Happiness is NOT a choice

We need to stop saying ‘happiness is a choice’

‘Happiness is a choice.’ I’ve heard this said A LOT. But it really bothers me because it’s not entirely accurate. I know, that many of you are going to disagree, but please hear me out.

Huffington Post has an article explaining why there is scientific proof to support that happiness is a choice. However, if you read the article carefully, you’ll notice that, as Stephen Maddon commented, it ‘isn’t scientific proof…it’s just ways that CAN HELP lead to being happy, but there’s no concrete statements that say you WILL be happy if you do these things’. And he’s right. This article lists ways we can change our attitude, our thoughts and our behaviours to perhaps boost our mood. There isn’t anything we can do though to directly change our emotions. Smiling or trying to be happy might make us feel happier, but no one has the ability to decide their emotions. That would require superhuman talents and I don’t know about you, but I’m no X-Man.

Dani’s blog ‘positively PRESENT’ also has a great article about this subject matter and she puts it so well:

Quotes like “choose happiness” or “think happy thoughts” aim to convey the idea that, no matter what happens, you have control over what you think, but what they actually convey is that you have control over what you feel. But there’s a big difference between what you think and how you feel, and the idea that thoughts and feelings are interchangeable is potentially very damaging because, much as you might want to, you can’t control how you feel.

This is exactly what I am trying to get at here. The statement ‘happiness is a choice’ is true in a sense, but it’s just worded really badly. It’s trying to tell us that we can control our thoughts and in turn our emotions, but what it’s really saying is we can control our emotions.

We need to stop saying ‘happiness is a choice’. While it might be well intended, saying such a statement can be really damaging. DepressionAlliance has a great article which states how detrimental it is for people with depression to try and choose happiness, as it pushes down and suppresses the bad emotions and this can really hinder recovery. When a depressed person hears those words ‘happiness is a choice’, it can be really hurtful and it can make them feel like no one really takes their illness seriously. In high school I remember a classmate once asking ‘why can’t a depressed person just snap out of it?’. Simply put, a depressed person can’t just snap out of it because they can’t control their emotions.

When I was in hospital I was taught about the ‘cognitive triangle’. In fact, I heard about the cognitive triangle a lot. It came up again and again and again. The idea is that our feelings, thoughts and behaviour are all connected and they all influence each other. My emotions influence my thoughts and actions, my actions influence my thoughts and emotions and my thoughts influence my actions and my emotions. Basically, the idea is if I want to change my emotions I either need to change my thoughts or my behaviour.

Changing my thoughts might mean remembering a time when I felt really good about myself instead of continuously focusing on one time I did something really embarrassing. Changing my behaviour might mean instead of lying in bed all day watching videos on Youtube I might go for a walk in the park. But to change my emotions I need to first change my thoughts or behaviour.

So sure, happiness is a choice… sort of… sometimes… in an indirect way. But it’s not really happiness you are choosing, what you are choosing is to change your thoughts and behaviours in a way to influence your emotions. And guess what? For some of us, that’s really hard, even impossible without the right treatment. So please, I beg of you, stop telling me that happiness is a choice. Because simply put, it’s not.

 

Did I have an eating disorder?

For the first time I can ever remember, I believed I was beautiful and only because I had lost weight.

Every time I get changed I inspect myself in the mirror. I think a lot of us are guilty of this. Looking in the mirror has become my daily ritual. I always have a good look at my stomach. I’m not so bad as I used to be, now I try to be positive and tell myself I am beautiful, but for a while there I was a little obsessed with how much fat I had on my body.

I was a really fat kid. In particular, if you look at pictures of me as a fourth grader I was pretty round. I was unaware of my rather large size however, until it was pointed out to me by my classmates in grade five. Every day the entire male cohort of my year would laugh and ridicule me that I was ‘so fat’ and I ‘looked pregnant’. Being fat became my identity and I started to believe that I was ugly and no one liked me because I was overweight. At the age of 11, I had my first suicidal thoughts. The daily bullying was too much for me to bear.

The words which these boys told me continued to affect me for many years and still do today. In fact, until I was 18 I had real problems trusting boys my age. Often if a boy was nice to me I always thought it was a joke -that he was making fun of me behind my back. If a boy spoke to me I would be rude to him; I would push him away so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to hurt me.

Around the age of 19, we made the discovery that I have various food intolerances. Some of the foods I can’t tolerate include artificial additives such as preservatives, colours and MSG (that nasty stuff they add to Chinese food). It turns out that two of the many symptoms of my food intolerances are increased appetite and weight gain.

