The Real Reasons You're Not Happy

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You might realize when you're not happy, but the reasons behind your emotions may not always be so apparent. It can also be confusing to figure out if what you're experiencing is actually sadness or if it's depression.

In a Psychology Today article, Guy Winch, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, explained the difference. Sadness is "a normal human emotion," wrote Winch. We all get sad from time to time. "Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation," he added. Often times, sadness will dissipate after the triggering circumstance ends or resolves. Depression, on the other hand, is a pervasive "abnormal emotional state," according to the psychologist. "When we're depressed we feel sad about everything," Winch explained. Like sadness, depression is also common. However, it is a major mood disorder — one that should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Just as there are many obvious causes for feeling sad, there are many not-so-obvious reasons, too. According to experts, here are some unexpected reasons why you're not happy.

You're not happy because you're not living in the moment

Of all the reasons we experience sadness, self-love coach and therapist Jennifer Twardowski thinks living in the past or future is perhaps "the most impactful" on our happiness. "The reality is that by focusing our attention on the past and the future, all it does is prevent us from really living in and enjoying the present moment, which is the key to really living and being from a place of true joy and happiness," Twardowski wrote in an article for HuffPost.

When you find yourself dwelling on how things used to be or how you think they'll be one day, the coach recommends taking a pause. While taking a deep breath, pay attention to how your feet feel against the floor and take a moment to look around. Twardowski added, "Notice what you have right now in this moment and how amazing it is to simply be living right here, right now."

Spending too much time on social media is making you unhappy

According to a 2019 survey (via Digital Information World), the average internet user spends two hours and 22 minutes on social media and messaging platforms each day. But it's not doing us any favors. 

The Happiness Research Institute conducted the "Facebook Experiment" to discover just how much social media influences its users (via Real Simple). Half of the participants in the experiment were instructed to use Facebook as they always had while the other half did not use Facebook at all for one week. By the end, those who didn't use Facebook reported feeling happier, less sad, and less lonely. They also reported a much higher degree of satisfaction with their lives as a whole. Researchers determined that Facebook users were 55 percent more likely to feel stressed, whereas taking a break from Facebook led to an 18 percent increase in being "more likely to feel present in the moment" — which, as you know, is another mood booster

Travis Bradberry, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 author, says you don't necessarily have to give up social media to be happy. In an article for Forbes, he said to "just take it sparingly and with a grain of salt."

You feel sad because you're putting too much stock in material things

"Money can't buy happiness," the old adage goes. But it's not really so black and white. As Inc. reported, money can have a positive impact on your mood if you use it to pay for experiences, buy things for others, spend within your means, and purchase things that will save you time (like a grocery delivery service or housecleaner). Nevertheless, putting too much stock in what money can buy is not going to lead to happiness.

"One of the biggest fabrications that our ego mind likes to tell us is that [in] being rich, famous and successful we are somehow going to be living the best lives ever," therapist and self-love coach Jennifer Twardowski wrote in a HuffPost article. "While getting a new car, house, and [making] more money may certainly make our lives easier, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to be happy when we get these things." She continued, writing, "True happiness comes through our mindset and how we choose to live and be in the world — not a pair of Manolos and some Gucci."

Always being in a relationship could make you not happy

While it has been proven that relationships do have the ability to cause us to be happier and even physically healthier, as noted by Psychology Today, so much of that is dependent on what's going on in the relationship. A relationship — for the sheer fact that it is, by definition, a relationship — isn't enough to improve one's mood. A toxic relationship, for example, can have a detrimental impact on both a person's happiness and wellbeing. 

Bouncing around from relationship to relationship may seem like it could eventually lead to happiness, or at least stave off unhappiness, but learning to be comfortable alone is actually a much better option, according to psychologist Carolin Müller. "If you understand yourself first of all, you will be able to understand others much more," she told Insider. "You'll know about your needs and your expectations, and you will understand why certain people act the way they do."

