What If Unhappiness Contains The Secret To Happiness?

Maybe we should just give up the pursuit of happiness.

When you go for it head-on, you will miss it. As the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about his existential crisis:

“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

Paradoxically, aiming at feelings of satisfaction drives you away from joy. Happiness is best approached obliquely. If you want to be happy, you can’t target it directly. Instead, focus on something outside of yourself.

Contrast that elusiveness with how in-your-face unhappiness is. Whereas happiness is slippery, misery is inevitable.

In light of that, the value of suffering fruitfully might outrun the use of any Utopian quest for blissful contentment.

Let’s see how that could work.

It didn’t kill me, but did I get stronger?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is well-known for his theory that suffering is indispensable for self-improvement. In Twilight of the Idols, he famously wrote:

“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

While that sounds heroic, but it’s not entirely accurate. Decades of psychological research show stressors are generally bad for humans, contributing to anxiety, depression and heart disease. Not all bad things benefit us.

Not all unpleasant but non-lethal experiences turn out advantageous, because lack of death does not suffice for reaping the benefits of agony. Crucially, hardship by itself is not enough, but setbacks offer a possibility for advancement.

It’s up to us to take that chance.

Abilities, relationships, values

Before delving into the How, let’s look at what productive suffering involves. Identifying the possible benefits of distress, will help us later, when we try to figure out how to best extract these advantages from unpleasant episodes of our lives.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that there are three primary ways in which people can profit from traumas.

First, rising to a challenge reveals your hidden capacities, and uncovering these abilities changes the way you think about yourself. Haidt points out we don’t really know what we are capable of enduring. We say things like ‘I would never be able to handle that’, but, guess what, you probably are. As Seneca, the Stoic giant, already knew, there is only one way to discover the true depth of your strength:

Our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have 
occasionally even come to close quarters with us.” — Moral Letters to Lucilius

Second, going through hell can both filter and enhance your relationships. It will separate fair-weather friends from real comrades and can deepen the connection you have with the people in your life.

Third, misery has the power to act as a wake-up call and to correct your views about what matters in life. Haidt writes:

“When tragedy strikes it knocks you off the treadmill and forces a decision: Hop back on and return to business as usual, or try something else? Adversity may be necessary for growth because it forces you to stop speeding along the road of life and, allowing you to notice the paths that were branching off all along, and to think about where you really want to end up.”

Self-disclosure is the key to growth

In short, if we do things right, trauma can make us stronger, improve our relationships and gear our lives towards meaningful values which correspond to our true selves.

Now, recall that suffering and not dying are not enough for acquiring those perks — for that, we need to engage in certain behaviors. The million-dollar question, then, is what these actions for turning sorrow into enhancement are.

The research on post-traumatic growth is still a developing field — psychologists have long been focused on curing mental disorders, not interested in aiding non-diagnosed humans. However, thanks to a countermovement called ‘positive psychology’, the balance is shifting.

One of its proponents, Jamie Pennebaker, has devoted his career to investigating what separates successful sufferers from those who fail to come back stronger after surviving life’s punches. In his magnum opus Opening Up, he presents his findings. According to him, sense-making is the key that unlocks post-traumatic growth. You can benefit from adversity by making sense of it and drawing constructive lessons from it.

As the title of Pennebaker’s book suggests, the magic touch here is self-disclosure. Studies show that people who have experienced trauma and talk about it (with loved ones or a support group, for example) were largely spared its health-damaging effects. Writing about it in a journal yielded similar benefits. Interestingly, dancing and singing to express emotions did not.

Why not? The crux: to make sense of bad life-events you must use words, and these words must help you to create a meaningful story. Like concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl beautifully shows in Man’s Search for Meaning: anything can have meaning, but it’s up to you to find it.

Sounds good, but how does one find meaning?

“Bad times coupled with good reflection provides some of the best lessons.” -Ray Dalio, Principles

To find meaning, find your Why.

Enduring life’s punches only makes sense depending on the point of combating; sacrificing your happiness only makes sense in light of what you’re sacrificing it for.

You must get your thoughts and feelings out, unrestricted, but in such a way that meaning emerges and sense-making is facilitated. To attain that, figure out which issues you need to face and write acutely about them, aiming to penetrate them fully.

Haidt recommends:

“Answer these two questions: Why did this happen? What good might I derive from it?”

Do you bend over backward in order to justify your existence or to allow yourself to feel deserving of happiness? Or do you endure hardship because you want to achieve something you find valuable? If so, what?

These reflections allow you to progress from mindless unhappiness to mindful unhappiness. Mindless unhappiness is when your ego unconsciously resists the way the world is. Something in you refuses to accept the weather, the traffic delay or that the Joneses have a bigger house, and without you realizing it, that’s the reason you’re now spending your time being miserable.

Mindful unhappiness, on the other hand, means being aware that something external is causing you to suffer because you can’t, or won’t, accept it and that now you’re going to put up with a battle for it. You realize that’s where you’ve chosen to be unhappy for.

Mindful unhappiness is unhappiness that you’ve judged to be worth it. Mindless unhappiness, by contrast, has nothing to do with values, but only with a lack of awareness.