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Why Are So Many People Unhappy?

To say I’ve been taking things easy this last week or so would be an understatement, I’ve been talking things reaaaaally easy and walking the Life Coach walk by doing some serious chilling and adjusting that work/life balance accordingly.

Therefore, presuming I don’t get a last minute urge to share some life changing nugget of wisdom with you, the  honor of supplying the last post for the year goes to Mr Eduard Ezeanu.

I will be back next week pumped to the max for a brilliant new year and I hope you’ll make Eduard welcome by giving him feedback in the comments!

One last thing. A couple of times over the last 4 years I have run an ‘Ask The Life Coach‘ series in which people have asked me to post on issues specific to themselves. The last time I ran this was the better part of two years ago when I had far fewer readers than I do now.

If you’d like me to resurrect this, check out my Ask The Life Coach terms and conditions and shoot me an e-mail and if there is enough interest I’m happy to give it my best shot.

Why Are So Many People Unhappy?

In those rare moments of true lucidity that I have, I can’t believe that in today’s world, in any economically developed country, there are so many bitter people bitching about their lives. Think about the conditions of our lives right now:

  • We make more money than human beings have ever made historically; taking care of our basic need for food, shelter and comfort is usually not a struggle;
  • We live in a society which provides us a wide range of options to develop a career, to spend our free time or to interact with other people;
  • Survival is no longer an issue for us (remember, I’m talking about economically developed countries, not Somalia); in comparison with our ancestors we live super-lives.

At the same time, studies show that the general happiness level in most well developed countries has been slowly but surely dropping over the last decades. In fact, the peak of life satisfaction in the United States and many other countries was somewhere in the 1950’s.

I’m willing to guess that for the most part, these studies just confirm something you already suspected. It was enough to take a good look at the people around you, and maybe into your own life, to get the thought that many of us are not very happy.

What’s going On Here?

Obviously, the problem is not the quality of our lives. We now live much better lives in terms of external conditions than in the 1950’s, yet we are less happy with them. Once you rule out this possibility, there is only one remaining explanation that makes sense: It’s all in our heads.

As a coach, I often help my clients to explore their own thinking and become more aware of their internal dialog, the way they interpret objective experiences and their personal belief system. I can tell you I’ve realized that most of us have a pretty screwed up way of thinking. We constantly distort reality in our heads and we create pointless emotional drama in our lives. This is the main reason why I believe that changing our thinking is a must for personal growth.

The Core Thinking Problem

Out of all the ways we make ourselves miserable through our thinking, there is one I find to be by far the most common and to create the most misery. This thinking problem is, in my view, the fundamental answer to the question: Why so many people are unhappy?

This answer has only two words: Imperative Expectations That’s it! You can stop reading now…

What? You’d like to know the details so you can change this? Fine! Then keep reading. Imperative expectations are exaggerated rules we set for ourselves which dictate what must happen in order for us to be happy. In a way, we tell ourselves that we will not permit ourselves to be happy until certain inflated things happen.

How This Kills Your Happiness

Here’s how imperative expectations work in real life:

You tell yourself that you must not make a mistake, but in fact you do make a mistake; You tell yourself that you must be first, but in fact you come out second; You tell yourself that everybody must like you, but in fact some people don’t like you; You tell yourself that X must love you, but in fact X is only somewhat fond of you.

Thus, you create I huge gap between what is and what you think must be, and you make it seem intolerable. It’s the perfect recipe to make yourself feel miserable.

I’m not the first one to give a lot of meaning to imperative expectations, by the way. Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) had the same idea about four decades ago.

He used to say that people put futile pressure on themselves by thinking too much in statements with the word “must” in them. He called this “musturbation”.

How to Be Happier

To me, happiness is a process. One of the key elements of this process is eliminating imperative expectations from your thinking.

If you think about it realistically, there are only a few things that “must” happen and if they don’t it’s really a tragedy. The rest is only in your head. Try doing this kind of shifts in your thinking: From: “I must not make a mistake.” To: “I would like to not make a mistake, but if I do, it’s not the end of the world.”

As you practice identifying your imperative expectations, eliminating them and switching to a more constructive and carefree way of thinking you will notice that you’ll start to feel less stressed and to enjoy life more. You’ll reach that sweet spot where you want the best for yourself and you go for it, but you can accept anything life throws at you. You’ll reach that point where you can be happy with life as it is and as you make it. This is, I firmly believe, the best emotional spot to be in.