You're not happy because you're isolating yourself

If you get a buzz from cancelling plans from time to time, that's all well and good. However, if you routinely isolate yourself from others, you're on the fast track to unhappiness — if you're not already there. And, unfortunately, unhappiness only leads to more isolation. "Isolating yourself from social contact is a pretty common response to feeling unhappy, but there's a large body of research that says it's the worst thing you can do," wrote Emotional Intelligence 2.0 author Travis Bradberry in Forbes. "This is a huge mistake, as socializing, even when you don't enjoy it, is great for your mood."

Mariana Plata, a clinical psychologist, advises taking steps to preserve your alone time while still adding in some person-to-person contact. Schedule times to socialize each month, join a local book club or other common interest meet-up, catch up with a close friend, or volunteer, the expert suggested in an article for Psychology Today.

Avoiding your emotions is making you unhappy

"In the world of self-help and personal growth, there's a lot of talk out there about a need to be positive so that you can be happy and joyful and live the best life possible," therapist and self-love coach Jennifer Twardowski wrote in HuffPost. "Well, I'm going to tell you right now: Thinking that we need to be positive all the time is BS."

When upsetting things happen, it's perfectly okay to be upset. You may find that by trying to avoid feeling your emotions, you end up not happy. In fact, when we push away our feelings, Twardowski revealed that bigger problems — like depression and addiction — can surface in their stead. "So allow yourself to really truly feel — both the good and the bad, because it is all a part of you, and by loving and accepting it, you can start to tap into your own true authentic happiness," the expert advised. 

Are you being ruled by your emotions?

Yes, you should allow yourself to feel your emotions, but you never want to be controlled by them. If you let negative emotions take over, unhappiness is sure to follow. "Use your mind so that it's useful for you," psychologist Carolin Müller explained in an interview with Insider. "And look what it can do, it's amazing, you can solve the most amazing riddle, you can make crossword puzzles ... We can go to Mars because we have a brain and a mind, yet it also leads people to think they are worthless." 

Controlling your emotions isn't always the easiest thing to do, of course, but Carmen Harra, psychologist and author of The Karma Queens' Guide to Relationships, provided a few helpful tips to HuffPost. Before reacting to an emotional trigger, take a deep breath to "stabilize the overwhelming impulse." Harra also recommends finding a "healthy outlet" — such as journaling, exercising, or meditating — for your emotions.

Being surrounded by negativity can lead to unhappiness

Being surrounded by constant negativity — even if you don't participate — can be a real cause for you feeling unhappy. It's not realistic to expect yourself or others to be positive all the time, of course, but a pattern of negativity is not good for anyone.

"You should strive to surround yourself with people who inspire you, people who make you want to be better," Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, explained in an article for Forbes. "Anyone who makes you feel worthless, anxious, or uninspired is wasting your time and, quite possibly, making you more like them," he added. "Life is too short to associate with people like this. Cut them loose and watch your emotional intelligence soar."

But what if you can't remove a negative person from your life? What if it's a coworker or a beloved family member? Bradberry recommends setting boundaries and creating distance. "A great way to set limits is to ask them how they intend to fix their problems," he advised. "The complainer will then either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction."

Nonstop judging of yourself or others can lead you down a dark road

If you are one to hold yourself to impossible standards, you likely get down in the dumps when you inevitably don't meet your lofty — and, let's be real, completely unattainable — goals. As you can imagine, judgment and criticism aren't exactly best buds with happiness. But, even if you are not overly critical of yourself, you can experience similar unhappiness by being unduly judgmental of others.

"When we are judging and criticizing, [it's] a sign that our ego mind is bringing out our inner critic," self-love coach and therapist Jennifer Twardowski detailed in an article for HuffPost. "All this does is block us from being able to truly experience love, happiness and joy in the present moment." If you realize that you are routinely judgmental of someone else, Twardowski further advised reflecting on this statement: "When I am judging others, I am judging myself, because we are all intricately connected."

