‘Always choose to be happy’ is toxic advice – it prevents you from changing yourself

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.

  • Dalia

    I see your point, but sometimes being unhappy could become distracting instead of triggering productive change. So in some cases “choosing to be happy”, no matter how cheesy, makes it easier to move forward and change the underlying root cause

  • rd108

    great article. thanks mark. i don’t know, but maybe choosing to be happy and still doing something to change your circumstances is the best of both worlds. dalia makes the point below, my grandfather called it “karma yoga”

  • Hey Dalia,

    I know what you mean, and I’ve definitely been there before. I think that being unhappy is distracting, but some respond to that by trying to ignore that distraction and not doing anything about it.

    If we can still be happy and change the underlying root cause too, that works equally as well. It’s just more tempting to be happy and avoid solving the problem.

  • Thanks Mark for your great article! Since I’m thinking about this topic a lot the past days I found you opinion very inspiring to hear. It’s scientifically proved that being unhappy or more general being not satisfied with a current situation makes the ones concerned more likely to change the as you call them “root” reasons. This totally makes sense and made for humanity possible to not sitting on trees anymore but to flying to the moon instead.

    To put it in an even more general context, have a look at this scribble: It’s basically saying you have to leave your comfort zone to archive success in life, which I totally agree with.

    But here is the dangerous thing: The area outside your comfort zone where you are pushing yourself to is not only the part “where the magic happens” but also where unhappiness has it’s roots. To be clear: I think staying inside your comfort zone all the time and forcing yourself to be happy is not an alternative either.

    In my opinion it’s – as so often – definitely about steering a middle course: You don’t want to end as the one who archived great things in life but couldn’t enjoy them since he had never time to. On the other hand you don’t want to be the one who couldn’t enjoy life because he bored himself to death either.

    There is an inspirational quote: “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” I don’t know if that’s true but I think it’s not about being happy after having archived stuff but about being happy after having archived a complete personality being grateful for every day you can get out of your comfort zone and creating great stuff that makes the life better.

    In best case scenario you would be happy and grateful for every day life AND BECAUSE OF THAT experience as many exciting stories outside you comfort that make you a more self confident character.

    I’m 19 ys old and can have to admit that it seems a life task to me fulfilling the middle course I mentioned above. But in your example of dating the other sex you will approve that getting in shape only does make neither man nor women attract to you. But being independent and happy (and therefore probably in shape – if not, being strong enough to admit weakness and change something about it) will bring success (“= sustainable” happiness?!) in not only dating but life in general.

    Just my 2,000 cents 🙂

    Thanks for sharing & inspiring again!

  • Hey Marius, thanks for your opinion! That’s a good point. I’m definitely for the idea that going out of our comfort zone is the way we progress, but it’s true that it does bring about unhappiness with it, since that’s part of going out of your comfort zone.

    Going along a middle route (“everything in moderation” comes to mind) is the sensible thing to do. I don’t think you should always force yourself to be unhappy about everything to solve some sort of underlying cause, such as if the underlying cause is something insignificant. Being unhappy because you received bad service at a restaurant doesn’t warrant unhappiness, since it’s not something that matters. For the things that do, though, we need to be more receptive to being unhappy about those things.

    Thanks again. I love that picture – describes the concept so simply.

  • greg

    easier said than done

  • Zach

    I love this. At some point, our culture has started to confuse comfort with happiness. Fixing the surface level dissatisfaction without addressing the root cause is meaningless and self-deluding.

    There’s a quote that I like: “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the sculptor and the marble.” I think we’d do good to remember that when we focus on short term comfort rather than long term fulfillment. A little pain is worth it in order to chisel a masterpiece.