You know, you live a pretty great life. At least, it looks great on paper. You have a well-paid job and annual vacation time. You live in a lovely house, drive a nice car, and opening your closet reveals no shortage of cool clothes. You’ve got friends and family who care about you, and maybe even a partner you adore.
So why do you still wake up every morning wondering, “Why am I so unhappy?”
Or, maybe you don't have all those things. And perhaps you, too, are asking yourself the same question. You could ask your fellow humans who do have those things why they're not happy. Or, you could focus on the internal source of happiness.
Because it isn't something that happens on the surface. It emanates from the depths. So let's take a deeper look to uncover what's going on.
You’re not alone, friend. According to the 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only 33% of Americans reported being happy. And while this number has risen slightly since 2016, the statistics remain troublesome.
Despite the barrage of positive quotes we receive daily as we scroll Instagram, general unhappiness has become widespread. And with today’s standard lifestyle of overconsumption, distraction, and momentary pleasure, this comes as no surprise.
Chronic unhappiness stems from a combination of factors. So if you feel like dissatisfaction, negativity, and anxiety are common themes of your everyday, it’s worth evaluating the key causes of unhappiness.
It’s important to reflect on your lifestyle and habits and identify what you can change to improve your overall mood.
It should be noted that some people experience continued unhappiness because of clinical depression, a serious illness that's caused either by genetic predisposition, trauma, and a number of other factors. It’s important to recognize the symptoms and seek proper medical treatment where applicable. Nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice.
But keep in mind that, when ignored, general unhappiness can lead to clinical depression over time. So taking preventative measures and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly is crucial.
So, what are the key ingredients in the unhappiness recipe? We'll explore five factors that may be causing you to ask the question: “Why am I so unhappy?”
Income. Body image. Instagram followers. Job title.
These are but a few of the metrics we use to compare ourselves to our peers. If you tend to do this, don't feel bad. Social comparison is an natural inclination for us humans.
As explained by Maurice Schweitzer, social psychologist and co-author of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:
“We are hardwired to engage in comparisons. That is, we can’t get away from it, and we’re doing it to try to make sense of our world. Do I make enough money? Do I need to update my kitchen? Do I need a new car? Are my kids doing well? It’s almost impossible to make those assessments objectively. So instead, we turn to comparisons.”
While comparison is inevitable and can be motivating, it's also a huge cause of unhappiness. You’ve likely heard the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Measuring yourself up against others and striving for perfection is a continual source of misery and won’t improve your situation. It simply feeds your feelings of inferiority and inhibits you from truly living.
There's always someone richer, more beautiful, younger, and stronger.
Remember that everyone has their own unique journey and path to follow, and life would be boring if all of our lives looked the same. Even though our brains are naturally inclined to compare, we must understand where our brain's autopilot isn't serving us.
It's kind of like craving sugar. Evolutionarily gorging on sweet edibles seems like a good idea. But in today's world we're more likely to get sick from overconsumption than well.
Treat comparison the same way. In our evolutionary past, it might have been a healthy way to stay on track. But more often today it will lead to misery.
“Your journey isn’t right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just different. Your life isn’t meant to look like anyone else’s because you aren’t like anyone else. You’re a person all your own with a unique set of goals, obstacles, dreams, and needs. So stop comparing, and start living.” ~ Daniell Koepke
Pleasure is best described as 'short term happiness.' Think about it: when you devour a delicious cupcake, buy a new pair of shoes, flick on a new episode of Game of Thrones, or simply check your phone when it vibrates, you feel an instant rush of pleasure from the release of dopamine in your brain. This is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.
In today’s culture, overconsumption, distraction and the pursuit of short term happiness are the norm. This inclination towards instant gratification has us seeking small hits of pleasure, rather than pursuing long term and lasting fulfillment.
This ultimately means that your happiness depends on outside events: ie. you’re only happy when something ‘good’ happens. By allowing our happiness to be dependent on temporary satisfaction, we train ourselves to seek out those little hits of dopamine. So, we end up repeating the behavior that made us feel that pleasure in the first place.
This manifests itself as the shopper with a closet full of shoes, the gambler who turns to the slots in times of boredom, or the drinker who seeks refuge in their daily glass (or three) of wine. And most commonly: the constantly distracted digital addict.
Once the immediate high subsides, we aim for the next burst of pleasure. We seek the next hit, but we continue to feel all the more unfulfilled.
Surely you’ve seen a million quotes, articles, and blog posts telling you to “Think Positive!” That’s all well and good, but what effects do our thoughts really have on our overall well-being. And moreover, how can we promote positive thinking in the first place?
A paper published by psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson (author of the book Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral that Will Change Your Life) following decades of research on the study of emotions and positivity discusses how feelings like love, joy, and gratitude promote further positive actions, ideas, and social connections.
Essentially, when we experience positive feelings, our minds have the tendency to broaden and are therefore more open to new ideas, experiences and possibilities.
On the flip side, experiencing negative emotions has a tunnel vision effect. Sadness, fear, or anxiety for example, tend to narrow your mind while simultaneously focusing your thoughts. This limits the options you're able to see.