You're not setting goals and it's causing you to be unhappy

You shouldn't hold yourself to impossible standards, that's true, but you should set goals for yourself. If you don't currently have any goals, that could certainly explain why you may feel sad or even listless. "Having goals gives you hope and the ability to look forward to a better future, and working towards those goals makes you feel good about yourself and your abilities," Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, explained in an article for Forbes. "Without goals, instead of learning and improving yourself," he said, "you just plod along wondering why things never change."

Although you do want to set goals that are attainable, the expert revealed that goals need to also be "challenging, specific (and measurable), and driven by your personal values." This means your goals aren't going to look the same as someone else's. After coming up with your personal goals, you should also draft up an action plan detailing how you're going to accomplish what you've set out to do, and, most importantly, you'll need to get started!

You've succumbed to self-pity

If "why me?" has become your signature catchphrase, psychologist Carolin Müller said you've likely started seeing yourself as a victim — and this can be a dangerous mindset. "If you see yourself as a victim you make yourself a victim twice because you diminish yourself again," Müller told Insider.

If you've gotten into this habit, it may be the reason you're not happy like you once were. Müller revealed to the publication that you can pull yourself out of this mindset by reframing your thoughts and putting an end to generalizing statements. If you tell yourself that everyone hates you or that everyone is mad at you, you'll want to stop and think if that is actually true. Does everyone truly hate you or are you generalizing? Even if someone is indeed angry with you, the whole world is not against you, right? You likely have at least one person in your corner, and it's beneficial to remind yourself of this.

You're trying too hard to impress others and it's taking a toll

It's human nature to want to be liked by others, but trying to convince others to like you is never a good plan. If you're constantly trying to impress people, your happiness is likely suffering. "Trying to impress other people is a source of unhappiness, because it doesn't get to the source of what makes you happy — finding people who like you and accept you for who you are," Travis Bradberry, emotional intelligence expert and author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, revealed in Forbes. This plan also has a habit of backfiring, according to psychotherapist Sean Grover. "The more you hustle for approval, the less others feel at ease with you," he wrote in an article for Psychology Today.

Just as most material things won't bring you happiness, attaining the nice house or the expensive handbag also won't get you any closer to the things that Bradberry said can actually bring you real happiness: "friends, family, and taking good care of yourself." 

You're focused on getting instead of giving

Although science has proven that being generous makes us happy, we sometimes get caught up in an "all take and no give" mindset. Maybe you've gotten into a habit of trading favors as opposed to doing something for someone without the expectation of getting something in return. If so, your happiness may have taken a hit.

"It's interesting, but often when we're focused on a mindset of always thinking about what we're 'getting' then there never seems to be enough — there's always lack," self-love coach and therapist Jennifer Twardowski wrote in an article for HuffPost. "However, when we shift our mindset and start to focus more on what we're giving, then we are able to see what we are actually receiving. In turn, we can then find ourselves more grateful and content with what it is that we do have right here, right now."

You're not happy because you're neglecting the basics

If you're having difficulty pinning down exactly why you're not happy, it can help to go back to basics. "See that you have a meaning in your life," psychologist Carolin Müller said in an interview with Insider. "Go out into nature, see more green than concrete, take care of animals and people that are important to you."

You'll also want to pay special attention to your physical needs. When your body isn't getting what it needs, it can be hard to feel happy. Are you getting the recommended amount of sleep each night? The American Psychological Association stated that "more sleep would make [Americans] happier, healthier, and safer." Are you eating a balanced diet? One Australian study found that a person's wellbeing and happiness can be increased by simply eating more fruits and vegetables. Naturally, being happy is often times more complicated than just eating an apple and getting a good night's sleep, but taking care of your body is a great place to start.

What if it's more than sadness?

While making a few simple changes can work to help when you're not happy, the same is not true for a major mood disorder like depression. Unlike a bout of temporary sadness, depression can be long-lasting and may require professional help. Guy Winch, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, told Vice that depression is as if "a gray filter has formed over our vision so that all the colors and vibrancy in our lives get sucked away." He continued, saying, "We're left with this bland vision of the world in which we feel unengaged and uninterested in the things we used to care about."

If you are experiencing any symptoms of depression, like irritability or hopelessness, consult your doctor. If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).