Ways to be unhappy
Let’s just stop talking about becoming “better” and “happier” for a minute
If you want to read about how to live a happy, successful and fulfilling existence, there are massive amounts of self-help books and “how-to-be-better” listicles out there. This article is not one of them.
Like anyone else, I am not a perfect specimen of the human race. I am not an enlightened being. I can’t give you the magic formula to happiness. No one can.
Life is about putting together pieces of your own unique life’s puzzle. Life is about playing the hand you are dealt one card at a time.
What I can tell you is some of the things that have caused me to be unhappy. I noticed that when I do them, especially over extended periods of time, I will feel less content and fulfilled.
OK, let’s talk about some ingredients for the unhappiness recipe.
I work in the tech industry. The hero syndrome is very real.
Hymns of praises get sung when developers and designers “succeed” despite all odds of unrealistic timeframes and incompetent project planning. Compensating external factors by burning the midnight oil earns you a badge of honor, like a Viking warrior returning from a glorious raid.
I don’t know for sure why people feel the need to “save the day” by working overtime. Maybe the ego needs stroking. Maybe it is peer pressure. Maybe it is the hope to financially earn more. What I do know is that if I am not mindful, I tend to fall into the same trap.
There was one time where I found myself coding alone in the office until the wee hours of the morning. The only things that kept my panda-ringed eyes open were coffee and the obsessive desire make the project a success. To say that I was on the brink of an all-out burnout would be an understatement.
The project was indeed a success. It was celebrated to some degree. A couple of congratulatory emails patting each others’ back were sent around. Some flattering blog entries with photos of smiling team members made their way to the internal corporate blog.
After a few months, no one talked about that project anymore. It was about the next project that we must to absolutely get done in time. After that, it was all about the next big project.
That experience taught me that overworking will undoubtedly cause me to be unhappy. Which is ironic, because the reason why we work in the first place is to find fulfillment and earn money to support ourselves. I thought that doing more of a good thing might be a good decision.
Infusing our bodies with a perpetual soup of caffeine and stress hormones is not natural.
In most cases, no one has died because a corporate project was delivered later than expected. The delivery date is just some arbitrary date someone in the company has come up with, hopefully, based on a bunch of half-credible data. The fact is, hitting or missing targets usually merely decides if a group of people can further their political standing within the organization or if the company earns more money.
With a few rare exceptions, hitting deadlines is not a matter of life and death. On the other hand, slowly killing yourself by constantly overworking is.
#2 Being indecisive
I noticed that there is a correlation between indecisiveness and my degree of unhappiness.
One issue with being indecisive is that I miss out on a chances life offers me. There is much truth in the old saying “time and tide wait for no man”.
It could be that I missed out on asking a girl out for coffee because I was overthinking how I should say hello. It could be that I missed out on a cheap investment opportunity of a certain stock because I decide to buy within the correct timeframe.
Missed opportunities would cause me to kick myself, wondering why I did not just pull the trigger.
The other issue with indecisiveness it that it distracts me from bigger and more important things in life. Sometimes we waste too much time contemplating small decisions that have no right or wrong calls.
It doesn’t matter in a few hours if I choose the espresso or the chai latte. It doesn’t matter if I bought the chambray shirt in darker or lighter indigo.
I have learned that making a call, even though it might be wrong, is better than not taking a decision at all. It’s better to try and fail rather than not know because of blatant indecisiveness.
At least when I make a call and it fails, I know what not to do the next time around. At least I had the balls to just make a decision and run with it.
Being indecisive feels like being bogged down, walking in a swamp.
Rumination is a close cousin to indecision.
While indecision causes us to loop scenarios too many times in our mind before we make a decision, rumination causes us to incessantly replay the scenarios after they have happened.
Ruminating feels like being forced to watch the series you hate most on Netflix for the 200th time. I notice that when I ruminate, I will almost always feel dissatisfied with myself.
Ruminating is a game we cannot win. Our brains are magnificent machines that can efficiently come up with optimization possibilities.
If we think of a social interaction we had, it is too easy for our minds to make up some scenario where we could have been cooler or have said something funnier. If it was a sports match, there is always an opportunity to dig out instances where we could have done something better.
The worse part about rumination is the cold hard fact that there are no do-overs in life. We cannot change the past, no matter how much we wish. Replaying the “could have, should have, would have” song in our heads makes us feel powerless.
Rumination is like being Tom Cruise in that Edge of Tomorrow movie, where he gets stuck in a time loop, reliving certain experiences. The first step to stepping out is to realize that we are in the loop.
