinical depression for six years. For me, happiness is a tricky calculation that depends upon a precise recipe of psychopharmacology, exercise, diet, hormones and more. My symptoms are more or less under control these days and if I’m able to take care of myself physically and stay busy with fulfilling activities, I can maintain a reliable state of contentedness.

However, managing depression is like trying to build a house when you’re given a different set of tools every day. Sometimes, the tools you need just won’t be there.

Some days, no matter how much I would like to “choose” to be happy, it is just not possible. My symptoms can flare up and take me down into a period of body aches, insomnia, fatigue, inattentiveness, an embarrassing tendency towards tears and an overwhelming blanket of hopelessness. In these situations I cannot choose to be happy any more than one could choose not to have cancer. Try as I might, I cannot choose to be five inches taller, I cannot choose for the coffee machine in the office break room to give me real coffee instead of this watery crap and I cannot choose to shake off my depression.

Let me repeat. I’m not dissing positive thinking. I grew up in a household where the primary cure for any problem was two ibuprofen tablets, a good night’s sleep and a heavy dose of tough love. In many daily situations, you can choose to disengage from cyclical or situational negativity and embrace a positive outlook. For example, if you stub your toe you can either break down crying or decide to keep walking.

What I’m saying is, no matter how much pep I put in my step, I can’t walk very far if my stubbed toe is, in fact, broken. It won’t magically heal, even if I choose to be as positive about the situation as possible. No, my choice lies in choosing to embrace all the tools I have in an attempt to remedy the situation. Positive thinking and association with positive people is one such tool, along with things like diet, exercise, medication and therapy.

By all means, keep reminding others and yourself to embrace the positive. But before you share that cute “Choose Happiness!” graphic you just found, please keep in mind that to anyone you know with a mental disorder – and I can assure you that you do know somebody even though you may not know it – that sort of message can feel like a big fat reminder of failure. Rather than telling people to reach for such a lofty and nebulous goal like “happiness,” try reminding others and yourself of the tools you have to boost your mood. Focus on small, doable steps. Find cheer in a small precious moment or object and always, always offer yourself as a compassionate and understanding friend.

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Originally published: October 20, 2016
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