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Do Most People Lead Lives of Quiet Desperation?

The secret to feeling happier may first be in accepting your emotional pain.

Key points

  • We live in a world with idealized images that can make us miserable.
  • How people outwardly appear often betrays how they are really hurting within.
  • Acceptance of our pain is the first crucial step to moving beyond it.

Over my years of being a psychologist, I have heard many stories of pain and suffering. More often than I ever would have believed to be the case, these clients have confided in me how the rest of the world would have no clue how much they were secretly struggling within. In the words of one woman in her 30s, "Dr. Jeff, people often think I don't have a care in the world. If they only knew the truth!"

Many years ago, early on in my career (while I was in my early 30s), a couple in their late 50s came to see me. To maintain confidentiality, I will refer to them here as Tom and Gwen.

As soon as they sat down, it was obvious that they were in great pain—Gwen had just found out about Tom's affair with a younger woman. Gwen appeared hurt, anxious, and angry. She tearfully expressed these feelings as well. I turned to Tom and asked him how he was feeling.

Little did I realize at the time, Tom's response would stick with me for decades to follow—right up to this day. He said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I thought to myself how that quote was brilliant. At the time, I asked Tom the source of these pithy words of wisdom (for any of you clinicians out there, yes, I could have otherwise suppressed my curiosity and held off on the timing of that question). He sheepishly gazed at me and shakily muttered, "Thoreau."

Even Ideal Scenarios Come With Anxiety

As another example of human angst, of far less extreme circumstances, a few years ago a man came in to see me and described his "charmed life." He elaborated that he loved his wife and had hefty retirement funds put away. He added with further gratitude that he had three grown daughters who were all healthy, happily married, well-educated, and in satisfying careers. When I asked what his concerns were he said, "I've been so blessed, so I lie awake at night wondering when something will go wrong in my life."

Children and Teens Are Hurting Too

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide, 10% of children and adolescents experience a mental disorder, but the majority of them do not seek help or receive care. Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-olds. In fact, I know of a high school that tragically had four suicides in the 2018-2019 school year, and in 2020-2021 three students died by suicide as well.

Studies have found links between social media teen depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts. Teens have confided in me about feelings of inadequacy about their lives or appearance. They have expressed feeling envy and dissatisfaction when scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat photos of fun-filled parties and beach vacations.

As I explain in my latest book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, a combination of mindfulness skills to learn how to quiet their minds and accept their negative feelings, cognitive behavioral strategies to identify and reframe upsetting thoughts, and positive psychology to "identify and dwell in the good stuff" helps children and teens learn viable coping skills for handling overpowering emotions. The consequences of children and teens not learning to manage their emotional struggles is that they can have unrealistic expectations about "being happy" and this can limit them for leading unfulfilling lives or even worse.

Swimming in Denial River

I mentioned in the beginning of this post how many people are aware they are hurting but don't show it. There are others who may seek to escape negative feelings in unhealthy ways such as overeating, putting others down, overconsumption, substance misuse, and other problematic behaviors. Many of these people may outwardly say "I'm fine," while lying not only to others but to themselves as well.

In Closing

In a recent session, a woman came in distressed about her struggling adult child. I helped her reframe some of her more extreme thoughts and gain some tools and perspective to cope. She was gracious and then remarked to me about how calm and together I appeared to her. I smiled and said, "I hurt too, just like you." She then turned to me and said, "Dr. Jeff, thanks for being so real with me. It really helps to hear that."