Photo for illustrative purposes. Is it really circumstance that determines whether we walk about watery eyed and drooping lips? Image Credit: Pixabay

Are you unhappy? Think about this: you might be addicted to the feeling.

It goes like this: Is happiness a habit? Self-help books and self-touting gurus seem to think so.

There’s plenty of literature advocating the ‘correct labelling’ of experiences, because at the end of the day how we remember an event depends on the words/images/feelings we associate with them.

And so, by that logic, is unhappiness a habit too?

Is it really circumstance that determines whether we walk about watery eyed and drooping lips? Or is it something more difficult to attribute fault to: ourselves?

Defining happiness

Think of a really cold day – when your toes, encased in socks and covered by shoes, are shivering. When your sneezes are part of the breeze. And then you find yourself home – in comfortable, familiar surroundings with a hot cup of tea. Think of that warm, fuzzy feeling of well-being.

Happiness is a broad term that generally refers to a state of emotional well-being.

- Dr Harry Horgan, Clinical Psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center

Or the jolt of emotion that rushes down your spine when there’s a job that you’ve done well. Or when you see/hear someone who’s special to you.

That hard-to-describe feeling…that’s happiness. “Happiness is a broad term that generally refers to a state of emotional well-being,” says Dr Harry Horgan, Clinical Psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center.

The causes are as hard to pin down as a cloud shuffling by. But what’s certain is the effect it can have on you.

Unhappiness, on the other hand is a deceptive term.

It implies the direct opposite of a sense of well-being. But then, you can be sick and happy. You can be bored and happy.

You can be unhappy, and that could be making you 'happy'.

Factors that contribute to happiness

Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates, explains the approach of American psychologist Martin Seligman in defining the principles that define well-being. PERMA, or positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning (serving a goal bigger than yourself) and accomplishment all determine happiness, she explains.

From a survival tool to a cause of threat

Think of it as a survival mechanism; unhappiness and its cousin fear beget vigilance. Being happy all the time would numb us to the – sometimes – very real threats we face.

But the more vigilant we become, trying to stay safe, the more paranoid we turn too. “Part of the job of our mind is to search for reasons to be dissatisfied! By searching for potential problems to solve all the time, our mind can do a good job of keeping us safe harm and improving our physical well-being. If we are in danger from a physical threat our mind generates solutions, defenses, and escape strategies and is very effective at doing so. However, this constant problem-solving process doesn't work so well when it comes to complex social and emotional problems where there often isn't a pragmatic solution,” explains Dr Horgan.

The lure of sadness

For illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Giphy

The human condition prods us towards validation and acceptance, and the chasing of these end goals or the lack of them may give rise to an unwanted habit. “It can represent for some people the state that they become habituated to. For example, a person may remain in a painful situation and refuse to get out of it because they get used to how it’s functioning. It gives them the illusion of controlling things while objectively they are instituting themselves like prisoners in a vicious circle of pain and sadness,” explains Dr Jihene.

Here are some reasons why a person may keep flitting back to things that make them unhappy

Why so sad? Image Credit: Giphy

On the emotional front the attachment may be caused by:

• Deep-rooted insecurity,

• Lack of self-esteem and sometimes,

• A traumatic event. “A traumatic event can trigger an unconscious desire to continuously get back to fear and pain. Either because they are afraid of being happy and feel that after that [good emotion] something bad will happen. Or you feel you need to get back to the unhappiness because the trauma remains unresolved.

Social issues, including a childhood hangover:

• You’ve gotten so good at feeling bad that you don’t know how to step out of that darkness. Maybe the circumstances were foul when you were growing up – maybe you are stuck in the past.

• Parenting styles, says Dr Jihene is another factor: “The authoritarian parenting style, for example, came with a high level of expectation from parents and very low emotional worth [transferred] to their child. So these children connect unconsciously success and relationship to the emotional state of unhappiness. So when something good will happen to them in their life they will not be able to really enjoy it.

A mental note:

“A lot of pathology can make us depressed: sometimes we are suffering from a mental health disorder like dystonia- a persistent depressive disorder, like depression but the symptoms are not as severe. One of the causes can be different; one of the causes can be losing a parent during childhood or feeling rejected…it can create a dysfunction in serotonin neuro transmitters,” she adds.

Physical reactions

This is what happens to you when you are stressed and unhappy:

“Getting used to unhappiness cause the body to get used to sadness on a mental and physiological level. When people are depressed or stressed physically or mentally the body releases higher amount of cortisol and reduced levels of serotonins.

This can affect the individual in many ways and most common long term effects are on the function of the immune system and on the cognitive abilities.

People who are always stressed and depressed are more likely to get sick and have more difficulty to overcome these medical conditions and they also struggle with their cognitive abilities such they tend to develop difficulty to concentrate, they often present memory loss, and they struggles with attention and focus,” explains Dr Valeria Risoli, Clinical Psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic.

And like an athlete is used to feeling a certain sense of well-being post exercise, similarly, a person who feels the same emotions over and over again and whose body releases the same hormones over and over again may get addicted to that feeling.

The self-perpetuating cycle of sadness

The cycle of unhappiness Image Credit: GN

What may seem like a no-brainer at one point may be the worst thing for you. Dr Horgan gives the example of a person who is feeling low and absconds from a social engagement. In the short-term they feel better for it; in the long term, it’s taken them away from an interaction that may have meant a meaningful connection.


11 signs that you are chasing unhappiness

1. You always come up with reasons to be miserable when life gets too good.

2. When you are playing the victim too much

3. Being always in competition with others.

4. Difficulty in bouncing back when things don’t go your way.

5. Too much escapist behavior

6. You’ve stopped taking care of your basic needs such as exercise and eating healthy

7. When you feel enslaved to your emotions

8. Your relationships are never satisfying and you treat your problems in a very dramatic way.

9. Feeling of being drained by others

10. Can’t stop playing out tragic scenarios in your mind.

11. When you feel you are living your life to just please others: you will never be able to, logically, please everyone.


Getting over the predilection

Photo for illustrative purposes Image Credit: Pixabay

We asked professionals what they thought about getting over the angst that accompanies unhappiness. “I believe it’s never too late to choose happiness, it might be a long and hard process though,” says Dr Risoli.

1. Begin with an understanding of what’s getting you down. “Once the physical reasons behind your sadness are solved we have to focus on something that is maintaining people depressed even when there are no real reason to be sad: the way they think. In my opinion breaking the loop means to understand what makes us feel unhappy on a cognitive level and change he habit of thinking in That dysfunctional way,” she says.

2. Detoxify your environment, says Dr Jihene. “Surround ourselves with people who care for us, support us. If you are always dealing with people who are blaming you or your negative aspects, you need to keep some distance from them, because a social mirror is very important for a human being. It’s important to have an idea of how a person is perceiving you. If I surround myself with negative people, I will have negative [feedback].”

3. Look for lessons in whatever happens in life, and therefore the bright side.

4. Keep a daily diary of things you are grateful for and are happy about.

5. Affirmations can may dividends over time

6. Logic it out: Ask the question why. Why are you feeling this way? Why is that a good or bad thing? Ask how…you can continue to feel this way, or what…can you replace the unhappy trigger with. Visualise results.

7. Dr Jihene adds another quick way to feel better: SMILE. Even if you aren’t feeling it…smile, it releases endorphins.