In my practice as a therapist, I talk with dozens of people every week, and over time I have noticed a common theme: Everyone wants to be happy. Yet, many of us fail to achieve this goal, despite our best efforts. I call this the happiness crisis. You are ticking all the boxes necessary to be happy, and yet you remain dissatisfied: The dream job you worked so hard to get has a downside; you lost 20 pounds but you still have low self-esteem; your partner may not be such a good match after all. Where is that pot of happiness gold we were promised?
Everything looks good from the outside
A post on the Humans of New York Facebook page tells the story of a couple who landed in one of these happiness crises: “We met in church as teenagers. We were best friends at first. We’d complete each other’s sentences. We got married two weeks after she graduated from UCLA, and we never stopped moving after that. We had our first child while we were in law school. Then we both had to pass the bar. After that we had to find jobs, and we had a second kid.
At some point we just got into survival mode. It didn’t feel like we were growing a relationship anymore. It just felt like we were picking up the pieces of decisions we had made. We kept telling ourselves that things would get better once life settled down. We’d say, ‘Let’s just get through law school.’ Or, ‘Let’s just get through finals.’ Or, ‘Let’s just get through this move.’ We never communicated things that were bothering us.
After 13 years, we finally decided that the time was now. Counseling was hard. But we’re so glad we went because things are better now. And we feel like we’re growing again.”
Sometimes a happiness crisis arises when things are “good on paper.” You have the mate, the kids, the car, the house, the job, your health—and you’re still not happy. Subsequently, feelings of sadness, guilt or frustration can set in.
Psychologist Leon Festinger identifed that people have a need for internal consistency. We want our experiences to match up with our feelings, and we want our thoughts and beliefs to be consistent. When they are not, and instead we are twisted up in a confusing internal conflict, the field of psychology calls this cognitive dissonance. This is perhaps why the happiness crisis can be so confounding: Everything may look fine on the outside, but inside we are suffering.
If you are experiencing a happiness crisis, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Have you looked at the big picture?
Make a checklist of all of the things that you believe will make you happy in life. Pivot and make sure they all ring true, and be sure to acknowledge and be grateful for those big-list items you have already achieved. Then create a strategy for how you will focus on getting/creating the missing pieces.
2. Are you guilty of making comparisons?
Are you dissatisfied with your partner only because your friend’s partner seems more doting? Do you feel disappointed in your job only because your sister loves hers more? If your lack of happiness is based on envy, it’s time to adjust your mindset. Research shows that social comparison will only make you more depressed. We all have good and bad things in our lives. Concentrate on Question No.1: Be grateful for what you have and then work toward getting more of what you want.
3. Have you been brushing issues under the rug while building success and happiness in other areas?
The Facebook couple is guilty of doing some of this. They were busy climbing professional ladders and raising a family, and in the process they stopped nurturing their relationship, and their communication came to a halt. Once they identified the problem areas in their marriage, they were able to reconnect and came out of their happiness crisis.
4. Are you bored?
Sometimes feelings of isolation or a lack of things to do can make us overanalyze and critique parts of our lives. Take up a new hobby, plan more date nights with your mate. If you have free time, reach out to friends and people in your community to see what opportunities exist for volunteering and giving back.
5. Have you changed?
As we grow older, our values and ideals evolve, and we often forget to examine and readjust our goals. A friend of mine used to be “a shopper”—every time she had extra money she spent it at the mall. She realized that it had become a habit; she had a closet full of things that she didn’t wear. She had grown “numb to shopping,” and that made her unhappy. After reflection, she discovered a desire to travel and now spends her former mall time planning fun and stimulating adventures.
Take stock of all of the positive things in your life and focus on the feelings they evoke. Sometimes just increasing our awareness and gratitude for what we already have can provide a new perspective that increases our happiness.
STACY KAISER, the author of How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, is a licensed psychotherapist, relationship expert, media personality and Live Happy editor at large.