There seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.
I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed). And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.
I hear things like:
- I just want to be happy
- Everyone deserves to be happy
- Lifes too short to not be happy
- I’m happy now (in the new relationship)
This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept. And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.
Of course people “want to be happy”. Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite? Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).
Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).
I totally get all that.
Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?
Do you know? Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff. I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling. Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.
Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”. You can be happy at home, but not in your job. Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.
Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.
So what does this really mean to relationships?
When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.
Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.
Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment. That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard. A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen. So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.
Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.
With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.
And THIS will result in…
(ready for it?)
I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing? Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?”
Nope, and the distinction here is really important.
First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship. It means you’re normal. Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together. You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.
Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.
And understanding that? THAT really matters.
Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy. You need to understand the actual problem. And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!
The Search for Happiness
My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy. They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.
They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.
They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah). So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.
(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in. But that’s a topic for another day.)
In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.
One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person. I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.
Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person. I just need to find someone more compatible.
Sorry, that’s a load of crap. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).
But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill. And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship. No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.
And THAT should be good news.
The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill. And both parties need to be willing to do this.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying. And if they are? Then ANY issue can be improved upon.
Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed. But all problems can get better.
Believing Change Can Happen
Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up. They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”. And as a result they don’t really try.
This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.
It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying. But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions. As I said, ANY issue can be improved. But you have to be willing to put in the work.
Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution. Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works. And you are NEVER helpless to make change.
It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost. But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.
Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there. These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).
The way out of this mess is through communication. REAL communication.
When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking. Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.
If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.
Happiness is Mostly About You
One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act. It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU. While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.
Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.
For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us. It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.
Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you. It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues. It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.
But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime. They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.
In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.
Built to Last?
Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.
Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.
And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.
Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright. Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again. In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.
So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out. An excuse.
I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.
I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.
At least those reasons are honest.
They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there. That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.
But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling? That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.
11 thoughts on “Happiness is Overrated”
I really like this, Drew. I have been struggling with unhappiness (at least it has become more apparent) over the the past 6 months or so. Mine has more to do with the lack of relationship, and feeling like I have wasted a big part of my life, or have done something wrong that I would end up alone.
I am coming face to face with the things I do that keep me at arms length to people. And, I am also being appreciative of the close friendships I do have.
It’s just, in my mind I want to live with other people, have daily contact with other people and it seems like that is something I cant really change and seems like something that no one should live without.
What I am trying to say is that yes, definitely, we have to accept our unhappiness. We have to accept a life that imperfect and a world that is broken, and the fact that we get what we get (period).
But, accepting it doesnt have to mean living in it constantly. I think its the gratitude thing- instead of looking at the what is wrong, we have to look and be grateful for what is right, and find the things that you CAN find joy in.
So, for me- the likelihood of me ever having a family is less than 10%, or maybe even 5%. The likelihood of meeting someone and all the parts being right (shared values, enjoyment of each other, the right time, ect.) are about the same. (i know- I keep trying, and no luck so far!! : ))
So, my choice is to be stuck in this feeling helpless and hurt mode, or I can say “WTF- I am going to go rock climbing this weekend.” (True story!!)
I think the same applies for relationships. XYZ are issues that make things difficult, but we also have to be thankful (and say so) for the ABC in the relationship. No matter how small that may feel.
Just my two cents! 🙂
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Sorry to hear that you struggle with unhappiness. I do have a few older posts on happiness, and one that may be of interest is https://thezombieshuffle.com/2016/04/11/the-secret-to-happiness/. Just know you aren’t alone.
As for the idea that you have wasted a big part of your life – honestly, I have found that a lot of people struggle with that. I’ve talked to a lot of people who start to spend time wondering about the road not taken, and how life may have been different (ie. better) if they had “just done this one thing differently”. I caution against that thinking, as it doesn’t lead anywhere positive.
The way I see it, we are the sum of our experiences and decisions. And even if we wish we had done something a bit differently, we can’t change the past. All we can do is learn from it, and try to grow personally each and every day.
I think it’s great that you are starting to see things you do to keep people at arms length. That is SO important, and is necessary to ever build the future you want. So many people spend their time blaming others for their unhappiness, and not owning their own role in it.
I’m with you in thinking that people are social creatures, and not really meant to be alone. At the same time, I think that some people get caught in a trap of “not wanting to be alone”, and that’s very different from “wanting to be with someone”. I actually think there is a considerable percentage of marriages out there where people don’t really want to be with the other person, they are just scared to be alone. I don’t think that’s very healthy either.
I think the most important thing for people to do is spend their time learning to love themselves and accept themselves for who they are. If they can do that, I think everything else will just kind of fall in place. They may find someone (if they are open to it), they may not. But if they do it’s going to be someone to share their life with, instead of just being someone to prevent them from being alone.
