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September 16, 2016

Why Do People Choose Unhappiness?
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

view of lake at sunset
Happiness is easy. But the switch from unhappiness to happiness is hard. It means change which requires effort and can be quite uncomfortable. It is letting go of the familiar and the seemingly safe.

We often hear cliches such as “Happiness is a destination” or “Happiness is a state of mind.” Although these cliches have truth, they don't tell you how to change. It is not as simple as reading a statement and thinking “Oh, I never thought of that! My life is changed forever!”

Instead, people choose to stay miserable because the road to happiness can be uncomfortable. There are no “3 Easy Steps to Happiness.” It is a journey—one that can take a lifetime. That doesn't mean you can't be happy during that journey. But happiness is an unfolding process. The journey promises more around every turn.

People often want to think happiness can be achieved. They believe they know the formula and they will be happy “when...” When they don't have any problems. When they have plenty of money. When they are thin enough. When they have the right relationship...the perfect family. In other words, “When I (get there, have that, achieve this) I will be happy.”

Or, they think happiness means never feeling sad, or anxious, or distressed, or angry. Yet, the truth is, trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings often leads to greater unhappiness. By avoiding the unpleasantness and regrets of the past, people make mistakes in the present. People use drugs and alcohol to achieve a peaceful feeling even though dire consequences may result.

The alternative, however, is uncomfortable. It means not knowing. It means letting go of what you think you know. It means taking a risk—the risk of discomfort, of failure, of no guarantee of an outcome. People make extreme efforts to avoid this risk.

Think about how ingrained it is to feel comfortable. One way to do this is to choose a very simple behavior that you do every day. It could be brushing your teeth, or how you leave the house, or how you dress, or what you eat. It doesn't matter what it is, just that it is something routine...a habit.

Now, deliberately do it in a different way: brush your teeth at a different time or in a different pattern, leave the house by a different door, wear something that doesn't match, eat something for breakfast that you normally wouldn't (pickles, for instance). For those who thrive on excitement and change, maybe it means to not do something or to be bored.

And actually do this—don't just think about how you might feel because that can be deceptive.

For me, it would be leaving a cabinet door open in the kitchen—drives me nuts! Even though leaving a sink full of dishes wouldn't bother me at all. Funny creatures we are. If I was told leaving my cabinet doors open was my road to happiness, I would have to think long and hard about that. But seriously...

Notice your reactions to this change. You may have to look closely at how you feel because your reaction may not be intense since this is a simple behavior. But notice what you are feeling. Do you feel any tension? Do you feel a little confused—have to think more about what you are doing? Does this feel unpleasant or uncomfortable? What if I said to do this every day? Would you want to resist? Would you come up with excuses: “It doesn't really matter—why bother?” What if I said this could lead to happiness? Would you do it? Every day?

As I said, this is a simple behavior. Multiply the discomfort you feel with this simple behavior many times to understand the discomfort people feel with major change. Even when the major change can come with great reward, the discomfort can lead to resistance. As a result people choose to remain unhappy (while deluding themselves that they don't really have a choice).

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