We all want to be happy.
We want to feel that we matter, are loved, appreciated, problem-free, care-free, financially secure. And this has become one of the most obsessive quests of our society—to be happy, at all cost, by all means.
Happiness has undisputed benefits—supported by countless studies—to about pretty much everything in our lives—from our mental or physical state, to careers, relationships, finances.
Although the self-help industry is still having a sunshine moment with its advice on how to get to this coveted state, no one (that I’m aware of) has come up with The Magic Potion—that one thing or action or thought—that can make us all content and whole for good.
Of course, we also all are knowledgeable enough to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And that it’s often a combination of things that each one of us should intentionally do daily in order to reach that enchanted place where everything is intensely bright and upbeat.
The reason that there are multiple antidotes to feeling gloomy is that there may be a million different explanations and their nuances of why someone is unhappy. It’s pretty much a different cause, path and experience for everyone.
Top this with the “hedonic treadmill” phenomenon((Positive Psychology Program: The Hedonic Treadmill – Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows?)) —and you end up with an incessant (and rather tiring) pursuit of something that, quite frankly, no one has been able to define in concreate measurable terms.
The second problem with happiness is that all of us become so hung up on the goal itself—that utopian state that we want to get to “one day.”
Naturally, you can spend your whole life waiting for happiness to finally come knocking on your door, hoping, anticipating, existing in perpetual discontent—and the moment may never come.
And then, looking back, you may ask yourself—was I truly that miserable or did I fall a victim of the happiness craze?
That is—how can you know if you are really unhappy, if happiness means different things for everyone, it’s impossible to measure directly, and it’s rather fleeting?
So, let’s start from the beginning— and examine the cause of why you’re unhappy, the symptoms and the treatment.
Symptoms of Unhappiness
According to the wellness site Mind Body Green, some of the most common manifestations you are not happy are:((MindBodyGreen: 20 Signs You’re Unhappy (But Don’t Even Realize It)))
- Feeling like you’re not as good as other people
- Feeling like a victim of circumstances that are beyond your control
- Feeling like your daily life is meaningless and task-driven
- Feeling helpless, hopeless, or pessimistic
- Protecting your heart with steel walls
- Trying to fit in and belong, but rarely feel like you do
- Feeling beaten down by the challenges you face in life
- Feeling depressed, anxious, or chronically worried
- Feeling like you’re not appreciated enough
If this sounds like you, on a regular day, then you are not a happy fella, my friend.
Reasons for Feeling Unhappy
The most important indication that things are not great (at least in your mind) is the sense of “something missing.” You may not know what it is, but you feel hollow, incomplete. And you are aware that something needs to happen to make you come alive again.
Of course, finding the reason for your woes is vital to prescribing (to yourself) the right steps to make it all better.
So, here are some of the most common reasons why you may feel heavy-hearted, or “like the joy has been sucked out of my life.”
Lack of Meaning
Everyone who’s someone in the happiness-advice trade will tell you that this is one of the main causes (of not THE biggest) of feeling blah. Especially relevant for our professional lives, lack of significance can be a dream-downer.
An excellent piece in the New York Times talks about Harvard graduates who make $1.2 million a year in salary, but still feeling miserable and trapped in what they describe as “wasting my life” existence.((New York Times: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable))
Simply put—you may feel unhappy because you need the “Why” in your life, as I also wrote in a previous post How to Get Unstuck in Life and Live a More Fulfilling Life.
Even perceived problems can feel quite real to many of us. Undeniably, though, any personal, financial, career, physical complications can make your happiness aspirations plummet.
The constellation of all the issues or walls you can run into can be quite vast. For instance, you don’t like the way you look, you don’t make enough money, don’t have any friends or significant other, your health is fragile.
All these can be serious impediments to an undisturbed-joyfulness type of life.
Lack of Self-Esteem and Self-Respect
Few years ago (2003), a paper by the psychologist Roy Baumeister rocked the science world. Titled “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” it presented the idea (supported by research) that self-esteem and happiness are linked.((Psychol Sci Public Interest.: Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?))
Specifically, high self-esteem leads to greater happiness.
In addition, according to the famous American author and speaker Gary Vaynerchuk, the main reas on people are unhappy is because they lack self-respect—that is, they value others’ opinions above their own. Of course, it makes sense—and surely, it rings true with many of us too.
