Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome back!

I was just working on a research project on so-called “mental health problems” and I thought part of it could give you some great insights into happiness. But this time framed through the lens of how things can go wrong (in the sense that they cause suffering). It’s a big question and I want to put it in a small post, so let’s jump right in.

Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 1: Biology.

As far as we know, genes influence all of our organs: Our skin, our liver, our heart, and so on. It would be very surprising if the only exception was our brain, the seat of our consciousness and where almost all of our behaviors originate. From my psychological training I know that some children are born more anxious than others, for example, others are disposed to develop extreme personalities in one direction or another. Usually, being extreme in anything has great potential but also comes with risks. Some extreme traits can help with extreme achievements, others can make life more difficult, because society usually accommodates the average person more than the extreme one. Meaning that if you’re born moderately intelligent, adventurous, cautious, and so on, you’ll probably live an okay life by your society’s standards. But if you’re born with a brain that predisposes you to crippling anxiety or addiction, you’re likely to become that, crippled. Of course, in the end it is more complicated than that (and genetic research acknowledges that): Your life experiences, choices, and actions as well as the world you live in matter big time, but I think it is undeniable that one’s brain structures and chemistry matter a lot, too. It’s like when you make bread: It matters how you knead and bake the dough, but the ingredients of the dough itself will shape the bread just as much. Everything changes everything else.

Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 2: Psychology.

What I called “your life experiences, choices, and actions” above is what I mean with psychology. Just everything you think, feel, perceive, decide, and do. In every moment but also over the course of your life, in your unique way. Some decisions and actions will bring you closer to the life you want to live, others will move you towards unhappiness. In the research project I mentioned above, there were many different ideas of how psychology contributes to mental health problems. For example, most people with so-called “mental illnesses” have experienced psychological trauma such as caused by sexual abuse, war, or neglect. Many would also mention poverty here, which I think is important. Other scholars think that our fear of death and the resulting failure to self-actualize are at the heart of the problem. Again others say that being too rigid, meaning, reacting in the same way to the same (chain of) triggers over and over again, is what differentiates psychologically “healthy,” happy people, from “disordered,” unhappy ones. Similarly, again others say that continuing to do certain things even though they don’t help with achieving one’s goals is the real problem. In a nutshell, one could probably say that carrying psychological wounds, not doing the things one actually wants, and being too inflexible in life are some of the biggest psychological things that make us unhappy.

Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 3: The worlds we live in.

From the most private to the most universal, our environments, both physical and social, play a huge role in our (un-)happiness. What kind of family we grew up in, what kind of people we met, the society we live in, the opportunities it gives us and the injustices it commits or tolerates, but also the weather, air pollution, and cityscape as well as the cellular environment of our genes, just to name a few examples. When I was talking about bread earlier, I said that “Everything changes everything else.” To drive this point home: The environment changes how genes are expressed and the situations our psychology has to react to. Then again, for example, our genes change which environments we seek and our psychology shapes how we perceive them and interact with them. It’s a all a big mess, but a few things are for certain: It’s not all biology’s fault. It’s not all society’s fault. And it’s not all in your head. It’s a bit more complex than that. It may seem overwhelming to try to make any sense of it, so I’ll offer you two practical conclusions for you to take home and apply in your life.

The take home message

First, accept the things that make you unhappy but which you cannot change. You cannot change your genes, the family you grew up in, or the traumas you might have experienced. You also cannot change the laws of nature or the stupid look you’ll get from the people who disapprove of the path you’ve chosen (just ask Epictetus). It’s not your fault and it’s kind of unfair, but you’ll have to work with what has been handed to you. To tilt at these windmills will only make things worse for you (and the ones around you). Try to make peace with your history and the world at large.

Second, take control of what you actually can change. Without getting into arguments over free will, you do have influence over much of your biology and environment, but most of all: Your psychology. Do work through your issues, loosen some of your destructively rigid patterns, and be brave enough to pursue what you actually want. Try to be mindful and ask yourself in more and more moments: “Is what I’m doing right now moving me towards or away from the life I want to live?” Seek the environments that expedite your journey. When you feel strong enough, change society for the better, but be aware that such a big old elephant moves slowly and unwillingly. To this end, keep yourself healthy with a mostly plant-based diet, exercise, fresh air, enough sleep, and little stress—this is the part of your biology you actually have control over.

