Why We’re Doomed to Be Unhappy (But That’s Okay)

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Let’s be completely honest here: We spend most of our lives doomed to be unhappy.

In the summer it’s too hot. During winter it’s too cold. Everything in between is too inconsistent and unpredictable.

We crave relationships. But once we get into them, we complain that they’re messy and complicated. We like the idea of ever-lasting friendship but scare away when we actually have to put in the work. Then again, we’re terrified to be alone.

Good meals are everything we’ve ever wanted. So we head out to a nice restaurant. But instead of enjoying the beautiful anticipation, we nitpick on the unfriendly staff, the high prices, and the waiting time. Then, finally: The food arrives. We gobble it down but forget to enjoy and appreciate it. At the end of the night, we feel too bloated and lazy to do anything else.

Apparently, fighting unhappiness is the biggest goal of human existence. But at the same time, we seem to be running in circles. This begs an important question:

Are we doomed to be unhappy?

Here are three reasons why the answer is yes. (And why that’s a good thing.)

1. Unhappiness Is in Our Genes

The chief reason we’ve always been and always will be unhappy comes by design. Dissatisfaction is the driving force behind human progress.

One of my favorite accounts on this phenomenon comes from Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. He had the assumption that our unhappiness cycle stems from “inferiority feelings.” These are the sensations you constantly have that something is not good enough, should be improved, or needs fixing. Adler writes:

“To be a human being means to possess a feeling of inferiority which constantly presses toward its own conquest … Inferiority feelings are not in themselves abnormal. They are the cause of all improvements in the position of mankind.”

This means you can reframe your inferiority feelings to improve your life. In fact, this is what has spurred humans to construct greater cities, better technology, and more security. Unhappiness breeds progress.

We always think of dissatisfaction as something bad. Something to feel guilty about. But what if we got it all wrong? What if it’s our secret superpower?

2. The Economy Thrives on Unhappiness

After reading Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, I couldn’t get this quote out of my head:

“Happiness is not good for the economy.”

It sounds strange because we always think happy people are the ultimate asset for a thriving economy. And from a worker-perspective, that might be true. But what about consumption? Who will buy all the things nobody needs if we’re satisfied with what we already have?

A good economy can only thrive when people are dissatisfied. When people want something. That’s why big companies will invariably try to lure you with the promise of happiness but never deliver on it. And even if you feel satisfied with a product — it won’t last long. The next model is always on the way, promising better features, faster performance, and, of course, more happiness.

The economy dooms us to be unhappy to not doom itself. It’s a self-sustaining cycle.

So what’s the problem with that? The problem is that the industry can, at most, satisfy our basic needs. But love, belonging, esteem, self-actualization — all these things are not for sale.

The trick is to channel your unhappiness into meaningful projects and relationships. Delaying gratification. Of course, that’s difficult, but it’s so much more fulfilling. And it will save you a lot of money.

3. The Passion Paradox

Lastly, there will always be cultural constructs promising you happiness elsewhere.

For instance, take the uber-influential concept of “following your passion.” The premise: Go after your passion, and you’ll be happy forever. We’re all familiar with this advice because celebrities like Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, and Oprah Winfrey have handed it out like free candy.

But all it did was snare us in a passion trap. Author and professor Cal Newport defines this as follows:

The Passion Trap: The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.”

Now, re-read the definition above but swap “work” with “lifestyle,” “people,” or “emotions.” This shows the universal dominance of the passion promise. We’re terrified of momentary unhappiness.

Following your deepest desires is important — don’t get me wrong. But you can’t expect it to solve all of your problems. Once you find something you like to do, you actually have to put in the work. Passion, love, contentment — these things can’t be found. They have to be created.

This leads us to the passion paradox. On the one hand, you need to specialize in a field to find sustainable joy. On the other hand, the more you specialize in something, the more untapped potential you leave in your life.

The good news is that there’s a (very boring) solution: There is no right way to live. No matter what you do, it will never be perfect. We all struggle with this. And that’s okay.

Why It’s Okay That We’re Doomed to Be Unhappy

Unhappiness is a crucial part of the human condition. It’s a state we’ll keep tapping in and out of for the rest of our lives.

To many people, this notion sounds dark. After all, we grow up believing that, one day, we’ll solve all our problems and live happily ever after. But of course, that’s not going to happen. So isn’t it soothing to know we’re doomed to be unhappy?

For the past few years, I’ve been obsessed with finding happiness. And obviously, this reckless pursuit is exactly why I didn’t find it in the first place. What I did find, however, is that unhappiness is an integral part of happiness. They’re in a yin-and-yang relationship. And that’s deeply uplifting.

Because if we’re doomed to be unhappy, we’re also fated to be happy.