Linked to the above is another hindrance to becoming relentlessly upbeat, which is may prove slightly challenging to overcome, if even possible—your personality.
Of course, not per the self-help industry which thrives on the assumption that you can, with your own willpower, become a different person altogether. Namely—a much better version of the current you.
But what the Wise Men also tell us is that you are either born to be a silver-lining kind of person or you are not.
You can, of course, work on yourself to start seeing the glass half-full (vs half-empty). But you may never reach the gregariousness of someone who is just born with a more care-free temperament.
Unreasonably High Expectations
Having high expectations of yourself can be beneficial, according to research.((Evelyn Marinoff: Why You Need to Push Yourself and Aim High in Everything You Do)) It leads to higher performance—a phenomenon called the Pygmalion effect.
Having too high expectations of yourself, though, may be counter-productive. You can run into all slew of mental health issues—depression, self-sabotaging, self-punishment, etc. And it can spill over all areas of your life.
It’s certainly a case for future investigation.
It will take perhaps at least few articles to list all the reasons why we can feel unhappy (a book even!).
So, some of the other causes of being disgruntled with your life can be: long hours at work, “always-on” culture bread by the internet, increased screen time,((The Conversation: What might explain the unhappiness epidemic?)) or boredom with one’s life (i.e. lack of excitement).
Addiction to Unhappiness
Apparently, you can also develop an addiction to unhappiness((Psychology Today: Are You Addicted to Unhappiness?)) —that is, some people like negative feelings and are “happy to be unhappy.” Rather disturbing, indeed.
Or, sometimes, you just can’t put your finger on one thing, or on anything, for this matter—you don’t know for sure what makes you feel unhappy, nor what will make you happy. It feels like it’s everything—your whole life is a mess.
But that’s not the end of the story. The most important questions you should be asking yourself are:
Why? What’s the cause of my unhappiness?
Because you can’t fix it when you don’t know what’s broken, right?
5 Steps You Can Take to Figure Out The Why
So, if you tick most of the symptoms above, it’s very likely that you are not living in Dream-land right now.
Here is my advice on how to find your lumps in the batter.
1. Mull over What “Happy” Means to You
Happiness can take different shapes—hedonic pleasure, life satisfaction, desire fulfillment.((Psychology Today: How to Be Happy, Step 1: Figure Out What “Happy” Means)) All of these—separately or together—can deliver to us sprinkles of joy.
And because our lives are so diverse, the above will translate into different pursuits for each one of us.
For instance, my hedonic weekend happiness means reading a book or writing, while for someone else—it’s socializing, taking a walk, or going on a shopping spree at the mall.
Or, my life satisfaction can be to have a big family and leave a mark in the world this way. For others, it may be going after fame and fortunes. But either way, don’t fall for the society’s “narrative traps”((The Guardian: Want to transform your life? Stop chasing perfection))—that a bigger pay check, house, a certain job, person, etc. will give you a never-ending stream of bliss. It won’t, science confirms over and over.
So, once you know what your happiness vision board looks like, you will have a better idea of what’s “missing” in your life.
2. Re-Visit Your Expectations
As I already mentioned, unreasonable expectations you or others have set for yourself can be deterring you from feeling gleeful.
For one thing, aspirations often can become outdated. What you wanted ten or five years ago (or even six months ago) may not be relevant to your situation today and will need to be filed into a mental cabinet.
Another issue is that our culture is putting an exponential pressure on all of us to perform more and better, to try and stretch the 24-hours a day into 30, to chase kudos and recognition. Any outcome that has earned less than the gold is punishable by exclusion for the cool crowd, by receiving less in perks, bonuses, and appreciation even.
As a result, anxiety, depression and all their dark friends start creeping into our minds and tint everything else that may be giving us joy and satisfaction.
So, taking periodic audit of your expectations—their validity and importance place on your happiness list, is pivotal to stopping unhappiness spread into your life.
3. Examine Your Way of Thinking
At the heart of the so-called Rational Emotive Behavior Theory (REBT),((VeryWellMind: What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?)) which was established by the American psychologist Albert Ellis in 1956, is the idea that it’s never the actual event that upsets us.It’s our interpretation and thoughts about it. By inference, changing our thoughts will reduce (and hopefully remove altogether) our anxiety.
