Happiness: Is It A Choice? – False Mantras and A Culture of Forced Optimism

The phrase ‘Happiness is a Choice’ adorns seemingly ever other motivational poster I see. The mantra of forced positivity that is so prevalent in our culture, that is teaching us to overcome negative emotions and put an optimistic spin on every bad day. They highlight the notion that, though you don’t always have control of your circumstances, you have control over how you feel. It’s an idea that looks inspirational but is actually incredibly harmful to our society.

Shaycarl, a YouTuber I respect was one of the biggest advocates of the ‘Happiness is a Choice’ movement. He used to post daily vlogs (video logs) with his loving and happy family, an inspirational figure for millions of viewers. Though I didn’t agree with all of his messages, I watched his family for years and it really did appear that they had made the choice of positivity work for them. Though I know that as a social influencer what Shaycarl showed to the world was selective, it was amazing how sucked in I felt. I have never believed that happiness is a choice, but here was this crazy happy family that appeared to have it all figured out, who made me jealous with their obviously real and pure happiness.
Recently however, the news came out regarding his alcoholism. He posted an emotional tweet revealing what he has been struggling with, and how he felt it had become “impossible to keep up with this “happiness is a choice” mentality”. I was stunned at the news. Firstly because that voice deep within me that knew it had all been a lie was finally validated, but also because this idyllic family I idolized in spite of my better judgement was suddenly ripped from its pedestal.  The news struck me as a hard-hitting example of how damaging these ‘forced positivity’ messages can be, and I knew I had to talk about it.


Here’s a newsflash: negative emotions are impossible to deny, just ask anyone who suffers with depression. To tell them to keep their chin up or look on the bright side is to undermine their struggles and is a blatant slap in the face to the field of psychology itself. It doesn’t just extend to sufferers of a mental illness; when anyone is “told to be happy and they’re unable to achieve a happy state (because they’re in a bad situation, because they have a chemical imbalance that doesn’t allow them to be happy often, or for any other reason), they feel like failures” (source). Our emotions stem from our subconscious mind which is impossible to gain control of; it is only through mindful thinking, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy if you prefer, that we can learn to understand our emotions and lessen the powerful hold they can sometimes have on us


It’s not hard to sympathise with those who have a destructive tendency to bury their feelings. It’s often a defense mechanism, a reaction for those who have never been taught to express their emotions constructively. It’s the result of a culture that encourages the idea that negative emotions are wrong, from parents who punish the child’s outbursts instead of talking to them, to the manager who tells the employee to leave their personal life at the door because heavens forbid you act like a human at work.
The human brain can become so conditioned to ignoring emotions that there comes a point where it does it automatically, and can leave us almost completely unaware of what we’re feeling or how this build-up of emotions is changing us.

“When we choose to bury our feelings, we act differently. We may not make ourselves available to others and may withdraw, or just not be fully engaged when we do spend time with other people. At other times, we can react inappropriately because our emotions are pulling us in a different direction from where we really want or need to go. When you express how you really feel (in an appropriate manner), problems get solved, relationship issues get resolved, and life is easier. In addition, you will like your life better because you’re not holding on to unhealed or confusing feelings.”
Psychology Today

The act of acknowledging and expressing emotions in all their forms is, in my opinion, the keystone to conscious living. Learning to pick apart my complex emotions has truly helped me to understand my mind, and has affected how I treat myself, my relationships and my working life.

I work part-time in childcare, and through this job I have witnessed first-hand how Conscious Living can improve how we raise our children and how we run our workplace. Not only that, it has shown me just how unnatural it is to deny ourselves the experience of feelings. Children aren’t born with the ability to hide their emotions; if they’re sad or angry you will know about it. In my work environment, we don’t punish children for expressing negative emotions, we take them to a quiet area and encourage them to use their words so together we can understand why they are feeling what they are feeling. With gentle and calm encouragement, children are often able to identify that they are feeling and why, then I as the caregiver will remind them it’s okay to feel sad (though screaming and hitting is not the way to deal with it!) and offer solutions to make them feel better.
The same goes with the staff. Childcare providers work in very strong teams in an environment that encourages physical affection and strong communication. It is vital that we all work well together, and part of that is listening and supporting a colleague when they have personal or professional issues. There is always time to talk to a colleague, and there is no way this sometimes-dubbed “indulgence in the workplace” can interfere with our jobs because we can integrate the children into this. The teacher’s feeling sad? The children are more than happy to dish out some cuddles and bring the teacher an interesting toy to play with.
The opportunity to express and understand our feelings in the workplace does wonders for our productivity and our team-building. When I’ve got personal issues I’m not mooching around at work, unsociable to the children and losing focus on my activities because I’m heard and I’m supported in the workplace. My job is to care for and educate young children, and I can do my job well because of the love and support my work colleagues will show me.

Can you see how the links are made? By making the conscious effort to accept and express our negative feelings, we can release the hold they have over us and lead much more happy and effective lives by doing so. This practice comes into play in every aspect of our lives and can positively affect how we raise our children and run our businesses. It’s a strong and compassionate way of being that can bring a positive change to our future, and it’s a future that I really want to be a part of.

And you know what? Maybe happiness is a choice. But the choice is not to force false optimism and bury our feelings, it’s to look our fears and vulnerabilities in the eye and bravely chose to accept them.

Further Reading

9 Positive Thinking Tips: The power of positivity on your health – Read about Helen Sanders’ approach to acknowledging issues and tackling stress and challenges with a healthier mindset.