You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Happiness is a choice” or seen it as a stylized quote on Instagram, possibly even in my feed. For a huge part of the population, I believe it rings true. But for those suffering with serious anxiety, depression, or mental illness—not so much.
What is happiness? The definition I’ve found most relatable that’s agreed upon by everyone from the medical community to Buddhist monks is that it’s feeling satisfied or content. It’s not that jump-up-and-down, rah-rah feeling; it’s just a steady, calm mental space where we can handle what’s happening at any given moment, even if we’re caught in an uncomfortable situation.
When we find ourselves feeling this contentment on a daily basis, we’re happy with who we are, and therefore more easily able to share our talents with the world and help others. We’re okay with putting ourselves out there and living on the edge of our comfort zones without fear of being judged (and I’m not just talking about wearing white after Labor Day).
The sad thing is that some people don’t have the capacity to control their minds and mental states on a daily basis. I know, because my mother was bipolar, and I watched her suffer daily for the first 17 years of my life. Although she didn’t choose to be mentally ill, her disease caused her to be in an unhappy state most of the time. She was stuck in a black hole that she didn’t want to be in yet couldn’t just choose to pull herself out of.
What It’s Like Growing Up With a Mother Struggling With Mental Illness
It wasn’t easy growing up with someone struggling with a serious mental illness.
I figured out early on that she wasn’t going to be the person I could count on when times were tough. Heck, she couldn’t even handle days that seemed like a breeze. It wasn’t for lack of trying. She took Prozac before it was legal in this country, had shock treatments, and even went away to a fancy hospital in Boston for an entire month. You know the one where Angelina stalked Winona in Girl Interrupted? Yeah, that one.
The glitz and glamour of my father’s career in the music industry—fancy cars in the driveway, 5-star monthly vacations, and closets full of designer clothes with celebrity weddings to wear them to—stood in stark contrast to the hidden reality behind closed doors. There would be a limo in the driveway one night, and an ambulance taking her away after a failed suicide attempt the next.
Watching her depression manifest itself while living a life most people dream of, I couldn’t understand why she was always so sad. She had everything most people wanted, and yet my pleas for her to just, “Stop crying and be happy” were met with more tears. I eventually realized that there was nothing that could bring her happiness, even though happiness was all she wanted.
When I was 21, I saved enough money to take her to her favorite restaurant for Mother’s Day, thinking that would make her happy. During that dinner, for the first time in my life, we talked about what it was really like for her to struggle with a mental illness. She said it felt like she had “emotional cancer”, but it wasn’t ever going to kill her. That on the inside she was stage 4 suffering, but nobody had any idea of how frustrating it was not being able to control her mind, because she held it together on the outside.
Two days after our celebratory dinner, she disappeared. During the few days she was missing, I rode an emotional roller coaster, vacillating between heartbroken and relieved, until I found out that this was her final—and finally successful—suicide attempt.
It wasn’t just a cry for help but a desperate scream for freedom—from the constant mental suffering and pain that no person or medical intervention could heal. I was absolutely crushed. I was angry, I was sad, I felt guilty, and I felt responsible for not being able to make her happy enough to want to live.
During my childhood, I was never able to understand why she couldn’t just be happy, why she couldn’t control her thoughts and feelings; until I finally realized that it wasn’t for lack of trying— she really had no choice.
Why We Should Choose Happiness If We’re Able
Why am I sharing this story? First, because we all need to find compassion and kindness for those around us who may not be able to just “turn on the happy.” Cut them some slack, ask if there’s any way you can make their day a little brighter, and try to understand that they truly, honestly do not want to feel sad or be angry all of the time.
Second, because many of us do have a choice. Actually, we have tons of them every day with each thought we produce and how we respond to outside circumstances or someone else’s actions. It seems super simple—that we just choose to either be happy despite any struggle or uncomfortable situation we’re dealing with, or we let our minds get carried away by negative what-ifs and worries.
The thing is, it’s not super simple. It takes practice. Yoga, meditation, therapy—there are tons of ways to learn to be more present and focus on the positive; that’s a whole other story in itself. But what I want to leave you with is to remember how absolutely blessed you are if that choice—to choose happiness—is available to you at all.
I hope you’re able to look for the good, follow the light, and with some practice, to choose happiness every chance you can—because it’s absolutely worth it.
Danielle Diamond, NLC, believes that her yoga and meditation practice is the sole reason that she was able to face her biggest challenges head on: her mother’s suicide, father’s bankruptcy, divorce, and more. Driven by her passion to teach others to thrive by learning to stress less, slim down, and smile more, she founded Xen Strength Yoga, a modern take on yoga that combines flexibility, strength, balance, cardio, and core training in one multi-tasking workout. Danielle teaches at A-list wellness events and regularly shares her expertise via the Today Show, Dr. Oz, Shape, Yoga Journal and Self. Visit her website at xenstrength.com and follow her on Instagram at @xenstrength.
(Photos: Danielle Diamond)