Eduard Ezeanu provides communication coaching and helps people put their best foot forward in communication. He also writes on his blog, People Skills Decoded, and you can follow him on Twitter at @EduardSays

30 comments to Why Are So Many People Unhappy?

  • 1. Because people choose to be unhappy
    2. Because it feels safe to be unhappy
    3. Because it helps getting other people’s sympathy
    4. Because it’s an addiction
    5. Because without having the experience of being unhappy you can not enjoy the fun of being happy


    • I agree with you 99%. My doubt is that for some people under some circumstances, unhappiness is not a choice. Do people with bi-polar chose it?

      I honestly don’t think so, but I agree for most people what you say is correct.

  • because they are all “musturbaters” ;)

  • Eduard has got it totally right, folks. I’ve tried this for years and I can confirm.

    Peter de Kock also puts it nicely, if a bit crudely.

  • That is such a great point you bring up about people living in some of the best of times yet still being unhappy.

    Like you said, having a strong perspective on life will go a long way in keeping us happy.

  • I wish I’d called this post “Are You A Musterbater? Now

  • Shep

    I think the reason a lot of people are unhappy is down to the fact that they are better off and more secure than they have ever been. I believe that the more people have the more they want. This becomes ever harder to achieve as we can’t all be multi millionares/ mega intelligent/at the top of our profession etc and therefore this type of person finds it ever harder to achieve what they perceive to be happiness and end up being unhappy.

  • I think we can become very unhappy when we start comparing ourselves to those who think are more successful than us and then start blaming ourselves for not being as successful as they are. We should choose to be inspired by those more successful rather than becoming depressed.

  • It’s amazing to think of us having ‘super lives’, especially when so many people are moaning about how rotten and frustrating our lives are. This article just puts it all into perspective :-)

  • Barry

    You know I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that the reason many people are unhappy is always because of what Eduard calls Imperative Expectations.

    That may be true for SOME people but I think there is a more basic issue to address and that is the search for meaning in our lives. When we have all of our basic needs taken care of, we suddenly have this huge amount of free time that we need to fill.

    The problem I think many unhappy people experience is that they struggle to find meaning in the ways they fill this time.

    Yes, theoretically we have the option to pursue any career we choose, but the purpose of the vast majority of careers available in western society is to generate more wealth for the shareholders or owners of the business. A lot of people struggle to find meaning in that.

    Non-profits or charitable organisations are often riddled with bureaucracy and many employees experiencing this situation can struggle to find meaning in their work – they don’t feel like they are making a difference.

    Additionally, once people get married and have children, they have financial and personal responsibilities that make it very difficult for them to focus solely on the pursuit of their own happiness. Often, attempting to change your circumstances to find more meaning in what you do will involve a reduction in the material quality of life for your dependants – something many people would feel too guilty about to contemplate.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible for anybody to make changes and find happiness in their lives – but given the structure of the modern workplace and economies, it can be very difficult even to allow yourself to search for a more meaningful existence.

    In other words, I don’t think it’s a case that the reason so many people are unhappy in the wealthy western societies is due to wanting to much – sometimes it’s more to do with some very basic needs to connect with people and find meaning in out day-to-day existences that aren’t being met.

    Eduard has certainly described one situation that could be making people unhappy, but I’m not sure it is the only contributing factor.

    • Barry, I think there is a small set of common reasons why people are unhappy. Imperative expectations is in my view probably the first one, but the lack of meaning in life is definitely a big one as well. I’m a huge fan of Positive Psychology and I find meaning to be highly relevant.

  • I also think people confuse happiness with pleasure. There is indeed a difference.

    • That was the single biggest take away I got from Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.

      Nobody can say for sure what happiness is, but we can say for sure it isn’t pleasure.

  • I think we live in a society that always wants more and is always striving for me. There is opportunity in our society – which is great! Many people chose to focus on what they lack, and don’t have…they look at opportunities and feel sorry for themselves rather than having the confidence to go for it. I think happiness is where you put your attention.

  • I definitely agree with this post. So many times, we say A, B, and C has to happen or else my life won’t be complete, and I can’t be happy. but those are limitations we chose to place on our life. The fact is we don’t really need A, B, or C to be happy – we can choose to be happy right now.. if we have food to eat, a place to stay, and our basic needs taken care. We don’t need the rest: a high paying job, a big house, a beautiful spouse, a perfect marriage, a perfect job, an iPod, etc, etc.