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Stop Telling People To “Be Happy”—It’s Not A Choice

Our emotions are not always in our control

by Ashley Laderer

Here is a thing that you should never tell another person: "A smile will make it all better!" or "It can't be that bad!" or "Be happy!"

Let's focus on that last one for a second, although they all have the same intent. Before you recommend that someone alter their mood at your whim, you should think about the fact that the person who you're trying to "cheer up" could be suffering from depression. And telling a depressed person to be happy is like telling a diabetic to control insulin production with their thoughts. Telling a depressed person to just "snap out of it" discounts the struggles and battles they're enduring with their mental health. And just because mental illness can't be tracked via blood tests or X-rays, it doesn’t make it any less real.

Depression is an illness, and it is far more complex than simply feeling sad; depression is not a choice, and it's hard to imagine anyone who would ever choose it. As someone who has long dealt with depression, I can say that, for years, I felt more than just "sad." I felt like I had invisible ankle shackles that dragged me down. I felt heavy. My feet alone felt like they weighed 200 pounds. These shackles held me from living my life, they held me prisoner to my bed. Upon waking, I’d sit up and wonder if I should get up and eat something. Even though I knew I should, and even if I was feeling well-rested, I stayed in bed. Sometimes I’d sleep for 14 hours, and still have an hours-long nap during the day. All I wanted was to shut my brain off and to stop hurting; the way I did that was by sleeping, my preferred method of escapism. 

I’d wake up to texts from my sister, “Are you alive or dead?” 

That shouldn't have been a hard question to answer, but it was. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care where you’re from, or how old you are, or how beautiful you are on the outside. Mental illness didn't care that, in all other aspects of life, I was pretty lucky. I was living in New York City, attending a top fashion school, and had lots of friends and a wonderful family. I landed amazing internships, and everything was set on track for me to be living my dream life. Even I was asking myself: Why aren't you happy?

I felt guilty for being depressed. Having everything means nothing when your life is shrouded by a dark cloud of depression. I’d cry for hours on end, skip out on obligations, and get by doing the bare minimum. When I opened up about it to people without mental health issues, they’d hit me with a slew of suggestions. 

“You shouldn’t take meds. They’ll make you worse.”

“Can’t you just, like, think positive?”

“Have you read [Insert Self Help Book Title Here]?”

“Are you sure? You don’t look depressed.”

“Do you eat salmon? You should eat salmon!”

“Just choose to be happy. Choose to not let it affect you.”

Countless people have assured me that the solution to my depression is simple: to choose happiness. To choose positivity. And while it's true that a depressed person must participate in his or her own recovery, taking those steps is far more difficult than someone might think, and it's a long, arduous recovery process. There's no snapping out of it. The medical and scientific factors that affect depression are numerous and powerful. Consider the fact that depression is often accompanied by a genetic predisposition. That's a pretty big hurdle to get over, the fact that it's in your DNA to suffer this way. Depression can also be triggered when you experience a major life change, and these are things you can't often control. Oh, and if you're a woman? Then you're even more likely to become depressed. Depression is so much more than just a bad mood.

The next time you think about telling someone depression is a choice, consider all these factors, and then think again. Want to tell me depression is something I can just get over? I dare you.

I wish happiness came to me easily, it doesn’t. It’s taken me years to come to grips with that fact. I used to wish more people were suffering like I did, so we could be miserable together, and they would know exactly how I felt. But, really, I wouldn’t wish this disease on my greatest enemy. It’s taken time for me, and I may never be fully "cured," but I am healthier, and, yes, this even means that some days, I feel happy. But that only makes me know this one thing for sure: I can’t choose to be happy. But at least I can choose to keep going.