Your brain closes off and focuses on the negative feelings of fear, stress, or anger, which prevents you from seeing the choices (and opportunities) that surround you. This stems from our innate fight or flight response, where the mind constricts and focuses on an imposing threat, whether real or imagined.
Think of it this way: If you’re walking down the street and a rabid dog bounds over to you, teeth-bared, your first instinct would be to run from the threat, right?
In that moment, it’s physically only possible to focus on the danger and thus, seek safety. Similarly, in a situation that isn’t life threatening but still promotes feelings of fear and anxiety, our ability to be open to new ideas is limited, which in turn promotes a further cycle of negative talk.
So what can we do to disrupt this cycle and promote positive thinking?
Here's a list of daily practices to consider if you regularly find yourself in a negative headspace.
Every decision we make throughout the day, big and small, is guided by a unique set of principles. These influence our actions, and are known as our personal values.
Our values determine our priorities, highlight what we stand for and in turn guide our behavior and decisions. For example: if family and friendships are core personal values, you'd likely validate this by prioritizing your relationships and quality time with loved ones. Similarly, if you value success and wealth, you'd likely spend the majority of your time, energy, and resources in pursuit of professional and financial goals.
Ideally, in order to feel happy and fulfilled, we'll make choices that are aligned with our personal values. But as you know, life is complicated and we often find ourselves people-pleasing: living in accordance with others' values.
We commit to things out of obligation. We say yes to things that don’t feel good and we over-extend ourselves to live up to others' expectations. Too often, we accept others demands of us, because it’s easier to do than becoming clear and standing up for our own values.
Unhappiness is a common result of living for other people. Because how can you truly be happy when you’re making choices that don't reflect what really matters to you?
If this rings true, take some time to reflect on your personal values. What is truly important to you? Is it relationships, health, and success? Fun, creativity and freedom? Of course, we all value more than one thing at a time. But search yourself. You'll undoubtedly find that a few stand out above others. These will shift as you shift. But what's true for you now? Get clear.
Whatever your values may be, it's important to choose them for yourself. Of course, others will always influence you. Your parents, partner, friends, religion, etc. will play a role. But make sure these are all supporting voices, not stand-ins for your own voice.
Once you've identified your values, reflect on whether or not they're the guiding force behind your actions, behaviors, and decisions. The end goal of living with purpose is total fulfillment. This means identifying if your current lifestyle is aligned and adjusting accordingly.
Let’s get real: Nobody wants to die with regrets. We all want to greet the end knowing we’ve lived a life true to ourselves -- a life that brought us meaning and purpose. Sadly, however, dying with regrets is the norm in today's world. In fact, one of the most common regrets of the dying, as told by palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, who spent years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, is wishing they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.
In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she says:
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
So you see, it’s the choices you make each and every day that either lead to a life of happiness and fulfillment, or a deathbed of regret. Living with purpose is one of those choices. We would argue it’s the most important choice of all.
Purpose can be a difficult concept to grasp. The word itself can be intimidating and heavy, like it’s something we need to spend a lifetime to unearth, or else we’re a huge failure.
But purpose isn’t something you possess. It’s a way of being. Your purpose manifests in every one of your actions and thoughts. This is why we define purpose as living out your deepest values every day.
A purpose-driven life is one where:
Sometimes, our purpose is decided for us -- think of a brave soldier being drafted into the army for a war, or parents caring for an ill child. But for most of us, we have the opportunity to identify and live a purpose that we choose for ourselves.
Unfortunately, though, this is the point where laziness (or avoidance) tends to kick in, and we default back to survival mode. We fulfill our basic needs instead of striving for a higher ideal of meaning and purpose. We settle for shallow pleasures and constant distraction.
Most people will spend their time aimlessly drifting through life on autopilot: working jobs they hate, to pay for things that only bring temporary pleasure. After all, living with purpose in a world of infinite possibilities and distractions requires intentional effort. Very few people can honestly say they’re living their highest values daily.
Ultimately, it comes down to being intentional in the pursuit of a meaningful life by identifying what is most important to you (your purpose) and creating and following a thorough plan for living it out.
General unhappiness has become an epidemic, with merely a third of Americans reporting they feel happy on a daily basis. And it’s no wonder we’re so miserable -- society reinforces a number of habits that undermine lasting happiness before it even stands a chance to blossom.
With the constant comparison to our peers that results in negative thought patterns, it’s inevitable that society is unhappy as a whole. Naturally, this unhappiness urges us to fill the void with shallow pleasures and immediate gratification, rather than seeking lasting fulfillment.
This, in addition to the fact that too often we find ourselves living a life that others expect of us, rather than one based on our own personal values. We fail to even identify these values in the first place, which in turn inhibits us from living our purpose and ultimately, living up to our true potential.
The recipe for the unhappiness cake is a combination of these ingredients, and we unknowingly mix up this batter every single day.
So how can we change the recipe? Well, the first step is deciding to do something about it. And if you’ve made it this far, then we can assume you’ve decided to do exactly that.
Next, realize that your happiness is entirely up to you. Happiness is a journey, and you’re the only one standing in the way and the journey starts with realizing your purpose. Are you ready?
If you'd like to get started, schedule your free coaching call now.
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