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 oft-repeated advice to “choose happiness,” “make your own happiness,” and “think positive.” "Every morning you make a choice," they say. "Choose to be happy today!" While I’m as big a fan of positive thinking as the next millenial with occasional hippie tendencies, I have to disagree with this message - because for the millions of Americans (no, literally millions) who suffer from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, happiness is not simply a choice you make as your pour your morning Wheaties.
I’ve been struggling with clinical depression for six years, and 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 and even happiness.
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 not possible. My symptoms flare 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 five inches taller, I cannot choose for the coffee machine in the office breakroom 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, a good night’s sleep, and a heavy dose of “stop wallowing.” 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 assure you, you do know somebody, even if you are unaware - that sort of message feels like a big fat reminder of failure. Rather than telling people to reach for such a lofty and nebulous goal as “happiness,” try reminding others and yourself of the tools you have to boost your mood. Focus on small, do-able steps, find cheer in a small precious moment or object, and always, always offer yourself as a compassionate, understanding friend.