Let’s take this a stretch further. Positive (not delusional) thinking has been long proclaimed to be a winner when it comes to mental health. If you find yourself going down the spiral of negative inner dialogue, you must stop yourself immediately. It’s unhappiness trap.
But it’s not easy-breezy, of course, to do such conscious policing all the time. It can become a habit, though, psychologists tell us. We can teach ourselves to quell negativity, and there are many things that can be done:
And don’t forget to be grateful. It’s the best happiness shot there is.
4. The Good Old Pros and Cons
Although it may appear to be a less fascinating way to figure out whether you are unhappy or not, the pros-and-cons list has been around for a long time—and it’s still an excellent tool to let you examine things closely, evaluate alternatives and come to satisfactory answers.((Harvard Business Review: The Pros and Cons of Pros-and-Cons Lists))
Interestingly, as history tells us, this invention is credited to Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. Notorious for his productivity, he applied the pros-cons exercise to almost everything in his life.
The beauty of the method lies in its simplicity too. So, go back to the drawing board and start penciling down the things that you like and don’t like (make you unhappy) about your life, and the things that you know with certainty to make you happy today.
Of the “things-that-make me-unhappy-about-my-life” subset, have a think what you can do to move these along the continuum—to the brighter side.
You may be surprised to discover that you have much greater say in the building of your own happiness than chance, circumstances or others.
5. Mental Cleansing
Mental health is in the limelight quite often these days. And rightly so.
The way we care about our bodies and minds directly links to many of our life outcomes.
Mental clutter can become a well-being stumbling block. Overthinking, old grudges, past events, can all make it very challenging to feel elevated and content.
Doing a mental cleanse once a month can be the remedy to set yourself on the path to happiness recovery.
Pay a visit to the past to confront your fears, get rid of the people who bring you down, free yourself from any emotional baggage. It will help you silence the bully in your head.
Take a periodic stock of all the things that make you anxious and declutter. Why hold on to the things that you know to bring you grief anyway?
Unless you are one of those unhappiness addicts I mentioned above (which calls for a more radical intervention), carrying emotional baggage without doing anything to unload it, is a anti-glee behavior.
Finding our Achilles’ heel of happiness can sometimes be a tall order. It takes time, conscious efforts and an honest desire to make it better. It also alludes that we are ready to take the plunge into the self-help territory and take actual steps to improve our situation.
But it’s not a lost cause, the research tells us. It’s possible to make yourself happy on a consistent basis.
Here are few universal suggestions:
One of the things you can do is to inject some meaning back in your life. And the best way to go about this is to flip the narrative. Case in point—the story of John F Kennedy’s visit to NASA in 1962. He ran into a janitor and when asked him what he was doing, he replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The happiness guru Gretchen Rubin tells us that there are two major path that lead a more fulfilling life.((Forbes: NYT Bestselling Author Gretchen Rubin Shares Her Best Happiness Advice)) One way is through our relationships—having strong bonds and feeling that we belong. The other route is through developing better self-knowledge—i.e. what things make us us, or glad, or sad. And base our way of living on our own values and goals, not others’.
I previously wrote about how to become unstuck in life. The feeling that we are not making progress is a definite joy crusher. The main take-aways are that we should compare wisely, find our passions, and diversify our experiences. These are not magic pills but more so opportunities to make our time here worthwhile and fulfilling.
Happiness is notoriously hard to pin down.
There is no one definition of contentment, nor one way to ‘fix’ it. It’s one of those things that you can’t quantify and it’s idiosyncratic.
More and more we hear a murmur from the science world that perhaps the best way to happiness is acceptance—of your failings and shortcomings, of the fact that life is imperfect.
Knowing what makes us disgruntled is, of course, needed to find the right remedy for each one of us. Feeling constantly unhappy is not good and necessitates closer examination.
Finally, beware of the narrative trap that if you are unhappy, there is something wrong with you. It may be normal, for a while at least. Otherwise, how would you appreciate the highlight moments of your life if you don’t see them against the backdrop of the gloomy times?
Or, as the great singer Leonard Cohen tells us:
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”