Always choose to be happy’ is toxic advice

On anti-action

Sunday, March 29, 2015

I hear about the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ frequently. When we talk about improving our lives during our short existence, it’s oft-repeated advice.

Here’s the idea: when you’re not happy, or when you’re not satisfied, or even when you’re depressed, you can make the decision to be happy instead. You have the choice to be happy or sad – and, given the fact that you only have limited time on Earth, which one do you want to pick? Happy, of course.

So, ‘always choose to be happy.’

I find this approach to be extremely ineffective. Although it’s nice to acknowledge that you always have the choice to be happy or not when dealing with a situation, I think that there is less value in simply ‘choosing to be happy’ and more value in choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it.

Choosing to be unhappy

In my personal life, changes have often stemmed from my unhappiness with something and making a decision to change it. I’ve made positive changes because I chose to be unhappy (or even angry) about something that needed to change.

I feel like the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ is simply a temporary escape, a band-aid that treats the surface, but not the root cause. It solves the symptom of unhappiness, but not the problem itself. That mindset robs us of the anger and impetus we need to make a change and attack the root of the problem.

For example, you might not be happy because you’re out of shape, which is making dating difficult. In that instance, you can choose to reject being unhappy and be happy instead, which allows you to relax and feel not so bad about the problems you’re facing.

But what does that change? What progress have you made? In this instance, choosing to be happy is only a temporary solution to the symptom, not the actual root cause, of your unhappiness. Here, choosing to be happy only solves, “I’m unhappy because I’m overweight”, the symptom, not “I’m overweight, and need to start exercising and eating better”, the problem.

Being unhappy is difficult, and it’s far from satisfying. However, I think some of the most important developments in your life can come from being unhappy and choosing to do something about it. Choosing to do something about the root cause of your unhappiness isn’t the same as choosing to solve the symptom of unhappiness itself. Lasting happiness comes from understanding that root cause and making something happen, not from numbing the resulting unhappiness by ignoring it.

When you’re unhappy, there are three things you can do

  1. You can choose to be happy, but that only solves the symptom temporarily and doesn’t result in any long-term resolution – it just makes you feel better for the moment.
  2. You can choose to continue being unhappy and wallow in sadness (which is addictive), but that also will change nothing – and it will continue to make you more and more unhappy.
  3. You can change something that actually attacks the cause of your unhappiness, not just the effect of unhappiness itself, and try to eliminate the reason you are unhappy.

Conquering the root causes of unhappiness is very difficult to do, because it requires so much willpower, and the alternative options – wallowing in sadness, or choosing to be happy for the short-term and treating the symptom – are so much easier to do (and are so much more tempting) than working to cure the true underlying issue.

But choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it is the only way that you will solve the actual problem. It’s the only way you can make progress in your life, by solving the real problems that are holding you back.

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.