Why are people unhappy?
Are people, generally, unhappy today? Or unhappier than they were years ago? I would say yes, based on the following observations and information:
The amount of recreational drug use – not only among young people but extending into the older demographics. “In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older—9.4 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug in the past month. This number is up from 8.3 percent in 2002.” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). And, according to the same source, there is a sharp increase in the number of people between 50-60 who are also using recreational drugs.
The amount of prescription medications for a wide variety of psychological as well as physical symptoms. One study shows about 48% of Americans take at least 1 Prescription Drug.
The amount of complaining that one hears in nearly every work site. My observations are that this has increased substantially over the last 10 years, including those years when the economy was booming and unemployment was the lowest it has been in decades. A recent Gallup Poll says that nearly 70% of American workers are not engaged in their work or workplace.
So why might this be?
Barring life tragedies including death, illness, or divorce, where sadness for a period of time is normal and experienced by everyone, or cases of chemical imbalance creating clinical depression, some unhappiness, I believe, can result from an unrealistic expectation of how the world and one’s life should be.
Remember when you were young and you complained to your parents about something that wasn’t fair? If you were lucky, your parents simply told you that “life isn’t fair” so get over it! If you weren’t lucky then your parents agreed with you, marched over to whomever it was you were complaining about – a teacher or a coach for example, and demanded that some sort of realignment of the universe occur.
Or perhaps you were raised playing sports where there were no losers – everybody was a winner; everybody got a participation ribbon. Imagine how unfair life will seem when you don’t get the job you applied for because someone else was chosen, or you don’t get into the college you applied to because your marks are not the same as those who were accepted.
A number of writers take the position that it is not the action but rather the thoughts one has about the action that causes unhappiness. This is why I have thought that the Holmes-Rah stress scale which identified a large number of events (some positive such as graduation while others were negative such as a death and assigned a value to it was misleading. Their contention was that too many stressful events which accumulated a certain number of points were likely to result in some health crisis. While this intuitively seems to make sense, it ignores the fact that some of the events might result in a cessation of stress (a divorce from a violent partner; the death of a family members who was in a great deal of death and who wanted to die for example).
But the notion it is only our thoughts about the events and not the events themselves that make us unhappy, is, unfortunately, nonsense. While it is true that our beliefs about events have the power to make us unhappy, it is equally true that there is a lot of crap that can land in our laps and which few people would have any positive thoughts about.
So what to do?
The answer, I believe, is to rid oneself as much as possible from “voluntary unhappiness” – that is, the unhappiness that results purely from our inability to think of anyone else except ourselves and what we “deserve”.
I’ve always thought that I’m damn lucky to have not received in life everything that I have deserved. And it is helpful to ask ourselves why we are the fortunate ones to have been born in the best country in the world, at the best time in the history of the world and we, personally, have not done one damn thing to “deserve” it.
We could have been born a peasant in China during the construction of the great wall, and had our bones interred when we died as did thousands of people building it. We could have died in childbirth in the 1500’s in Africa, or during the plague that ran rampant and killed a third of the population in Europe every few years.
We could have been one of the very young soldiers, age 17 or 18 perhaps, whose bodies lie in Turkey after the debacle at Gallipoli, or in Ypres, France where 70,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force were killed.
There is a modern term for modern unhappiness of the sort that descends on so many – First World Problems.
No, life isn’t fair at all, and perhaps for that we should all be profoundly grateful.