Have you ever known someone who, no matter what, could always manage to find the crap-side of things? You know the type of person. If it was a perfectly beautiful, sunny day on the beach, this person would find something to nitpick at until your ears bleed. If you do know someone like this, then you know just how talented they can be at being discontent with perfectly wonderful circumstances. I call these people hell-bent malcontents. While this article isn’t specifically about them, they are a good example of a streak we all have within us.
Hell-bent malcontents actively seek reasons to be unhappy. It’s like they aren’t happy unless they aren’t happy. They thrive only when they have something to complain about. I’ve known a few of these people but my best example is my own mother. As a kid I thought it was perfectionism. It was a blight on my childhood and a good part of my adulthood. It was hard to enjoy anything because I was just waiting for it to be torn down by her hypercriticism. Of course, I learned to be hypercritical and to see the world — and myself — as something to be picked at until it was raw and bleeding. Thankfully, as an adult, I learned that this flavor of “perfectionism” is really just called “ruining a good thing.”
Don’t get me wrong. My mother is a truly amazing person. She is exceptionally intelligent, creative, ingenious, visionary, and hard working. The quality of her character and her desire for things to be better is both powerful and genuine. Probably few people have brought as much good into this world as she has. Despite what I say about her in this article, she’s even spectacularly delightful when she wants to be.
And…she is one of the most spectacularly unhappy people I’ve ever met. I make this statement with zero judgment or negativity. I don’t see her unhappiness as her true character, but as an important illustration of the damage this world does to good people. The individuals around her, this society, and life in general have dumped more truckloads of crap on her than it has on most people. Her life has been brutally unfair and unkind. In this light, it’s fully understandable why she might have a pessimistic slant on things. To her credit, she’s turned a huge pile of that crap into fodder and grown wonderful things from it. But, there’s only so much crap a person can handle before it gets to them, and she’s dealt with more crap than any person should have to.
Whether we admit it or not, we all have a pessimistic streak. On the extreme end, we find hell-bent malcontents. On the lighter side we find everyday doubts, worries and “what if’s.” There’s no judgment about this pessimistic side of our nature. It is a natural part of human nature designed for self-preservation. It’s only when this tendency gets out of hand that it becomes a real problem. Since our world has a tendency to trigger our need for self-preservation, our relationship to that pessimistic streak determines our ability to enjoy life. If we’re at the beach, can we enjoy it? Or, will we nitpick the one thing that isn’t perfect? Will we make something up to complain about?
Since a lot of us think of happiness should be a “day at the beach,” I’ll use an actual day at the beach as an example of pessimism at its worst. My siblings, mom and I went to the Oregon coast one time, hoping for a beautiful day at the beach. If you know the Oregon coast well, you know that the weather is usually cold, windy, foggy, cloudy, or otherwise not what you would think of a “beachy” weather. The Oregon coast’s charm is in its picturesque beauty.
THIS day, however, it was literally a perfect day at the beach. The weather was warm, the wind was low, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The sand fleas weren’t bad, and the tide was perfect. I thought we were “safe” from our mom’s complaining. Silly me, she spent the whole time griping. Hardly a pleasant word came out of her mouth during the whole trip. While we did our best to just tune her out, I still couldn’t help but do a mental jaw-drop at her ability to be so negative on such a gorgeous day.
Having studied psychology, history and human behavior for decades, I have become fascinated (okay, I’ve become obsessed) by the gap between our desire for happiness and actually having it. This is where our pessimistic streak comes in. Everyone wants happiness, but we humans have an incredible penchant for sabotaging our own happiness…and others’. We all operate by unconscious rules and paradigms in our heads. We are mostly unaware of these rules because we think of them as “reality.” Some of these rules are things like, “Pieces of paper called ‘money’ have value” or “I have to take the same route to work every day.” These rules run our lives quietly outside our notice because, again, we think of them as “reality.” (Just try convincing someone that money doesn’t have value. If they don’t fight you on it, they’ll probably accept your idea as “hypothetical” at best.)
Our pessimistic streak lives by an invisible rule I call “The Unhappiness Rule.” This rule causes us to sabotage our efforts to be happy because being happy would mean breaking this “rule.” The Unhappiness Rule shows up in many ways. Below are the three most powerful ways I’ve observed it ruining people’s (including myself) happiness.
