Opinion: Stop Telling People They Can Choose to be Happy, by Em Betts

Opinion: Stop Telling People They Can Choose to be Happy, by Em Betts

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media that are centered on the theme of “you can choose to be happy” or “choose to be better, not bitter” or “choose not to get upset.” For the record, I’m getting tired of hearing it.

If your brain functions in a way that you can will yourself to be happy with a simple choice, that’s fantastic and I’m happy for you. However, we need to stop pretending that line of thinking works for everyone.

First, it’s problematic because it denies the reality of negative emotions. It’s natural for everyone to be unhappy sometimes. Some life experiences are worth being bitter or upset about, and to deny those negative emotions is dangerous; if you don’t deal with feelings like grief, frustration, and sadness as they happen, it only makes it harder to process those emotions in the long term.

More importantly, however, these statements are a virtual slap in the face to people with mental illnesses. For people like that—people like me—choosing to be “happy” or “better” can be a very different experience.

I don’t claim to speak for all people with mental illnesses because the ways we cope can vary so much, but in my personal experience, it’s a lot more complicated than making a choice to be happy. For me, that choice doesn’t bring an instant result; it means taking time to process at length, it means reality testing, it means seeing my (wonderful) therapist every other week, it means medication, and it means striking an often challenging balance between the needs of others and what I can afford to give of myself.

For many people, the choice isn’t the choice of a moment to be happy or unhappy. It’s a daily choice of how much you are willing—and more importantly, able—to just try. I have to make a daily choice to keep working on being better. Some days, trying means getting up early, going for walks, actively journaling, cooking dinner for myself, and doing both internal and external self-care. Some days, trying means I got out of bed whenever I woke up, used my mood tracking app twice, and threw in the “meh” response. The amount of energy that I can put toward being better is constantly changing. For me, that’s what mental illness looks like. What I need from other people isn’t an oversimplified solution, it’s the willingness to meet me where I’m at and work with me in that place. It looks different on a daily basis and it’s never as easy as just choosing to be happy.

It’s not simple. It’s not instantaneous. It takes time, effort, courage, and persistence.



If you need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text “START” to 741-741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.