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Why I No Longer Believe My 'Happiness Is a Choice'

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Lately it seems my social media news feeds are filled with photographs and memes conveying the message that happiness is a choice. Some I’ve seen today are:

“Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy.”

“Happiness is a choice, you decide.”

“Happiness: it’s up to you.”

I used to believe happiness was a choice; I don’t anymore.

I know this may sound harsh and pessimistic, but hear me out:

I believe happiness is a feeling, not a choice.

Happiness is an emotion, a mental state of being, a conscious experience. The way we perceive our own consciousness is dictated by our brains.

Although I think we’d like to believe it’s just as easy as choosing to be happy, for some of us, it’s not. Some of us have brains that work a little bit differently. Or, some of us have brains that have been changed by trauma.

How do I know there are people existing in the world without access to happy feelings? Because I was one of them. I, at times, still am one of them. This inability to feel happy is what I call depression.

My depression started festering when I was in middle school. At the time I didn’t recognize it as depression, I just thought there was something wrong with me because I felt “different.” I watched others laugh as they played and felt like something was holding me back from the joy they were experiencing.

Depression feels like there’s a thick wall of glass surrounding me. I can see what’s happening in front of me, but I can’t feel it. I can’t connect with life. The wall keeps me boxed in tightly and as I breathe in the same toxic, life-sucking air, I begin to feel like I’m suffocating. The air feels heavy and my body starts to feel cold. I watch life happen around me. I try to reach out but the wall blocks me. I feel like a caged animal, desperate to break free. The world starts to look grey, then black. I feel empty.

I logically know I should feel happy based on my surroundings or my circumstance, but I don’t. My brain and body don’t know how. I try to choose happiness, but I can’t; my choice is stolen by the depression.

This may sound devastating and hopeless, but it’s not. While I can’t choose to simply be happy, there are a number of ways I can help, starting with medication.

Antidepressants do not make me weak or lazy. They are not a cop-out or something to fall back on. Medication is my life-preserver. It does not  guarantee happiness or make me feel high, but it does give me a shot at experiencing joy. My antidepressants break down the glass wall that keeps me from connecting with the word. When I walk outside on a gorgeous summer day, I can feel the warmth of the sun. When I hear my children laughing, I feel the love I have for them. Medication allows me to use my senses to connect with my surroundings and when I feel connected, I’m often able to access feelings of happiness.

Sometimes though, even on medication, while using my senses to connect with the world around me, I still don’t feel happy. Sometimes, human connection feels shallow, the scent of my favorite mood lifting essential oil stinks, the sight of my children playing looks busy and chaotic and I just don’t feel happy.

In those moments, when my tools don’t work and I can’t access happy feelings, I settle for contentment. I rest easy in the knowledge my current state won’t last forever.

I used to get angry when I heard or saw anything that said happiness was a choice. I was angry because I was still internalizing their messages as shame. I thought because I was unable to access happy feelings at that time, there was something wrong with me. I don’t get angry anymore, I know happiness isn’t always a choice for me. And I know that those who don’t struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder can’t possibly understand why happiness isn’t a choice for some of us.

Maybe you can’t access happy feelings today. Maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything at all. Hear this, my friend: It’s OK. There is nothing wrong with you.

We can’t always choose happiness, but we can always choose togetherness.

We are in this together, friends.

You are never alone.

Follow this journey on Feelings and Faith.

Originally published: February 25, 2016
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