3 years ago, as an excited college student with a space to call my own, I decided to decorate my room with caricatures, lights, and words that inspire me to work hard. I spent an entire weekend scourging for postcards I had found at unlikely places, photographs of friends I had made in my first year of University, and other unique items to bring my personality to my dorm room. Amidst this ‘creative’ weekend, I also decided to write and cut out the phrase, “Choose to be happy” in bold black letters and paste it across the gloomy orange corkboard that the University had chosen to put next to our beds.
After a few weeks, a friend remarked, “don’t you think it is ignorant for you to proclaim ‘choose to be happy’ as a student of psychology?” At that time I felt it was a personal proclamation for when I felt unmotivated or lazy to get out of bed for class and did not give it much thought. I believed the words would strengthen my willpower and encourage me to think positively when faced with challenges. However, retrospectively, I wonder why I inscribed a phrase so inconsiderate to the mental health revolution around me? As a student of psychology, I had accumulated a vast expanse of knowledge about the subject. However, little did I realize that my education had not translated into my own personal vocabulary for mental health.
Decoding the Phrase
The ability to make choices form the fabric of our rights, expression, freedom, and democracy. For example, secular countries allow their citizens to practice a religion of their choice, or a student can choose what they wish to study. However, the ability to make choices has attached to it several economic, political, and cultural strings. Individuals experiencing sexual abuse, processing grief, or battling any mental health concerns cannot choose to be happy or have the luxury of making many other choices. Thus, it is a privilege that allows one to think of choice, self-care, and happiness without the burden of the environment and illness.
Similarly, ‘happiness’ is a feeling and not a way of thinking. Financial success, spending time with family, the ability to pursue dreams, or having leisure time are varied examples of different individual’s experiences and measures of happiness. Additionally, we experience a range of positive and negative emotions throughout the day. Believing “happiness” can be chosen suggests that any other emotional state is to be pushed under the rug or overcome. It also sets precedent for one to believe that if they are not experiencing happiness, they are failing.
“Understanding the transience of all emotions can help us develop an appreciation for all emotional experiences instead of striving for only the positive ones.”
Experience of negative emotions such as sadness, stress, anger is critical for one’s understanding of oneself, development, and progress. In fact, pretending that pain or difficult emotions do not exist makes us fragile and less resilient. Forcing happiness leads to denial and avoidance of the world around us which may misconstrue our view of the world and consequently, our problem-solving skills. Understanding the transience of all emotions can help us develop an appreciation for all emotional experiences instead of striving for only the positive ones.
Contextualizing with mental health concerns
Susan David, the pioneer of emotional agility, describes “being happy” as a default response to avoiding difficult emotions and bottling them up. She proclaims forcing happiness may incapacitate us to be compassionate towards others and ourselves. This implies that a lack of compassion and fear of negative emotions might lead to an inability to hear about injustices and other adverse life experiences of others. I believe this is similar to my experience with the phrase, ‘choose to be happy’. I believed I was a supportive friend who was ready to be there for my friends and hear them out. However, I remember feeling that they did not share all of their negative experiences with me. My need to look for a silver lining or the positivity in situations disregarded their emotional experiences. Thus, they probably felt uncomfortable or unacknowledged which led to them sharing less or not at all with me.
Self-will, happiness, and control cannot be practiced when suffering from a mental health disorder. Thus, while self-determination and discipline are important qualities and skills to hone within us, they should not be at the cost of health. It is ableist to assume that everyone has the capacity to practice those skills. One must reflect or understand the disadvantages faced by marginalized groups to help negotiate abilities in different tasks.
One caveat of destigmatizing mental health focuses on demarketing the difference between sadness and depression. Creating a deeper understanding of the causes and symptoms of mental health disorders should include that bio-psycho-social triggers such as hormonal imbalance, lack of support, marginalization, and social and economic oppression are all causes of mental health illnesses including depression. When encumbered with these causes, “choosing happiness” is neither a possibility nor an ability.
Reflecting back on the ability to choose happiness, my friend asked me if that phrase ever helped me in my journey and remain positive? As I look back, I didn’t look at my surroundings to seek inspiration, in fact, I often had to look inward when feeling overwhelmed by adverse circumstances. Each situation demanded the use of different skills. Sometimes, it required taking no action and taking a break, and other times, it required taking control of the tasks at hand. Thus, “choices” have heavy burdens for the individual which are in our control to practice only from time to time.
While support and treatment for mental health is not a readily available resource, choices determine willingness to seek help and make lifestyle changes. Thus, this reflection has led to 2 dissections of the word ‘choice’. On one hand, developing a vocabulary for mental health should be cognizant of the struggle of the individual and the community. A trauma-informed lens should be used to support individuals in their path to recovery and ensure that they have a safe space to voice their struggles. On the other hand, while the environment limits the choices one may have available, the choice to seek improvement does impact one positively.