Rule #1: “I have to be unhappy”
The first Unhappiness Rule goes something like: “I have to be unhappy.” Seems too obvious and ridiculous to be real. It’s so blunt and obvious, no one would ever live by such a silly rule…right? But you have to remember, The Unhappiness Rule is unconscious, invisible. We’re not living by this rule on purpose. It pops up in ways that seem logical and rational to us in the moment.
To illustrate, I call this rule “The Unhappiness Wall.” People who live by this rule have a mental or emotional wall that comes up when they have a chance to enjoy life. When something good happens or a golden opportunity presents itself, Woooooooop! Up pops The Wall.
Take that perfect day at the beach, for example. Most of us just wanted to enjoy the moment. Having grown up with a hell-bent malcontent parent, I was very sensitive to scanning the environment for anything that might set off a rant. Don’t know why, but somehow being prepared for a deluge of negativity made it more tolerable. That day with my siblings, I literally couldn’t find anything that our mother could complain about. And there must not have been, because she drummed up some bit from her past to rant about. She spent an hour griping about the last time she had been to this beach. That time, the weather was cold, rainy, miserable. She was stuck with someone who still wanted to walk around in the cold and wet. As we sat in the sun, all she could talk about was how miserable it was last time she was there. Good god.
It was The Unhappiness Rule at work. Things were going too well. The day was too enjoyable, so her unconscious mind started thinking, “Crap. We have to be unhappy. That’s the rule. What can we be unhappy about?” Without her even noticing, her mind started hunting for anything to complain about and voila!, her past had a real doozy. The last time she had been to this beach was so miserable it was worth rolling around in again. It was like this invisible wall rose up to prevent her from just enjoying the day.
The Unhappiness Wall pops up in countless ways. If we get the promotion, we can’t be happy because our raise wasn’t high enough. If we lose 10lbs, we can’t be happy because we should have lost it sooner. If we won second place, we can’t be happy because it should have been first place. The Unhappiness Wall prevents us from ever truly enjoying the goodness in our lives because it pops up and tells us it’s more important to ruin a good thing than to enjoy it.
Rule #2: “I have to _______ before I can be happy”
I call this one “The Unhappiness Hinge” because our happiness hinges upon some specific outcome. “I’ll only be happy if I get the job, or the girl, or things go the way I want.”
This is a particularly vicious rule because it keeps us thinking that some one or some thing will come and save us from our unhappiness. Since we are 100% responsible for our own happiness, The Unhappiness Hinge creates a string of disappointments in our lives rather than a string of positive experiences and personal growth.
The Unhappiness Hinge can even ruin good things before they happen. For instance, as we drove to the beach, I was remarking to myself just how amazing it was going to be. The Oregon coast doesn’t get perfect “beach” weather very often, so when it does, you make the very most of it. As the joy of anticipation built, my own Unhappiness Hinge started kicking in. Why? It started thinking, “Damn, I hope there aren’t many kids there, or she won’t shut up about it.”
Hoe. Lee. Crap. Really?!? (This is me talking back to my unconscious.) The Unhappiness Rule wanted to ruin my joyful anticipation by dreading what might happen. My mom doesn’t like noisy kids. Having had eight kids of her own, she got her fill of adolescent pandemonium. At this stage in her life, she enjoys calm and quiet. Totally understandable. I knew one of her Unhappiness Hinges is “I can only be happy if there are no kids around.” So my mind was hinging off her hinge. Dysfunctional, right? And totally normal human behavior. I quickly put the dread behind me and chose to anticipate freezing my bum off in the water and drying off on the warm sand, instead.
It’s okay to wonder “what if” from time to time. It’s okay to feel disappointments in life. That’s perfectly normal and healthy. But it’s not okay to let those things spoil our enjoyment of life. Hinging our happiness and emotional well-being on hoped-for outcomes makes us perpetual victims to our circumstances. Hinging our happiness on happenstance just makes life a matter of good or back luck.
Rule #3: “I have to be happy”
This is the worst Unhappiness Rule of them all because it deceptively sounds like a good thing. It sounds like a Happiness Rule, but it’s not. “You have to be happy” has become the most broadly damaging Unhappiness Rule in our society. It places an unspoken expectation on every one of us to feel happy even when we don’t. Because of this widespread, unspoken expectation, many of us feel obligated to hide our pain and sorrow and wear “happy masks” so we can still fit in.
