Why Do We Put Up With Unhappiness?

Most people, I think, would say they try to be happy. They want to construct their lives in such a way as to maximize happiness (however they might define ‘happiness’).

But in reality, unhappiness abounds. Unrest radiates from nearly every news broadcast. Stress levels deprive us of sleep, lead to overeating, and generally make us unhealthy.

Where does this discontinuity between desire (happiness) and reality (unhappiness) come from? If someone wants to be happy, why aren’t they? Why do we put up with unhappiness?

Related questions: Is happiness the most important purpose in life? What motivates us? Why don’t we know what makes us happy?

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Put Up With Unhappiness?”

  1. Unhappiness is a natural response to many things. Here is a partial list:

    1. Life is not fair. For example, those who deserve more out of life often get less than they need or should have.
    2. Nature can exact its sometimes unfortunate toll on any one of us — in big and small ways.
    3. We are social beings; what others do matters to us. Sometimes the actions of family, friends, colleagues and even strangers disappoint us or leave us wanting more or better.
    4. Some of us get unhappiness wired into our brain at an early age, making it a “natural” instinct to even neutral happenings.
    5. Humans are by nature selfish, some more so than others. When life falls short of our desires, unhappiness (valid or not) ensues.

    But I don’t think this is fully the intent of this question. Each of us could certainly do more to experience less unhappiness:

    1. Those who have could certainly spend more time being grateful for what they’ve got … and I mean actually acknowledging to themselves and/or others appreciation for the benefits and privileges they have.
    2. We would all be a lot better if we gave more — sometimes materially, sometimes simply of our time and efforts. Giving sincerely and properly breeds happiness and is a win-win for the giver and receiver.
    3. If we have reason to feel grateful for something or someone, we often could do more to focus our attention on those things or people.
    4. While we are social beings, and the actions of those close to us matter, there are people we should simply expect less of. It’s painful to write this, but letting some people’s actions control our happiness can become toxic. Our lives are too important and too short to let some people matter so much.

    But let me end on a very clear note, some unhappiness is healthy. For instance:

    1. Me being unhappy with the direction our country is headed, gets me thinking about what I can do to make things better.
    2. Me recognizing my continual unhappiness with the actions of particular people can force me to think about how much unwarranted control I give these people over my emotions. With disciplined work, I can give these people less brain-space than I currently do.
    3. Most importantly, unhappiness focused on those who deserve better or for those who are hurting helps me feel empathy. And empathy is one of the most important feelings we can experience. It helps us commune with others and tell them that they matter to us.

  2. I have a quick response to this question and a much longer one later, if I can find the time.

    I take issue with the very way this question is framed. It implies that unhappiness — and therefore its implied opposite, happiness — is something that is within our control.

    We put “up with unhappiness” because we are responsible adults living within the confines of a system that was never designed with our personal happiness in mind. Most of us have to work for a living, and if we’re very lucky, we can find jobs that sustain us (and those who depend on us) while not making us completely miserable; the luckiest among us — and luck is a HUGE factor — are happy in their work, too.

    I would argue, too, that the very concept of happiness — the implied opposite of the concept in the initial question — is a construct that accompanies privilege.

    Life is a negotiation, a process. Nothing is static and many things are out of one’s personal control. Only narcissists and sociopaths avoid compromise. Aristotle tells us that leading an ethical, principled life — even when we don’t get everything we need or desire — leads to happiness. I’ve always seen that as flawed, a conflation of happiness and contentment.

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