A basic assumption of human behavior is that people pursue pleasure and seek to avoid pain. Then why is it that some people seem content to wallow in their misery, even boasting about it as some sort of badge of honor? Even when given steps to improve their lives, they prefer to continue complaining. Is there a certain comfortable familiarity with being dissatisfied that becomes an obstacle to change? After getting a glimpse of joy, why do some people immediately shift back to what doesn't work?
There are a number of possible explanations for this “addiction” to unhappiness:
- Deep-rooted insecurity or lack of self-esteem may cause some people to feel undeserving of happiness.
- People who grew up with a parenting style characterized by excessive discipline and unrealistic expectations may have learned to equate unhappiness with love and success.
- Lifelong struggles with trauma or other negative experiences may fuel an unconscious desire to continually return to the status quo of unhappiness.
- Some people who seem comfortable in their misery actually may be suffering from an underlying mental health disorder.
- Some people pride themselves on realism, believing that being practical or realistic also means focusing on the negative.
- Because of decisions or experiences in their past, some people are consumed by guilt or regret that they cannot overcome. Instead, they choose to punish themselves and/or others.
- Some people are afraid to feel joy since positive feelings might be a “setup” for disappointment.
- The prospect of happiness strikes fear of the unknown for those who have never felt anything but unhappiness.
- Dissatisfaction becomes a motivator to work harder, change jobs, eat healthier, spend more time with friends and family, or prevent unwanted behaviors or situations.
- Some people make it a personal mission to take on the world’s problems as their own. While noble in some respects, these individuals cannot allow themselves to feel happiness when, for example, people are starving or global warming is damaging the planet.
Then there’s the theory that people like negative feelings. A study by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen, which evaluated why people enjoy horror movies, concluded that some viewers are happy to be unhappy. The researchers found that people experience both negative and positive emotions at the same time, meaning they not only enjoy the relief they feel when the threat is removed but also enjoy being scared. This same theory, they argued, may help explain why humans are drawn to extreme sports and other risky activities that elicit terror or disgust.
Characteristics of the Chronically Unhappy
How do you know if you’re one of these people who live in a perpetual state of unhappiness? People who are addicted to unhappiness tend to:
- Find reasons to be miserable when life gets “too good.”
- Prefer to play the victim role and blame others rather than take personal responsibility for their choices.
- Compete with friends and colleagues to see who has it the hardest.
- Have difficulty setting and achieving goals, or conversely achieve goals only to find that they can’t enjoy their success.
- Struggle to bounce back when things don’t go their way.
- Distract, escape or cope by using drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or other addictive or compulsive behaviors.
- Stop taking care of their basic needs, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
- Feel enslaved to their emotions and powerless to change.
- Feel dissatisfied even when life is going well.
- Have dramatic, unfulfilling relationships.
Is Happiness a Choice?
It is often said that “happiness is a choice.” But then why aren’t more people happy?
In my experience, happiness is complicated. Some people find happiness even in situations that would challenge the most optimistic person; some are unhappy despite having it all. For some, happiness is fleeting and depends on their present circumstances, whereas others seem to be generally happy or generally unhappy no matter what is happening in their lives. Then there’s the issue of how to define happiness — by outward success, inward satisfaction, or something else?
In many cases, it may be true that happiness is a choice. To some extent, we choose our own thoughts and reactions, which impact the way we feel, and can improve our happiness quotient by taking steps to change our thinking (e.g., keeping a gratitude journal, staying mindful of the present moment, accepting what is or developing healthier coping mechanisms). We can view our emotions as a signal that some aspect of life needs to change and take action to return to a better state of mind.
But for about 20 percent of American adults, mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety may mean that happiness is always just out of reach. They do not choose to be depressed or anxious; they do not know another way of being. While choosing to be happy, in these cases, is more complicated than making a choice to think positively, there is one important choice that can be made: the decision to get help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
The unfortunate reality is that most chronically unhappy people refuse to get help. Nearly half of those with mental illness never seek treatment. Whether it’s fear, comfort, lack of awareness or something else, we can’t be sure. What we do know is that unhappiness does not have to be terminal. With counseling and treatment, there is hope for happiness becoming the new norm.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral he oversees mental health and addiction treatment programs in Arizona, California, Texas, Utah, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.