Blog: Toxic Positivity and the Culture of Being Happy

“How are you doing?” people ask me. All the time: at work, at school, at home, on the street, on social media, at the Starbucks drive-thru. “How are you doing, Allie?” and I answer, “I’m great! How are you?” I always answer this way; I am doing great, even if I am falling apart inside. And I feel like everyone is great, all the time. You ask them, and they are fantastic. They are great. Everything is great. On social media, people are smiling and talking about how beautiful life is. At work, they tell you to make each day count by celebrating every day.

A friend and I discussed this once, this culture of being great all the time. We were walking on the sidewalk, and someone said hello and asked him how he was doing, and he answered, “Good, and you?” and the individual smiled and kept walking. I asked him why people ask this question if they don’t really care how you’re doing. He laughed and said next time we were asked how we are doing we should tell them how we really are. “Well, let me tell you about it. I can’t afford to pay my rent and as a result eat instant ramen every night. I add eggs sometimes if I come across an extra three dollars. Also I hurt my back last week and I don’t have insurance, so I’m in pain and am probably getting addicted to ibuprofen. Thank you for asking, how are you doing?” Can you imagine how some random person on the street would react to that? They would probably never ask another person how they are doing for the rest of their lives. The whole idea of it was a joke at the time, but it’s not really funny.

Before he died from an accidental overdose of prescription medications, Heath Ledger said, “Everyone you meet always asks if you have a career, are married, or own a house as if life was some kind of grocery list. But no one ever asks if you are happy.”

There is some debate on Reddit about the appropriateness of such a question to someone you don’t know or trust, but I think the quote brings an opportunity for discussion about why we as human beings feel the need to pretend we are happy or fine or have the best lives, both in real life and online.

I have been told time and time again by successful people—mostly those in leadership—that I should celebrate every day by choosing to be happy. I’ve attended events where speakers have told me that I should not leave my house without my happiness and to never let anyone steal it. I see these inspirational quotes on social media every day with things like this one from Seth Godin: “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you shouldn’t escape from.”

Language like “choose to be happy” or “choose your life” is the kick in the ass I am sure many people feel that they need, and if that helps them achieve happiness I think that’s wonderful, good for them. But for someone to tell me, a schizophrenic woman, to choose to be happy, when they know I am schizophrenic (I am not shy or quiet about it), is the most mindless thing I can possibly think of.

Let’s deconstruct this. Six years ago, two years after I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, I was much worse off than I am now, happiness-wise. Frankly, I was miserable; on the days I didn’t have to go to work I’d lay in bed all day, not eating or speaking to anyone. I was on medication that made me feel absolutely drained; I slept for fourteen hours, I had no motivation to do anything (not even eat), I couldn’t focus, I was depressed. This was right after I identified my passion and purpose in life: writing. Imagine loving to write so much that you would skip your responsibilities and stay up all night doing it even though you had to work the next morning, and then you get diagnosed with this disorder that has a treatment which takes away any motivation, focus, and desire to do what you love. Fast forward five years later, one year ago. I’m divorced, I moved my life back to my hometown where there are more opportunities, I’ve co-founded a non-profit organization, I’ve taken time to absorb new skills and new ways of thinking, I’ve adopted another cat, I’ve found a team of doctors who are truly my advocates, purchased all the books I could possibly ever want, and I was the most depressed I have ever been in my life.

Early in the year last year, I was not doing well. I was hearing voices and having suicidal ideations every day for months and months. I would go to therapy every week and I told my psychologist, “Everyone is so happy. They are telling me to be happy every day, ‘every day make the decision to be happy and don’t let anyone steal that from you,’ and I just can’t. Is it me? It’s my fault, right? Like everyone is happy and I’m not because I’m doing something wrong.”

My psychologist told me that it wasn’t my fault. He said that some people are very good at manipulating others and that he was quite sure that all of those people who claim to be so happy are probably not. He said that I hear voices, I see things, I have depression that causes me to think in suicidal terms to escape the pain, I am paranoid, I have anxiety that tells me I am going to lose everything and everyone someday. He told me that this wasn’t my fault because I have a brain disorder, and these people shaming me into being happy or choosing a happy life do not have any concept of what it is like to be a schizophrenic person. It is exhausting. Day in and day out, I argue with myself about what is real, and have to rationalize the purpose of staying alive when there is a voice in my head telling me that no one would care if I wasn’t here.

I do not like inspirational quotes at all. I don’t think they are inclusive to people like me. There is of course a relatively new culture of “it’s okay not to be okay”, which I think is a step in the right direction, but then you have things, from the same source, like “you’ll have good days, bad days, overwhelming days, too tired days, I’m awesome days, I can’t go on days, and every day you’ll show up” and I’m like, what if I can’t show up? I get into the circle of thought again where I’m wondering if there is something wrong with me. Mental illness awareness is a real thing currently, and I spend every day supporting the people who are trying to create a more inclusive society for those with these disorders, but even now I come across these mental health memes that don’t include schizophrenia and health organizations that don’t have schizophrenia in their categories of disorders they have information about.

I do want to point out that there are happy people in my inner circle who truly do care, and are there to listen to me when I open up about my struggles. When they ask how I’m doing they genuinely want to know. I appreciate that more than I can ever express, but I do want to, like writer Rebecca Chamaa has, start this discussion around schizophrenia because in the public space, I see this happen all the time and I don’t feel included, even in my own community. I feel very strongly that education around these issues is okay.

I feel very lost, most days. Like I don’t belong, and a lot of what makes me feel that way is because people are telling me that happiness is a choice all the time. It’s not for everyone. It really is not. Please stop saying that. Because when you tell me that if I’m not making the choice to be happy I am wrong in some way, it makes me think that I’m living life the wrong way and all of my symptoms are somehow my fault. They’re not. I did not ask for this. I do my best, but I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t deserve to be punished because I have a brain disorder.