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Happiness

5 Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Signs of an Unhappy Person

Some signs of unhappiness are less obvious than others.

Key points

  • Individuals who have grown unhappy may not realize they've crossed the invisible line of general unhappiness.
  • Well-being depends on several key components, including trust and a positive attitude.
  • Not having a sense of awe is one of the most overlooked components of general unhappiness.

While there are clear and obvious signs that a person is generally unhappy, many signs are a bit more subtle. Not all individuals who have reached a point of general unhappiness in life will have the awareness or willingness to say to others "I'm really unhappy" or "I hate my life." When a person is unhappy, they have often crossed the invisible line between generally content in life and generally unhappy. Because feelings are subjective and often confusing (even to oneself), individuals who have grown unhappy often may not even realize that they've crossed that line and become unhappy overall.

Consider the behaviors below that often correlate with general life unhappiness and ask yourself whether any of these apply to you or someone with whom you live in proximity, whether at home, work, or in your social circle.

Quickness to criticize others

Criticizing others is one of the most frequent indicators that a person is unhappy. This makes intuitive sense, as well, as the unhappy individual has come to overidentify with what is wrong with their own life. In turn, they may engage in the defense mechanism of projection and find fault and criticisms in others in order to relieve and balance the internal criticism with which they psychologically wrestle. Feeling positively about others is a component of a positive attitude, and research supports that positive thinking and positive emotions broaden and build one's resources and skills, and opens one's sense of possibilities (Fredrickson, 2004).

Having a competitive mindset but lacking external success

Approaching life with a competitive, score-keeping mindset is terrific when the individual is achieving external results of success. These successes are clinically conceptualized as ego-syntonic, meaning that the results (success) are in harmony with the self-image. Conversely, negative thoughts and feelings, or what is clinically called dissonance, develop when a highly competitive person isn't achieving the results that match their ego's need for success and external validation. When the competitive individual is experiencing mediocre or negative results, they presume that others are keenly aware of their lack of success and they struggle with feelings of failure, weakness, and fear of being exposed as being "less than" in comparison with others.

Significant distrust of others

The link between distrust of others and unhappiness may not be apparent at first, but the two are related. Trust in others is key to a sense of happiness and well-being, because life typically calls for many different types of relationships, and relationships involve an interdependence. Trust is essential to the development of healthy, secure, and satisfying relationships (Simpson, 2007). Distrusting individuals are typically guarded around others at work, in their extended family, and in their social life, extending to their spouses and adult siblings more frequently than many may anticipate. They often fear others' motives or ascribe negativistic and fatalistic intentions to others ("People look out for themselves" or "People will throw you under the bus to get ahead"). Individuals who have grown unhappy misperceive these irrational beliefs as facts, and tend to become hijacked by all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking when it comes to trusting others.

Switching between a public and private persona

The word "fake" is not a clinical term, but it is the one frequently used in everyday conversation to describe this type of person. An individual who has grown unhappy may develop a type of personality mask that is sweet and appropriate, mimicking the compliments or niceties they know are expected in everyday interactions. Unhappy individuals "play the social game" with others but, behind closed doors, may proverbially let it rip and unleash how they truly feel. When they do, it's often negative, judgmental, or even outright cruel. The public mask, accordingly, is critical for them in order to avoid being ostracized by others as bad or nasty people, but they carry an underlying fear of exposure, which reinforces the cyclical nature of their guardedness.

An almost complete disconnection from awe

Among the signs of a generally unhappy person described, this particular characteristic is the most subtle. A person who feels happy, or happy enough in their life overall, shows the capacity for something frequently associated with infants and young children but which is just as important among adults: a capacity for the sense of awe and wonder, or a kind of take-your-breath-away amazement. Having a sense of awe, whether induced by a passion for a theater performance, a piece of music, or an organism or artifact found in nature, indicates a psychological process much grander: a gratitude for life and humility that goes along with a basic understanding of one's inherent smallness in the world.

Research supports that a sense of awe is associated with greater well-being and, specifically, is associated with reducing daily stresses (Bai, Ocampo, Jin, Chen, Benet-Martinez, Monroy, Anderson, & Keltner (2021). Maintaining a sense of awe in a complex adult world is crucial in order to keep life's problems in perspective, and individuals who have grown unhappy have typically given up on awe and closed themselves off to a sense of true wonder and amazement.

Conclusion

While many possible signs of general unhappiness exist, the ones described above are common and must be explored deeply in order to work through them. When a person becomes unhappy, the process has typically unfolded over a period of months or even years, and it's supported by beliefs that are often entrenched and rigid. Writing extensively in a journal, reading about sources of unhappiness, or exploring these issues with a mental health professional provide a good start to improving one's life perspective.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Bai, Y., Ocampo, J., Jin, G., Chen, S., Benet-Martinez, V., Monroy, M., Anderson, C., Keltner, D. Awe, Daily Stress, and Elevated Life Satisfaction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology: Attitudes & Social Cognition, 2021;120:837-60.,

Fredrickson, B. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1367-1378.

Simpson, J.A. Foundations of interpersonal trust. In: Kruglanski AW, Higgins ET, editors. Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. 2. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2007a. pp. 587–607.

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