Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Habits of Unhappy People (and What You Can Do About Them)

Some habits make us unhappy. Others reveal unhappiness. Some do both. A healthy society strives to nurture the well-being of its members, because secure, stable people who find satisfaction in life can work together, innovate, adapt to change, and problem-solve effectively. A country full of miserable, angry people who spend their time blotting out their pain or lashing out at others can cope with almost nothing.

Because unhappiness is stigmatized, it’s very possible for someone to be in denial of their unhappiness even when evidence abounds. Indeed, we are all likely in denial of at least a few habits that actively increase our unhappiness.

There's lots of research on what makes people happy and unhappy. Lots and lots. (Click on the links below if you're interested.) What follows is a partial list of the habits of unhappy people and what instigates them. To be sure, these behaviors don't affect everyone in identical fashion. Whether these habits contribute to your unhappiness is entirely for you to decide.

The Habits

--Name dropping, bragging, exaggerating your achievements and talents (Evidence of insecurity.)

--Holding grudges, obsessively hating. (Evidence of anger and also fans its flames.)

--Blaming others, denying responsibility, complaining, being helpless or passive, always framing oneself as a victim (Evidence of fear/anxiety/insecurity/shame/guilt.)

--Insulting/bullying/mocking/demeaning others others. (Evidence of insecurity/shame.)

--Lying, cheating. (Evidence of insecurity/fear/shame/anxiety.)

--Being sedentary, long commutes, driving in traffic. (Cause of stress, depression, anger, anxiety, poor health.)

--Watching a lot of TV/commercials (Cause of poor health/insecurity/frustration/ passivity, sometimes evidence of anxiety, grief, depression.)

--Stewing in existential angst, including climate change angst. (Evidence of anxiety/fear/despair, can reinforce all three.)

--Spending hours each day watching or reading news (Evidence of anxiety, cause of anxiety/anger/frustration/hopelessness.)

--Arguing a lot, angry tweets, going off in rages, horn honking, driving recklessly or with hostility. (Evidence of low self-worth/anger.)

--Enjoying the pain of others, inflicting pain on others, fantasizing about inflicting pain on others, cruelty to animals. (Evidence of anger/self-hatred/perhaps shame/inability to empathize, cause of anger/guilt.)

--Prone to aggression, domestic violence.(Evidence of anger/insecurity/low self-esteem.)

--Frequent impatience, frustration, feeling stressed (Evidence of anger/unhappiness from lack of control.)

--Ruminating on the negative, negative self-talk, being pessimistic. (Evidence of fear/grief/low self-esteem, cause of fear/depression/low self-esteem.)

----Eating junk food/processed food/too much caffeine. (Cause of poor health/irritability./depression.)

--Garden-variety selfishness. Being inconsiderate, rude, not taking one’s turn, not taking into account needs of others. (Can be evidence of fear/insecurity/anxiety/depression. Can also be evidence of bad upbringing that didn’t cultivate empathy.)

--Artificial mood lifters--binge eating/sugar/carbs/smoking/alcohol/drug use/compulsive shopping. (Evidence of anxiety/anger/depression/psychic pain, cause of shame/anger/addiction/poor health.)

--Frowning, slumping when sitting or walking (Evidence of anger/stress/sadness, cause of/amplifies depression, stress, sadness)

--Chasing status, material goods, spending lots of time on social media. (Evidence of insecurity/fear/low self-esteem/loneliness, cause of resentment/fear/insecurity/low self-esteem/anger/anxiety/depression/loneliness.)

--Hoarding, living in chaos/mess (Evidence of anxiety, cause of shame/stress/anxiety)

--Social isolation, prolonged grief. (Evidence of fear/depression/anxiety, cause of depression/poor health.)

--Little time spent in nature, too little exposure to sunlight. (Cause of depression/poor health)

--Carrying around big bags of emotional rocks/not letting stuff go. (Cause of depression/frustration/low self-esteem/anger.)

--Black/white thinking—us/them, winners/losers, good/evil, etc. (“If only they (insert group of choice) didn’t exist, everything would be fine.) (Evidence and cause of anger/fear/resentment)

Hey, we’ve all done some of the above. I’m guilty of many myself at one time or another. The point is not to be perfect or eliminate every possible negative action from our lives. Nor is the point to excuse these behaviors, which can often be quite hurtful to others. The point is to recognize and reduce the ways we contribute to our own unhappiness and increase the ways we boost our well-being.

