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Three Ways to Turn Unhappiness Around

We all know people who never seem to be happy. Ask how life is and they’ll give a sad little shrug, and you just know that whatever they are about to say will not be cheerful. Unfortunately, this state of chronic unhappiness is not at all uncommon, says life coach and regular Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander, and truth be told... it isn’t always someone else.

Indeed, many of us cling to unhappiness to one degree or another. I’m not talking about clinical depression, which is a medical problem that calls for medical treatment, or mourning, which is obviously profound sadness about an important loss. This is about the generalized feeling of being not happy... slightly glum... disappointed with life... having no zest for living. For such people, the glass is always half empty.

You might think that these folks are so committed to their unhappiness that they actually love being in that state, but Lauren says that isn’t really true. It’s not love but rather devotion, she says. "People become devoted to the thinking and actions that are the very things creating their unhappiness," she explains, adding that this kind of unhappiness is absolutely curable. "It’s not something that happens to you, it is something you created -- and you can uncreate it."

While it is easy to blame the modern world with its multitude of disruptions and distress, what goes on outside of you isn’t really the problem. "The reality is that unhappiness develops from within. Most often, when people are unhappy they are themselves the reason," she says. This may sound frightening, but Lauren said it’s actually incredibly empowering. "If the problems are within you, so is the means to change -- you can fix the reasons that you are unhappy... and it isn’t that hard," she says.

Which Way are You Unhappy?

According to Lauren, there are three distinct types of ways people experience unhappiness as a generalized condition. Do any of these seem familiar to you?

A Hungry Beast: The first is based on what Lauren describes as "feeding the beast." To explain: People sometimes desperately hang on to past drama from their lives -- a person who did them wrong or a dream that went sour -- or a current state of affairs that they don’t like. They continuously cycle their thoughts and conversations around it. We all have unpleasantness in our lives, but these people turn it into a beast that rules them, and they nurture it by constantly thinking about it, talking about it and being unhappy about it.

"The beast has no ongoing role in their lives, but people use it to drive themselves crazy -- and they drive everyone around them crazy as well," says Lauren. Are you feeding a beast in your life? This might be the actions of your ex-spouse or a difficult colleague or boss... it could be a family dynamic from your childhood... or even current politics or a neighbor whose dog drives you crazy. Your beast is whatever you use to fuel your perpetual unhappiness. You’ve allowed it to become an "unhappiness addiction," says Lauren.

You can tame and finally shoo away the beast forever by taking action. Here is what to do:

  • Think (be honest now!) about whether there are any past or present issues that you have turned into a beast in your mind. Then write down your feelings about them. For example, you might write, "That dog barks too much. It annoys me, and I feel powerless and justified and righteous... and grouchy."
  • Afterward, follow your thoughts and conversations for a few days to keep track of the ways you feed the beast -- this includes sad, sarcastic or critical comments you make... negative thoughts you harbor... actions you justify due to your unhappiness about the beast.
  • Finally, refuse to feed the beast any longer. Make a bold resolution to immediately stop doing every single thing you have done to feed the beast in the past. Starve it into oblivion by speaking and thinking about things that make you happy instead. It will take time, but eventually the beast will shrivel up and disappear and, with it, your chronic unhappiness.

Poor, Pitiful Me: The second form of unhappiness is more subtle but also surprisingly common. The star of this show is an individual’s quiet but ongoing disappointment in who he/she is and how life has turned out. Nothing is quite what you had hoped it would be... the dreams you once had linger unexplored and unfulfilled... every day is perceived to be another experience of living in a flat and ordinary fashion.

This, too, can be corrected, but Lauren notes that it requires real effort because to do so requires taking on a well-known principle of physics, the one that says an object at rest tends to stay at rest. "The difficult part is to set your life in motion -- it requires energy, but nothing is going to change if you don’t change," says Lauren.

In this case, the motion needs to be away from the parts of life where you feel like a victim with no control, no say-so in what goes on. This pattern of thought is what Lauren describes as "habitual unhappiness thinking." To change this pattern, she urges you to start a list that fills in the blank after "I am unhappy because...." Include every area of your life that makes you glum -- whether the state of your health or possibly your home, a diminished income, voids in the areas of activities and friends, lack of energy and/or disappointment in the direction your career is taking.

After writing it all down, ask yourself what specific actions you might take in these areas to spur movement. Even small moves can help kick change into gear, says Lauren. Stop watching TV for a week and see what happens. Call one friend each day, and notice how you feel. Exercise 10 minutes twice a week, and watch how your mood and body change. "Any small effort you make will help you see that you have the power to change your situation, and that will help you feel better," she says.

Chronic Overachievers: Finally, there are people who seem to be doing it all and have it all -- who already have everything that makes for a good life and happiness. They work hard, play hard, exercise, eat well, have friends -- so what’s the problem? Lauren says she sees this often in people who should be happy but instead are edgy, moody, not quite satisfied and, well, just a little out of sorts all the time. These are the classic overachievers for whom nothing is ever good enough... which is exactly why they are miserable. They can’t stop pushing for more, and they’ve allowed their dissatisfaction to become the state of their mind. But if unhappiness is a state of mind, says Lauren, then happiness is a state of mind as well. The reality for these people is that they simply don’t know how to be happy -- which means that they need to learn.

If you are in this last group, your first lesson is to define what your life would be like if you were happy -- that alone can start the process of transformation, says Lauren. What is your ideal way of living and being, the way things would have to be for you to feel happiness? You may be surprised to discover that the changes you need to make are very small.

Begin your project by working on your general outlook. Turn it toward happiness by recognizing the bounty that is your life and feeling gratitude that it is yours and that you created it. Then look for the small tweaks you could make to your everyday existence to improve its quality. If you feel that your life is too harried, what could you do to bring a greater stillness into it? If you feel disconnected from your loved ones, how about making up a schedule to follow that brings you together more regularly? If you miss reading, turn off the TV early each evening... and read. Simple things all, but all lead to meaningful change.

"People are destined to evolve and grow," says Lauren. "The moral of the story here is that if you are unhappy, it is because you have allowed yourself to be that way. Once you realize this, you can allow yourself to make it different -- and be happy. "

Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman, The Handel Group,

April 21, 2010


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