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.

 

Living abroad with depression

Full steam ahead.

One and a half years ago I moved to Germany. Around the same time my depression got out of control. I wouldn’t say that moving to Germany caused my depression. It had been around long before, but it definitely contributed to it.

Moving countries is hard enough as it is. There are different procedures, visa regulations, possibly a different language, and you’re in a different environment and culture. Throw depression and anxiety into the mix and you’ve got a cocktail for danger.

I think the biggest problem for me was moving out of home. My large family lived in a small house and now I had not only a bedroom and a bathroom to myself, but a whole floor. I shared my new home with a family, so I wasn’t completely alone, but going from having my sister sharing my room and always being in my pockets to having my own space was a big change that I struggled with.

To top it off the German authorities forbade me from working until my visa was approved so I had nothing to do for two months. That only made things worse. Boredom is the fuel to the fire of depression and anxiety. It gives you time to think, or as the German psychiatrists say ‘grübeln’. Grübeln is a fantastic word that doesn’t really translate well in to English. It means to ponder or brood very deeply and it usually has a negative connotation.

When you’re depressed, deep thinking can be dangerous and damaging.

Once I got my visa I found out that it would need renewing in a year’s time and that for it to be renewed the authorities would assess if I was earning enough to support myself. Naturally as a freelancer I didn’t have stable work and so whenever I didn’t have as much work as I wanted I would ‘grübeln’ and worry about whether I would have my visa renewed the following year.

That lead to me to hospital.

It wasn’t just my visa that fanned the anxiety and depression. Moving overseas meant lots of paperwork; paperwork I couldn’t do. If you think paperwork is difficult in your own language, try doing it in your second.

There was a letter I received from the tax office which I simply ignored for quite some time until a social worker stepped in and took care of all my paperwork.

Then there were the assumptions. Often people thought that I was depressed because I was in Germany. Often people would tell me to ‘come home’.

‘I am home’, I would tell them.

Other people would think I was escaping something in Australia. Some people suggested moving city instead of country and one psychiatrist asked me, ‘what was so bad in Australia?’.

Nothing was bad about Australia. But when I was 16 I fell in love with Germany and ever since then it had become my dream to live here. 

My Mum has supported me ever since I bought my plane ticket to Germany. Even though she would love me to move back, she knows that home is where the heart lies and that my heart lies here. She knew that moving back to Australia wouldn’t fix my depression, in fact we both feared it would make it worse.

So I stuck it out.

It got better over time. I got used to living alone and I got very good at asking for help with paperwork when I need it. Sometimes I ask one or my landlords or a friend or even the company I’m filling the form out for. The other day I left a checkbox unchecked on some paperwork. But that was ok, they just resent the paperwork with the field highlighted. It’s no big deal.

I’ve also learnt to simply trust God that I will have enough work to provide for myself and have visa renewed.

That said though, sometimes Germany throws me some curve balls. Recently I’ve been struggling with the language. After set backs in finding a fully contracted job last month, I decided that would do what it takes to become a recognised school teacher in Germany. The first step is learning German to a point that I will speak like a native (CEFR C2). I set myself the goal of reaching that level within in three years. So, I started taking an online German course and was told I was at level B1. It was a whole level below what I would have picked for myself and that was a huge disappointment. Still, even though the company allowed me to move up half a level it is still very upsetting to be told you’re not as good as you thought.

Now as I actively learn German l get angry with myself every time I make a simple mistake. I criticise myself. ‘I should know better than to use the singular form of the verb with a plural noun.’ ‘I should know better to put than to put the verb in the middle of a subordinating clause.’ ‘I should know better that it’s ‘wurde’ and not ‘würde’.’

I’ve been speedily learning German. I feel like it’s a comfortable pace for me. I don’t feel rushed or that information isn’t sinking in. Quite the opposite actually. If there’s one thing I keep getting wrong I practise it again and again until it becomes second nature. But yesterday my tutor implied that I’m racing through the course too quickly. It made me feel judged and bad about myself. For the rest of the day I couldn’t even think about learning German.

My mum said not to listen.

Earlier this week my mum told me I shouldn’t drive faster than 100 km/h, maximum 110 km/h. I simply laughed and when I was on the Autobahn I drove at speeds of up to 170 km/h (for the tiny section of road that had no enforced speed limit). When I told her I was upset at what my tutor said, she told me:

When I make comments about you driving “too fast” on the Autobahn you laugh at me – and do it anyway. So that’s the attitude you need to have about some German language tutor saying he thinks you’re going too fast. It doesn’t matter what he thinks – that’s the whole point of online learning modules – you can do them at your own pace!!! It would be different if you had enrolled in a class and was trying to work ahead of the class.

So it’s time for me to stop worrying what other people think.

Full steam ahead.