Good job on the rock climbing. I did it once when I was younger and it was a lot of fun. Not a lot of opportunity on the prairies though 🙂
Hey Drew, I don’t want to make it sound like it is that bad. For the most part, if you look at my circumstances they seem pretty good. I’m not really struggling except with myself. The reason I am alone is because I live in an area where the population is 1 of three things- 1.) 18-24 year olds (it’s a college town) 2.) Retiree’s or 3.) Young, conservative families. I moved here when I was 27, already a little out of the age range for the college crowd, but I did make some good friends who were in graduate school at the time. I have stayed because I really haven’t felt prepared to deal with the real world. I haven’t felt prepared to really be an adult. At first, that was ok, and it’s not like I stopped growing- I have been becoming who I am today. (That, I VERY much agree with.) But, I am little angry with myself that for the last few years I have not stepped out further. What I have done is played “mental gymnastics”, contorted my way of thinking to say that it was ok that I live on the outside of everyone else’s life. I have a few exceptions to that- I do have one or two friends who welcome me as family, but we still don’t see each other enough for me to really be satisfied. I want my own family. I want my own life. In the case of marriage and relationship it is a little different, because it isn’t just your own. I don’t think people should go looking for some other life in order to fill some void they have in themselves. But, for me I feel like the void is there because I am really good at hiding, and avoiding real responsibility. It’s one thing to accept your life, and commit to THAT life when it is integral to other peoples lives. But for me, my issue- the root of it all is that I am NOT am integral part to anyone’s life except my own. And again, that is because I have been afraid and I haven’t taken any real responsibility for anything. There is another part to it, to. I haven’t taken responsibility for my own happiness, either. That can look differently for different people, but in a very real sense of the phrase- I haven’t rewarded myself for the achievements I have made. I have gotten 3 degrees, and a vocational certificate, and I’m working on a 4th degree. But, when was the last time I took a vacation? NEVER. School has been a way has given me some purpose and will help me in the long run, but it has also been a place to hide. The long run- the future, has also been a place to hide. I don’t do what I really want today, because I am working towards the future. Well, turning 40, having no kids and no husband and a very small personal life has shown me that living in the future is not a way to live. The future I dreamt about is never going to get here. So, yeah- like you said I have to accept my life as it is. I have to accept the choices I made, I have to accept myself and my limitations and make the life I have the best I can make it. For me, that means playing with my dogs and enjoying it, and paying attention to the people I work with, and other people who may just need a friend. But it also means exploring the things that I have always wanted to do, but haven’t let myself.
Rock climbing may not bring me eternal happiness, but it will give me a chance to get out of my own little world, and may bring something significant to my life.
It’s ok to feel unhappy. I don’t think we are supposed to live in a state of perpetual euphoria, and maybe (most likely) the key to real joy is accepting the life you have. But, it’s also ok, even necessary to find the things in life that bring you satisfaction and joy outside of your current circumstances (As long as they don’t corrode or are harmful to the life you have.) That’s where I am. A state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the outcome of my choices. So ,I am trying to make different choices to have different outcomes, even if it is just satisfaction in this moment.
I rambled, sorry- but it was a good therapy session ; ).
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Ha, don’t ever worry about rambling – that’s my speciality. Seriously, you would think I could keep a post to around 1200 words, but this one crept up over 1800 and I couldn’t figure out how to edit!!! I completely understand that writing is therapeutic though. I love the topics I write on, but I also find it very cathartic.
Maybe it’s a case of ignorance being bliss, but I try not to look to much at “the paths not taken”. Sure they have things I have missed, but had I taken them I would have probably missed out on some of the things I HAVE done. So I just try to focus on the good, try and appreciate what I DO have, and accept the negative sides as just something that comes with the territory. And if I really don’t like something? Well, I always have the power to make different choices moving forward.
From your descriptions of your education, it sounds like you’ve accomplished a lot in your life and have a lot to be proud of. I understand what you say about living for the future though. Living for the present vs. the future is just one of many areas where it can be difficult to find balance in life. The way I see it everything is on a spectrum, and extremes of ANY kind are usually unhealthy.
It sounds as though you’ve found yourself with a great education (and maybe a great career?) but in the process feel you have lost out on some of the other paths life could have taken you. Well, there are a lot of people who struggle with the exact opposite. I’ve spoken to a number of people who have the marriage and the family, and feel that in the process they gave up too much of themselves. Either in passing up career opportunities or losing some of their individuality.
Balance is hard, and every path has both positives and negatives.
Thanks for the comments, and all the best
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Boy do I ever get this. I’ve made some life choices along the way, decisions that I don’t regret, per se, but ones that had implications that I hadn’t considered.
We make the best decisions we can at the time. Course corrections are totally allowed ☺
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Thank goodness for course corrections! (And thank you for saying so!)
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“We make the best decisions we can at the time. Course corrections are totally allowed”
You’ve summed it up perfectly. I think life is all about making the best decisions you can at the time, and then using them to grow. Sometimes our course corrections are minor, and other times we have to pretty much blow up everything that came before. But we needed to go down that road before we could make that decision, so it wasn’t a bad choice.
One of my favorite lines (from a book by Canadian author Guy Kay):
“There are no wrong roads, there are only roads we had not known we were meant to choose”
I’m not sure about the “meant” part (as I don’t really believe in fate), but life presents us with choices and opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.
Mistakes are important, because they are how we learn. And if we use them to learn and grow, were they really a mistake?
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I always enjoy reading your post even now that I am on holiday with the families. Keep it up 😉
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Hey, didn’t you read my post on Living in the Moment and Connecting through Disconnecting? What are you doing reading these when you’re on holidays?
Actually I’m glad you’re reading and commenting. It’s always good to get some sort of feedback and confirmation that someone out there is reading.
Mind you, I would still write anyways. The first years I wrote almost no one read, but I’m still here 2 1/2 years later – because I really write for me.
Thanks for commenting. Now get back to your vacation and enjoying the moment!!!
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It is because when I get the chance to check my WP & yes lots of mails to attend to but I cannot pass the chance when I see your post haha! I will read some of your post once I have the luxury of time after the holiday. I am also planning to post our holidays before I get too overwhelmed with so many photos to share and fellow bloggers to thank too! 🙂
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I especially like that Tom Robbins quote.
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