The True Cause of Unhappiness

Is something disturbing, bothering, irritating, or annoying you? If so, what is troubling you? Is it a boss that is too demanding, a coworker that is too careless, or your children that are too noisy? Does the lack of civility, the increase in crime, or the apathy of young people upset you? Perhaps it is poor health, little money, or no respect that is making you depressed. With so many problems swirling around us, is the prospect of happiness a mere dream, an unattainable goal?

Did you ever learn that unhappiness is not caused by what happens to us, but by how we interpret what happens to us? I am sure you have. After all, in the last fifty years, brilliant thinkers have been hammering home this point. Over and over again, Dr. Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) and Dr. Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and their followers have been proselytizing this truth.

It wasn’t until recently that so much attention has been focused on the fact that unhappiness is not caused by outside events, but by our attitude. Yet, this teaching is hardly new, for Epictetus (55 ~ 135) taught “Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them.” Similarly, Marcus Aurelius (121 ~ 180) had this to say, “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”

What is Marcus Aurelius telling us? Simply this, the true cause of our unhappiness is the decisions we have made to blame events and others for it. This tactic to avoid responsibility is self-defeating because it leads to a dead-end. That is, we remain stuck, with no solution in sight. It is only after accepting responsibility that we can begin to analyze the causes of our behavior and look for ways to improve it.

Well, if we already know that it is not the world, but our opinions of it that cause our constant complaints and endless bickering, why do we continue to rob ourselves of happiness? One reason is we fail to apply what we learn. As Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 ~ 1832) wrote, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” Another reason why we remain mired in misery is force of habit. But the good news is we can break bad habits and return to the path of happiness by following the steps below.

1. Grapple with the teaching of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius until you clearly understand it. Say to yourself, “People and events do not MAKE me upset. Rather, I choose to make myself upset.

2. Become aware of your attempts to blame events and others for your discontent. Carry a small notebook with you. During the day, jot down examples of how you have falsely blamed circumstances and others for getting upset. Try to record at least three examples each day.

3. Set aside some time during the day to review your notes and correct your faulty thinking by a) assigning responsibility to yourself, b) uncovering the reasons you felt as you did, and c) reviewing your choices.

Here is an example note. “When I boarded the crowed bus on my way to work, I looked for an empty seat. I came to a spot where one man took two seats. He sat on one seat and placed his bag on another. Even though I was standing right by him, he did not remove his bag from the seat. He made me very angry.”

The first step is to rephrase the sentence to make it truthful. Instead of thinking, “He MADE me angry,” change it to, “I made myself angry (or I chose to become angry) when he didn’t remove his bag from the seat.” Now that you have shifted the responsibility to yourself, you can continue by analyzing your thoughts to uncover the reason for your anger.

For example, you may have thought, “that man SHOULD have been considerate. It upsets me when people are inconsiderate.” If that was your thinking, it is a sign you have to change. Why? Because if you choose to become upset whenever the world doesn’t behave as you think it should, you are condemning yourself to unending misery. You see, every day you will meet situations that are contrary to the way you think things should be. Therefore, you will be unhappy every day.

Instead of focusing on the way things SHOULD be, why not focus on the way things COULD be? Begin by understanding that everything happens for a reason. Every discomfort we experience is an opportunity to grow stronger and happier. So, returning to the inconsiderate bus passenger, what are some of the things we COULD do? Let’s take a look at some options.

1. We can practice being nonjudgmental. Why do I think he is inconsiderate? Perhaps he is so engrossed in the book he is reading or entranced by the music he is listening to that he is unaware of my presence.

2. We can practice acceptance. When I learn how to accept things as they are by letting go of demands and expectations, I experience peace of mind.

3. We can practice patience. Perhaps the gentleman will get up in a stop or two. Besides, standing is like exercise, it is good for our health.

4. We can practice assertiveness. Without any anger, we can politely say, “Excuse me, I’d like to sit down.”

Example 2
Example note: “Laura really hurt me when she ignored me at the party.” Step 1: assign responsibility to oneself by changing the sentence to, “I chose to feel hurt when Laura ignored me.” Step 2: try to uncover the cause of your feelings. For example, I could ask myself, “Why do I have these feelings? Am I insecure? Do I have low self-esteem? Do I feel worthless unless someone gives me attention? Step three: what are some of my options? Here are a few examples.

1. I could attend an Assertiveness course or study Nathaniel Branden’s definitive book, “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.”

2. I can practice generosity of thought by giving Laura the benefit of the doubt. That is, I can say to myself, “She’s so busy, she probably didn’t see me come in. You can’t ignore someone you don’t see!”

3. I can practice acting maturely by taking the lead and greeting her, instead of waiting for her to greet me.

4. I can practice courage by trying to meet new people at the party.

5. I can practice compassion by introducing myself to lonely or shy people at the party.

So, by now it should be clear that no one makes us upset. Rather, we choose to feel that way. But it is not in our interest to relinquish our happiness or deny ourselves of the opportunities to grow stronger and happier. To turn things around, all we have to do is become aware of how we blame others for our unhappiness, rephrase our thoughts so that we assume responsibility, uncover the reasons why we feel the way we do, and, finally, change for the better by acting on one or more of the positive options that are available to us. It may involve a little work to adopt this new habit, but don’t you think your happiness is worth it?