#4 Consuming too much self-help material
Like many of us, I too enjoy reading the latest best-selling self-help book. I am one of the many millions of podcast listeners who consume interviews with high-performers in hopes of being one myself. I follow the typical well-known multimillionaire entrepreneur-influencers on Instagram. You know what I am talking about.
There is nothing wrong with the need to live our lives to the fullest with what little time we have on earth. It is liberating to know that we are doing what we can to live up to our own potential.
The danger here is to think that we are “one more optimization” away from crossing the finish line of happiness.
Maybe it optimizing our investment portfolio to get a higher percentage of returns. Or maybe it is drinking a green smoothie every morning. Or working out even more effectively in a shorter amount of time. Or having a bigger more social circle.
The funny thing is, chasing happiness sometimes causes me to be unhappy. By focusing too much on becoming better, I fall into the trap of thinking that I need to be better to be happier. I feel compelled to do more, have more or be more to feel fulfilled.
It doesn’t help that some producers of self-help content stir up the feeling of incompleteness or dissatisfaction in consumers in order to market their products.
The first chapter of a book might tell you that your inadequate social skill is the main reason that you are not having optimally fulfilling relationships. Those YouTube advertisements suggest that you are not earning as much as you possibly can because you lack a certain crucial piece of financial knowledge.
Chasing optimization is part of being happy. But it should not be at the cost of feeling “not good enough”. Self-acceptance is as important, if not more important than the need to self-improve. Forgetting this fact has caused me much misery on more occasions that I can care to count.
I can change the future, but I have to accept the present.
#5 Comparing yourself with others
Comparing myself to others has been a surefire way to feel inadequate and unhappy.
I notice that when I compare myself to others, it is always with someone who has “more”. Whatever “more” might mean in a particular context.
I currently drive a pretty fun car. At times, I am envious of people driving around in Porsche Caymans. I’m sure that when I own a Porsche I would be comparing myself with those who own a Ferrari.
There is no end to “upward” comparison. Unless we are Jeff Bezos, there is someone that has more material wealth.
A materialistic comparison is not the only way to feel inadequate. It is all too easy to feel “not as funny” or “working as hard” as the next person. I sometimes even compare positive or altruistic behaviors. I get depressed when I feel that I am not as kind or as generous, compared to other people.
Comparing is another one of those games we cannot win because of the fact that we cherry pick a certain trait to compare ourselves with, not the whole package.
Our world of hyper-connectivity makes it dangerously too easy to fall into the comparison trap. I notice that I can ruin a perfectly chilled-out evening at home by simply browsing social media.
Instagram pictures of people with perfect hair and six-pack abs sky-diving out of helicopters in Hawaii subtly brainwash me that I am a boring person. Twitter tweets from entrepreneurs starting their next phase of a multimillion-dollar business makes me feel like a loser for having a job as a software developer.
Comparing ourselves is like gambling in a casino. At best, it is a waste of time. At worse, it is compulsive. The house always wins in the end, we don’t.
#6 Not listening to what we need
In this fast-paced world where most of our work is mostly intellectual, it is all too easy to live in our heads and ignoring our holistic well-being. Our days are driven by ideas in our heads and screens before our eyes.
Whenever I am in happiness rut, I run a check to see if I am getting what I getting what I need as a person. Am I getting enough sleep? Am I working out regularly? Am I eating okay? Am I getting social contact?
When I am working on something, be it at work or in my free time, I sometimes go into tunnel-vision mode where I ignore everything else, even very important things like sleeping enough or eating properly. Doing that is like using a nitrous boost in those Fast and Furious movies. You get somewhere fast in the short but you will wreck the car’s engine in the long term.
Another thing I am guilty of is being compelled to do things right “by the book” all the time. Of course, it is a good idea to live healthily. We all know that. But it is also necessary to live a little. A gin tonic. Or God forbid, a stack of soft-baked chocolate chip cookies.
I feel unhappy when I strive for what I intellectually think I need, rather than tuning in to what I really need at the moment.
There is no silver bullet
Being human, it would be unrealistic to totally eliminate all behaviors that might cause unhappiness in our lives. What we can do is be mindful of them. And to dial those behaviors and patterns back a notch when we notice that we are out of balance.
I wish we can talk more about the things that might cause unhappiness. Maybe for one minute, we can just stop chasing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of perfection rainbow, by trying to be “better” and “happier” all the time.