With this, I’ll go back to my day and try to follow my own advice. I hope you’ll join me. Hope you’re all well, much love

Thomas

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

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12 thoughts on “Feeling Unhappy? This Is Why.

  1. Loved this post, I’ve read a lot of different books on this topic from the Whole Brained Child (Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson) to the Confidence Gap (Russ Harris) and it’s nice to see most of the modern views summarized in one place. One hack that was subtly, but not overtly mentioned, is decluttering, it may be something people avoid when unhappy, but I’m with Marie Kondo (and minimalists in general) that what you visually and energetically see on a daily basis has a huge impact on your mental state. There was a broken window repair project that showed making a city look better-decreased crime. I think it becomes vital to a healthy mind to have many different tools in the toolbox to cope with the overwhelming nature of modern life. A technique called “Do the Work” (Byron Kaite) sometimes worked for me, about changing your own perspective, but sometimes it also completely failed to work, so I would do something called radical acceptance, which is a fancy way to say just feel sad or just feel angry, sometimes there is no way around that and doing that is a vital process of moving forward (Marc Brackett). I’ve definitely been an inflexible thinker in the past and the quote “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” – Rita Mae Brown, forever shifted my perspective, because it would pop up when I was about to be stubbornly and non-productively repetitive and stop me. I often eat well and exercise, but I don’t find that those are the solution to mental health, for me remembering I’m not alone in suffering but together with the rest of humankind, setting a boundary to change something small or large in my life that drains me of well being (Sarah Knight), or shifting around my physical environments have all been really helpful in getting out of stagnant dark moods. I find it interesting how often I need to approach myself differently for different things Emotional First Aid by Guy Winch is an excellent book that has helped me with guilt and Allie Brosh’s two books, though most humor, are excellent to help with depression nonetheless. It’s an interesting time for psychology because there is new understanding neurologically, seemingly more resources, yet in many populations anxieties, depression, and suicide are increasing making me really curious about what the underlying cause is of the shift. What has been lost that was so important or what have we gained that is so unbalancing, no one knows for sure, but it seems like something has changed. 🛠️

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    1. Hey Sakura, always nice to see you here, thanks so much for another incredibly rich comment! 🙂 Your comment could be a post in its own right, a reference work for helpful authors and self-help books. I love how much you’ve read, self-reflected, and tried out. Keep it up 🙂 I agree with most points you’ve raised so I’ll just keep it simple (and minimalistic 😉 ) and ask where you’ve heard about mental health problems (such as depression) being on the rise. I’ve read contradicting accounts, that’s why I ask. Thanks for any pointers! 🙂

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      1. Specifically in the teen group from age 10 to 24 there was a 60% between 2007 and 2018, I hope it’s the exception, but as a martial art’s coach, I connect with kids and notice much less communication between kids and their parents, increased school bullying and worries about body image, physical attacks, and financial security I don’t remember kids worrying about when I was young. These are US statistics *1 so I hope there are overblown and not indicative of a larger issue, but especially if you consider opioid addiction as a mental health problem which is becoming the current trend here in the US mental health problems seem to be on the rise. It’s difficult to compare mental health overtime when the metrics keep changing but using suicide as a baseline even adult suicide is up 24% between 1999-2014 *2. I’d rather be wrong about mental health declining that right, but casual observation of my community seems to agree with the statistics that are sometimes not an accurate portrait of reality.

        1* https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/09/11/youth-suicide-rate-increases-cdc-report-finds/3463549001/)

        2* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_in_the_United_States#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20there%20were%2048%2C344,rate%20recorded%20in%2028%20years.

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        1. Thanks for the thorough reply and the links to the sources! Yeah, it really seems like suicides are on the rise in the USA. I looked at some other countries (mostly in Europe as I’m from there) and luckily suicide rates are falling there, but the numbers in the USA are very sad in their own right. I wish you and your community all the best!