Our level of well-being is a byproduct of how we live our lives. It's the result of the big decisions we make but also the cumulative behaviors that fill our days. You can think of your mood as your emotional weather, and your level of contentment/discontent as your emotional climate. There are two important ways in which this metaphor fails. You can’t change the weather but you can change your mood. And unhappiness tends to beget more unhappiness. (There’s a reason Eeyore walks under a perpetual rain cloud.) So breaking the cycle  helps. Regardless of anything else, you deserve to enjoy your life. Being miserable will not solve your problems, it won't solve the world's problems, but it will sap your energy and your health. Sure you won't always walk around in perpetual bliss, and chasing sheer hedonistic gratification can be a great way to ruin your life. Still, eliminating habits that make you unhappy really does help.

Unhappiness is usually a byproduct of stress, anger, insecurity, unhealed trauma, frustration, low self-esteem, poor health, hunger not under your control, lack of belonging/connection, or lack of life purpose/meaning. Sometimes tackling an unhappiness habit requires addressing the underlying emotion/cause, but sometimes just changing an external habit brings about remarkable internal change. Of course there are many factors outside of one’s personal control that cause unhappiness. They include wealth inequality, being abused as a child, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, a dangerous environment that prevents walking/exercising outdoors, living in a food desert, no access to or money for food, no access to nature, being the victim of violence, loud noise, lack of control at work, unloving parents, physical pain, toxic people you can’t escape, being harassed, shamed, demeaned, threatened or intimidated, incarceration, grief, pollution, litter, and ugliness. (Partial list! What would you add?) There are good reasons for our society to prevent or reduce the above factors as much as possible, and it’s true that sometimes getting oneself away from a toxic situation or person can reduce unhappiness dramatically. But people tend to vastly underrate the power of personal habits that are within our direct control.

Habits that boost well-being: walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, sports (if emphasis is on fun and camaraderie), time in nature, tree canopies, flowers, being grateful, keeping a gratitude journal, being kind, being optimistic, limiting time on social media, not eating processed food, eating enough healthy protein and vegetables, meditation, dancing, gardening, being optimistic, limiting alcohol, limiting caffeine, positive connection with others, smiling, sitting and standing with good posture, acknowledging but not dwelling on negative emotions, reframing problems, calming techniques, frustration reduction techniques, massage, sunlight, creating art, meaningful work, finding meaning in life, cutting out sugar, community service, pets, and music that you like. What happiness boosters work for you? Making a list like this for you in particular and holding it close to your heart (metaphorically) is a very good idea. For unresolved trauma, counseling or deep internal work can help you heal. It's important to notice what's not on this list: money. That's because beyond a certain level of income, money doesn't make people any happier. (It depends on family size and cost of living, but in the US happiness starts plateauing around $75K.) People who win the lottery two years later are no more or less happy than random people selected from the phone book.

We unconsciously perceive unhappiness as contagious (in some ways it is) and avoid those who are obviously unhappy. This is one of the reasons people deny, ignore, or conceal their unhappiness. But not everyone who is unhappy is toxic. Indeed, some go on to live admirable lives despite their unhappiness, a good example being Abraham Lincoln who had a raft of private and public sorrows but still managed to be an exemplary human being. (Maybe because, remarkably, he had very few unhappiness habits.)

I’m writing about unhappiness for two reasons. The first is because I want to live in a world full of functional people that aren’t committing slow suicide in misery. We are all connected, every single living thing on this planet, so even if we never meet, your well-being affects my own.

The second reason is that if you can recognize the habits of unhappy people for what they are, you can step out of the drama and be far less affected by them. Often the behavior that drives you the most crazy is the one that resonates with you unconsciously. The one you’re in denial about. Yep, you’ve got to look at it. Becoming conscious of a habit is both a necessary and powerful first step towards addressing it.

When you interact with people who are unhappy, you don’t have to solve their problems for them. You probably can’t anyway. But you can be kind. And the first principle of being kind is to not take their negative energy, wad it into a ball, and throw it back in their face to teach them a lesson. If the person is harming you or others, you may have to intervene, but most unhappy people hurt themselves more than others. If you can manage not to participate in the drama, you can defuse it. You de-escalate. You make it possible for the other person to make a shift. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but not reinforcing their negative spiral has more power than you might think. And once you understand that their behavior comes from unhappiness, it will make you less frustrated and crazy, which means your happiness will increase. Benefits all around.

Bonus tip #1: If alcohol is adding to your unhappiness, a powerful book is This Naked Mind.

Bonus tip #2: If you want a surefire way to increase your happiness, get an electric bike. I’m not kidding. Try it.

Karen Lynn Allen is an author working on a new set of novels, a trilogy called The Radiant Engineer about a society that goes into a descent and then climbs out of it.