About a year after changing my diet, I was getting dressed for a concert and discovered the dress I was wearing was no longer tight under my arms but actually a bit loose. I had lost a lot of weight. I mean A LOT, and I hadn’t realised till now. It was also around this time that I looked in the mirror and actually liked what I saw. For the first time I can ever remember, I believed I was beautiful and only because I had lost weight.

I lost even more weight when I moved out of home. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but my diet just naturally changed because I was now independent. This caused me to rapidly lose weight in a short time frame.

I got so much praise from my friends and the more weight I lost, the more comfortable I became in my body and the more I believed I was beautiful. However, I also became more and more obsessed with my weight and slimming down to that magical dress size and reaching a healthy BMI.

It wasn’t just the words of my former classmates but also the words of my friends which drove my obsession. Reward and punishment had taught me that I should be thinner. The words ‘have you lost weight? Congratulations’, ‘you’re so fat’, ‘wow, look at you, you’ve lost so much weight’ and ‘you look pregnant’ drove me to obsession. My self-worth and my weight became directly related.

I was so proud of myself for losing weight but started to develop a fear of putting the weight back on. This was a huge fear for me, as big as losing my job or my visa, or not having enough money to support myself.

Ironically the obsession with my weight became even worse when I was admitted to hospital. Every Wednesday during my time in hospital I was weighed. Before then I had always avoided weighing myself, but now I was forced to face the numbers every week. I started to obsess. I had to get down to 75 kg. That would give me a healthy BMI. I was so close. 4 more kilos to go and I wouldn’t bear the title of ‘overweight’ anymore.

It wasn’t to be though. My weight stopped decreasing. Two weeks in a row my weight stayed the same. When I saw my weight hadn’t changed I started to count calories. I would eat only one bread roll for breakfast instead of two I made sure I got in exercise everyday. But it wasn’t enough, my weight started to increase.

Unfortunately one of my medications had the side effect of increasing my appetite and making me put on weight. I was having trouble controlling my desires to eat and started overeating. That’s when the trouble started. The overeating made me hate myself. Really, really hate myself.

Weight loss. Weight gain. Overeating. Calorie counting. Praise for losing weight. Criticism for being fat. ‘Look at you skinny binny.’ ‘If you lose 10 more kilos you’ll look perfect.’ ‘Have you lost weight?.’ ‘You look pregnant.’ ‘You’re so fat.’ ‘Is everyone else in your family fat?’ ‘Are you expecting?’ ‘You still need to lose more weight.’ ‘You should be proud of yourself for losing so much weight.’ Anxiety. Fear. Low self-worth. 

I was terrified of gaining weight. It became my number one fear. It fed my anxiety disorder. Gaining weight would mean I wouldn’t be beautiful. It would mean I would be letting down all the friends who congratulated me on my weight. I couldn’t get fat. I couldn’t.

It was my first week in the day clinic when the psychiatrist suggested an eating disorder. I started to get worried. Did I have an eating disorder? He wanted me to keep a food diary and suggested I might need to go to another clinic for eating disorders after my time in this one. My doctor told me that my self-worth and weight were on a seesaw. If one went up the other went down. I held the believe that I was worth more skinny, people would like me more that way.

Talking about an eating disorder made me think about food even more and one night I found myself standing over the toilet bowl with my fingers down my throat. But just before I started purging I stopped myself and asked, ‘what are you doing?’.

It was that moment that I took control. I never attempted to purge again. I still have that desire to lose weight and I pray to lose weight. But in my prayer I also ask God that I would want to lose weight because I feel better when I’m healthy, not would because I fit the world’s standards.

I know I still have healing to go, but I can truly say, as I write this, I am happy with who I am and I am happy with myself. And, I am not fighting my battles alone, I have both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, I am looking after myself by taking my medication and listening to my doctors.

My two pieces of advice:

  • If you notice a friend is losing weight and wish to give them a compliment, focus on their overall appearance rather than their weight. Tell them they look beautiful or nice, or that new dress looks great on them, but avoid words like ‘skinny’, ‘slim’, ‘weight’, etc… While it’s well intended, complimenting someone on their weight loss could spark an eating disorder.
  • If you suspect you have an eating disorder or have issues with your self-worth or know someone who does, I strongly advise you to seek help from a professional. See your GP, psychiatrist, therapist or counsellor.