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          1. Thank you, it’s nice to know that it isn’t everywhere makes me really curious as to what exactly the difference is on a major scale, but someone who goes back and forward would probably have better insight than me. It’s been strange to me how economics isn’t the cornerstone of mental health and I wonder what is? ⛅

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            1. Really good question. Maybe the 3 parts I described in the post apply here, too. I assume that people in the USA, on average, score lower than people in Europe on all three domains of biology, psychology, and environment. More fast food, less exercise, looser environmental regulations, poorer mental health care, greater social injustice, and so on. Yet, I don’t have the data to back this up. What do you think?

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  2. I know so little about Europe to be honest, that it’s really difficult to compare US vs Europe, but I know someone from Ireland who lives in the US now, I think he would be good to ask. I’m not completely sure, but I think Australians, Americans, and Europeans are more biologically similar than dissimilar and that the major player is not biology, but the food issue could be a major thing. America went through a dust bowl, the soil quality has always been an after thought on a large scale and GMO is rampant here, but without knowing more about other countries that do and don’t have poor food quality and or GMO I can’t say it’s exactly that. I have some familiarity with Mexico and Brazil seeming to have better mental health than the US, which I haven’t done anywhere enough research to know if it’s true vs a fluke based on small sample size. Both Mexico and Brazil have a large amount of social injustice, that I’m not sure are not worse than the US, but are probably at least equivalent. Not that I’m a fan of social injustice or saying it’s not detrimental to mental health, but I don’t think it is the major player either. In Mexico and Brazil the families feel very much more unified and supportive on average, vs there is a very common break down of families in the US into scattered individuals rather than groups of loved ones. If I had to guess it’s the lack of social support and (real) connection to others that drives the depression in the US, but that’s a very rough guess. It’s difficult for me as well because I have been lucky to have stable mental health and only had what I think of as true depression postpartum, but having it a few months gave me a lot more empathy for what it would be like to live that way, it’s like missing an invisible leg, know one sees a difference and you can do everything, but not in the same way and not as easily. 🏝️

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with social support! That’s usually a big contributor to well-being. It might offset some of the damage from social injustice and explain why Mexico/Brazil seem to be happier countries. Another thing that might be different between the USA and Mexico/Brazil is that the USA are supposed to be the greatest country in the world, yet so many people struggle so much. Being left behind like this should be worse for mental “health” than living in a country where only a few corrupt/criminal people are super rich but almost everybody else is relatively poor. I think this comparison effect should make a difference.
      Happy to hear that you have experienced only little mental “health” problems but have still taken away valuable empathy for those who suffer more 🙂 Same here.

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  3. You talking about bread, and seeing that lovely picture of a new loaf, has made me hungry! I’m lucky to be able to feed myself well tonight and, for that at least, I’m very grateful!

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  4. Hey Thomas! Thanks so much for sharing your blog with me. I’m currently at the “big old elephant moves slowly and unwillingly. ” stage, but with the help of therapy, medication, meditation, exercise, healthy diet, etc (all the holistic stuff), I’m at the happiest stage of my life despite negative external factors. I’m going through every one of your posts now and looking forward to future posts. I thought I’d share two wordpress sites of people that I’ve followed for years – it may be interesting to see from the perspectives of people with severe social anxiety disorder. I have moderate social anxiety all my life, and it is already crippling, but these people have it way worse, but still struggle on each day:

    https://diaryofasocialphobic.wordpress.com/
    https://deathbyshyness.wordpress.com/

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    1. Hey Ray! Thanks so much for checking out my blog and dedicating so much time to it, I’m truly flattered! You continue to impress me with your determination and discipline. You really work for your happiness and I think it is the only way (but many don’t find the strength). I’m happy to hear that your work is bearing fruit, especially during these challenging times. Have you thought about blogging yourself? You might inspire others with your path. Social anxiety is really a very difficult lot to be handed and the two blogs you linked to portray it very well (as far as I can tell). Luckily there are ways out of it, but it’s a lot of hard work. Wish you and the community all the best! Hope you can learn to see yourself like we see you: As wonderful humans.

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