Why We Can't Choose to Be Happy

 person trying to choose to be happy

The biggest thing that helped me when I was going through many years of unremitting mental suffering (after my concept of myself and the world had been completely shattered by what psychiatrists call ‘a psychotic episode’) is the understanding that there is nothing any of us can do to deliberately change our mental state.

Usually we imagine that there might be some special thing we can do to help ourselves (if only we could find out about it) but what helped me was realizing that there wasn’t any such thing.

This is what you could call a ‘negative’ rather than a ‘positive’ solution – not doing is the answer, not purposeful doing.

Trying To Be Happy

In my experience it’s fair to say that this is usually a very hard thing to explain to people!

It goes against everything we have ever been led to believe; it could actually be said that our whole way of life is based upon the belief that we can deliberately change our mental state, if we know the right way to go about this. ‘Methods’ are everything, in other words – we imagine that it’s all about ‘know-how’ and technical expertise.

A lot of what we do in our everyday lives is done for the sake of changing our mental state for the better, naturally enough. That’s called ‘trying to be happy’ – we do stuff that we think will result in us being in a happier or less painful mental state.

This is a very basic motivation, obviously, but the only thing about it - I would say - is that it doesn’t actually work!

Snapping Out Of It

Saying something like ‘there is no way for us to purposefully change our mental state’ almost always meets with immense resistance.

Our only hope, when we are stuck in a painful or distressing state of mind is that we will one day find a way to change it. That’s why we always hear people talking about ‘fighting depression’, or ‘managing anxiety’, or ‘battling mental illness’, and so on. The implication here is very much that it is possible – if we try hard enough – to win this battle!

The implication is, therefore, that we have to ‘wage a war’ (and not just a war but a successful war) on how we feel.

From the point of view of someone looking in on at us when we are suffering from anxiety or low self-esteem or depression it seems obvious that there must be a way of ‘pulling ourselves out of it’ (or ‘snapping out of it’, as we often hear people say), if only we made the appropriate effort.

The mysterious thing (from the point of view of the perplexed onlooker) is why we don’t do this!

For someone who hasn’t had experience of neurotic suffering such as anxiety, this ‘failure’ on our part to snap out of our ‘negative thinking’ is nothing short of a total enigma.

Looking at this a bit more carefully, however, we could make the obvious observation that if people could deliberately ‘snap out’ of depression or anxiety or low self-esteem, or whatever, then these conditions wouldn’t actually exist at all. There’d be no such thing as anxiety or depression, etc.

Who after all would willingly remain in a state of mind that is characterized by hellish suffering?

The whole point is that we can’t rationalize ourselves out of it, or force ourselves to look at the world in a more ‘positive’ way!

The impossibility of changing our state of mind on purpose works the other way around too.

All we need to ask ourselves in order to see this is ‘Have you, in your entire life, ever met a person who has deliberately chosen to be happy?’ The idea that we can actually select our state of mind (just like we might select a particular chocolate from a box of chocolates) is utterly ridiculous when we actually look into it.

If this were possible, then we would all choose to be happy all of the time, surely?

Doesn’t every human being want to be happy, after all?

Not Resisting

 man standing on mountain with arms outstretched

For me, this understanding was not something that ‘just came to me’. I learned this lesson very, very slowly, and not in an intellectual way either. Thinking about it now, I suppose I could say is that what I learned was not to push back (or tense up) against the mental pain I was experiencing.

This is a lesson that comes naturally enough – after all, when we push back (or tense up) against mental pain it only makes that pain worse. Eventually, therefore (and very slowly), we learn not to make the pain worse for ourselves. We learn not to resist so much.  

This goes for our ‘attitude’ too – when we have the attitude that we shouldn’t be going through the experience that we are going through (i.e. when we believe that what we’re experiencing is a ‘wrong’ state of mind) this also makes our suffering a lot worse. Of course it does – how terrible is it to feel that there is something wrong with us and not be able to do anything about it even though we know that’s what we should do? We are totally ‘against ourselves’ in this case; we are our own enemies, we are totally alienated from our actual experience.

My Gripe About Conventional Therapy

This brings me to my ‘gripe’ about conventional therapy. Maybe ‘gripe’ is the wrong word – it’s more of a sense of horror at what is done in the name of ‘therapy’. The message that we almost always get when we meet a therapist is that our state of mind is wrong and that that we should (‘should’ in the sense of a strong moral imperative!) do something about it.

And to cap it all, behind this message is the very clear implication that we can do something about it – if only we have the right positive motivation, the right set of skills, the right techniques or methods.

I’m not trying to say that anyone is to blame for this. This is what we as therapists are taught in college; this is how we have been trained. In my view, we are taught a lot of stuff that just isn’t true, that just isn’t helpful.

The whole ethos is wrong.

What we’re taught is based upon a whole bunch of assumptions about what mental health is or is not, a whole bunch of assumptions that no one ever questions because they are just so ‘obviously true!’

Who’s going to question something that’s ‘obviously true?’

Another fundamental error is our blithe assumption that it is possible to change our state of mind on purpose, by deliberate effort, by applying the correct manipulative techniques.

Only Life Can Teach Us

When we as therapists qualify and get our certificates, we naturally feel that we ‘know something.’

We naturally feel that we are now in a position to help people, and we want to do so. Our training, however, does not support us in this. The only way we would be able to help people would be if we were not inflicting our ‘unexamined assumptions’ upon them – the key assumption here being that painful states of mind can be controlled or managed or regulated (which comes down to the assumption that the experience our clients are going through is somehow ‘wrong’ and needs to be ‘fixed’).

Being a therapist isn’t a matter of ‘expertise’, I would say. It’s a matter of integrity and awareness, and no one can be mechanically trained to have integrity or to be aware.

Only life itself can do this for us; specialization only makes us narrow-minded.

College can train us to be qualified technical experts, but only life can teach us to be wise!


Nick Williams was born in 1960 in a town in Yorkshire, England called Barnsley. He went to school in Maidstone in Kent, in England and went to University of London in 1988, dropped out six months later and became a squatter in London. For the next ten years he became involved in what is sometimes called the ‘alternative lifestyle’. During this time he traveled to India several times. He then went back to college in Canterbury and got a degree in Health Education and Natural Science. A year later Williams went back to college in Brunel University London and studied to be an occupational therapist. When he qualified he moved to the Republic of Ireland and got a job working in a psychiatric hospital, where he still is. He runs mindfulness groups in the hospital and also in the community, along with a community creative writing group. His understanding of what mental health is or is not is informed by his experiences rather than anything he learned at college.

You can read more of his writing on his many websites:

http://www.thenegativepsychologist.com/

https://intrinsicspace.me/

https://radicaluncertainty.com/

https://nullworlds.com/