If we have to be happy, especially if we don’t always feel that way, then we have to appear happy. For this reason I call this Unhappiness Rule: “The Picture of Happiness.” Since genuine happiness looks different for everyone, there must be some implied standard of happiness for us to conform to. So, we turn to those age-old measuring sticks of “happiness”: fashion, fame, success and the like. If we look trendy enough, are popular enough, rich enough, entertaining enough, PC enough, or all smiles, then we’ve hit the mark. Right? We’re happy if other people are a little jealous of us. Right?
Common sense tells us living to please others is a one-way ticket to pure unhappiness. Thinking, speaking, dressing, and behaving just to conform is a downward spiral of chasing our tails into oblivion. But this Unhappiness Rule is tricky because we’re surrounded by people who look happy. This makes us feel compelled to look happy, ourselves. So, we jump on the trendy diet for no good reason, lose more weight and spend more time in front of the mirror than we should. We comb through fashion and trend magazines searching for the best way to express our conformative selves. We obsess about framing the perfect picture for social media. How many boob jobs, tummy tucks, expensive cars, and overextended credit cards are in the name of appearing beautiful, fashionable, successful, popular and…happy? For others.
What if the whole reason I went to the beach that day was so I’d have amazing photos to post online? What if rather than enjoying the water and the sun and the wind, I was on my phone the whole time trying to capture pictures of it as a trophy to show off to others? That’s no way to live, and yet it is how too many of us are spending our time, money and emotional currency: Putting on a show to appease society’s nameless “happiness police.”
The Picture of Happiness causes us to miss the beauty of nature around us, the power of inner peace, meaningful connections we could make with other people, and countless other miracles life has to offer, all because our focus is not on Being Happy, but on fabricating the appearance of happiness. This Unhappiness Rule — mixed with modern technology — has driven our society into such a narcissistic frenzy, I’d say it is wildly self-serving if it wasn’t so self-destructive.
I’m a huge fan of Schitt’s Creek. Toppest-notch show if there ever was one. There’s one scene that, to me, is the best-ever portrayal of how shallow our gotta-be happy society has become. When Alexis freaks out because Mutt shaved his beard, she tries to play it off. But the truth is that she liked Mutt for his looks. She based their relationship on physical attraction rather than intimate, personal connection. While their breakup is unfortunate, I love how she finally starts waking up to the notion that there is a beautiful, soulful universe of existence beneath the shallow world of appearances in which we usually operate. How many “perfect couples” on social media have broken up when everything seemed so wonderful on the surface?
And we wonder why we aren’t happy.
Humanity’s greatest nature is beautiful, soulful, meaningful and miraculous. When we live in this realm of our being, we are loving, kind, curious, creative, adventurous, powerful and all the things we wish we were. We’re happy when we tap in to our greatest nature.
When we live for show, when we live to please others or to put on appearances, then we can never get beneath the surface of life. We are fearful, insecure, discontent or malcontent. In this realm of acting happy rather than being happy we tend to get frustrated, angry, aggressive (or worse), and the meaning to life is fleeting.
Honorable mention: The Unhappiness Destination
This Unhappiness Rule is a little cliché, and can usually be explained by the other rules, but it bears mentioning. Why? Because it’s all too common and deceptive. It’s the “I’ll be happy someday” rule. I’ll be happy when I get the promotion, buy the car, retire early, or live in the cabin on the lake. We often link our happiness to some destination in the future and convince ourselves that we’ll be happy when that day comes.
Unless we learn how to be happy here, now, today, we’ll never be happy when “someday” arrives.
How do we know if The Unhappiness Rule is spoiling our happiness? You can find your Unhappiness Rule if any one of the following applies:
- You get what you ask for and still hunt for flaws
- You generally find yourself looking for things to nitpick or complain about
- All the happy moments in your life are some bygone memory
- You are more focused on your problems than the solutions
- You find yourself saying “someday” or “one day”
- You can’t seem to find happiness no matter how hard you try
As you take a look at the unhappiness in your life, look for patterns of thought and rationalizing. Most unhappiness comes from one of the three Unhappiness Rules above, so as you find yourself fighting against yourself or sabotaging the good things in your life, figure out which rule it comes from: The Happiness Wall, The Happiness Hinge, or The Picture of Happiness. When The Unhappiness Rule shows up in your life, thank it for trying to protect you from too much happiness. This will help you break down the unhappiness so you can stop fighting against yourself and put things back together better. The Unhappiness Rule is a great reminder to stop stewing and enjoy the moment, embrace life to the fullest and actually be…