What makes people unhappy

While happiness might be difficult to define, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to unhappiness. We are usually in no doubt when we are unhappy or miserable. It is also much easier to identify what is making us unhappy, which means that we are better placed to do something about it. But let’s keep one thing clear, however, eliminating unhappiness from our lives is not a short-cut to being happy. It may be a contributing factor but it is not the answer in itself, but it is a good starting point. So while happiness is about being, dealing with unhappiness is more about doing.

An example. I am a basically happy person who is stuck in a very toxic work environment and have been sucked into the culture. I am becoming increasingly critical, obstructive, doing my job and no more, wasting time, disloyal … got the picture. I need the money but I am terribly unhappy with the job and do not like the person I am becoming. It is really getting to me, affecting my private life and I am miserable. There are a number of options open to me which can restore the balance. I can remove myself from the unhappy environment and find another job – if I am prepared to take the risk. Or, I can change the way that I deal with the problems. Regardless of the choices, it is within my power to do something about my unhappiness.


Happiness and temperature – an analogy:

tempuratureWith only the slightest variations our body maintains a steady temperature of  37º C (98.6º F) when all is well. Most of the time we don’t give it a passing thought. Our temperature is a remarkably good indicator of wellness and equilibrium of the many complex processes that combine to give us good heath. It is not a single organ which can be isolated and treated.  It can be measured easily, though we rarely bother as we know intuitively when it rises or falls. Happiness works much the same way. It is not something we dwell on. It is not a specific attribute of human behaviour. It is the global indicator that all is well where it counts in our lives.

However, when our body temperature rises we are very quick to respond, and with the sophistication of modern medicine we are usually able to diagnose the cause of the internal disturbance. While happiness may be rather nebulous and is the cumulative result of many factors, unhappiness is usually specific and identifiable. People know when and why they are unhappy.


The two main reasons why people are unhappy.

There are many reasons why people are unhappy but most fall under these two headings. They are separate but inseparable factors.

Invalidation –   and everything that flows from it of it. I would estimate that more than ninety per cent of the unhappiness I have encountered in people’s lives has its roots in invalidation. This topic is so important that it will be considered in depth in later postings of this blog. It refers to the countless ways that we depreciate the value of ourselves and each other. It can be overt or imperceptibly subtle, but it is always destructive. It is so habituated that people are rarely aware of it, hence they do not develop the skills required to deal with it effectively. It begins in the home and overflows into every other domain of our lives, especially schools and the workplace.

This is where so much rejection and hurt begins. It is where we learn to use power incorrectly and, from an early age, engage in endless futile power struggles. Invalidation is responsible for low self-esteem and self-loathing. It disregards boundaries and is the antithesis of love and the progenitor of hate in damaging and dysfunctional relationships. It is where control and dominance disempower us. I do not hesitate to nominate it as the prime source of unhappiness. The good news is that we can rise above it, so watch this space.

The old city of Srinagar, Kashmir, India

Poor Choices:

At first glance this might seem like an unlikely cause of unhappiness, but bear with me.

On the outside our lives are basically a compilation of things we do and say. Behind the scenes is a flurry of mental activity associated with our thoughts and feelings which are in effect the on/off switches of the choices of what we will actually do and say.

Many of our choices are just routine habits and useful templates that are tried and tested time-savers which enable us to do mundane tasks with the minimum of expended energy. Most of the time they are so automated that we hardly recognise them as choices – but they are.

However, life often requires us to make complex choices which are not only a challenge, they also have the potential to bring us undone. The real problem with choice begins when we are confronted with decisions which require more than a pre-programmed response.
What happens when:

  • we don’t know what to do?
  • others question our choices?
  • we have made a bad choices which can’t be undone and have to endure the serious consequences?
  • we are confronted with too many choices?
  • we don’t have enough options?
  • we are given bad advice?
  • we don’t have a clear picture of our rights and responsibilities?
  • we are forced to make choices for others?
  • others make choices for us?
  • we are forced to choose against our better judgement
  • we compromise out beliefs?
  • we don’t have time to think things through?
  • we procrastinate and postpone making a choice?
  • we take the soft option?
  • we look for quick or simplistic answers?
  • we look for the answers on-line?

You could no doubt add to this list. It is the end result that of interest, namely stress, confusion and self-doubt. Add to this regret, sorrow and frustration at not being able to undo the consequences. A single poor choice can change the course of a life in an instant and haunt us for evermore. It can impact on so many other people. What might seem at the time to be an insignificant choice can have far-reaching implications.

Choices_02Fisherman casting his net, Penang, Malaysia

So, what happens with making choices and why do so many people make poor choices.


  • we do not spend enough time thinking about our choices.
  • we react to situations instead of responding.
  • we don’t listen to advice or we don’t like being told what to do
  • our belief system is flimsy and lacking depth.
  • we are locked in to our belief system making it impossible to change our minds.
  • we don’t place sufficient value on the importance of wisdom
  • we don’t learn from our mistakes and can’t see ourselves as the problem

Again, we could add to this list. But the point is that poor choices are the cause of much unhappiness. They encourage denial and playing ‘blame games’ or rationalising one’s behaviour, all of which compound the unhappiness. Even more to the point, as with the process of invalidation, it is within our power to do something about it. In the process of moving away from unhappiness we might even findourselves walking on the path of happiness.



happiness_lifeThe mountains and jungle of Munnar, Kerala, India