The True Source of Unhappiness

Welcome to another New Sunday Conversation. Let's talk today about happiness - specifically, how circumstances affect our sense of satisfaction with our lives.

If you reflect on all the areas of life, from work to family to health, it doesn't take long to come up with a list of things you want to change.  Humans are very good at wanting more. Another way to say it, is that we are rarely satisfied.

But why are we often so dissatisfied with the circumstances of our lives?   Imagine for a moment you feel unhappy about your work.  Maybe you blame it on the idea that your boss doesn't like you, or your salary is too low, or perhaps your work isn't appreciated.

If only these things were different, you think, then you would be happy.  It’s common to blame our dissatisfaction on things we can’t control, like our boss’s disposition. But have you ever wondered if what we naturally blame is the real cause? Have you ever wondered how people who have so much less than you manage to be very satisfied with their lives? 

It is possible to be a miserable millionaire.  It is possible to be an upbeat amputee.  So clearly, the circumstances of our lives -- our luck, our health, our bank accounts, our love lives -- aren’t the only ways to achieve enduring happiness. 

During the Vietnam War, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale was the highest ranking prisoner of war.  After his release, he reflected on why he was able to survive the ordeal while others did not.  He said, 

"I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end."

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. He wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

He went on to advise us: 

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The lesson we can learn about happiness is that while we may not be able to change our circumstances, happiness is always possible. It’s all about our perspective, the way we choose to respond to the circumstances of our lives.

This does not mean we should passively accept all of our troubles.  Working to change what we can is useful and necessary, but wallowing in hopelessness and dissatisfaction when faced with circumstances that are beyond our control is no solution.  

Yes, pain is real and yes, tragic things may happen to us. But how we react to those events can increase our happiness or increase our suffering. It’s all a matter of perspective.  

I'd like to leave you with a final thought -- a quote from the book The Best is Yet to Be by LeRoy Patterson:

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." 

As you face your own challenges this week, consider your reaction to your circumstances.  Watch for the the space that arises between  the moment something happens  to you and your reaction to it.  It is in that space of awareness that you will experience a sliver of a choice. You can decide whether to suffer or choose gratitude, pleasure, forgiveness and happiness. It’s up to you. 

Until next week, choose happiness, and have an incredible Sunday.


Man's Search for Meaning
By Viktor E. Frankl
The best is yet to be
By LeRoy Patterson