My life is pretty good - so why do I feel so miserable?
Updated: Sep 27
“First world problems though, right?”
I hear it all the time.
We complain about some aspect of our lives that’s really got us down and then we feel bad for complaining because we know that at the very least, our basic needs are met, which is a lot more than many others across the world or even in our own country can say.
What do we have to complain about?
But downplaying your problems doesn’t change the fact that you are still miserable.
Here are a few reasons why, despite our really great ‘developed world’ 21st century problems, you might be feeling miserable:
1. Hedonic adaptation:
This is a fancy way of saying the brain adapts to new and novel experiences over time. Things that we’ve experienced a number of times get filed away into autopilot, which our brain does to conserve energy. So after we’ve experienced the same thing a number of times, it stops bringing us the same high.
It makes sense then that research from positive psychologists has found that changes in life circumstances don’t lead to better, sustained happiness. We all eventually (and relatively quickly) return to our baseline level of happiness despite the bigger house, fancy car, new job or higher salary.
2. Negative thought patterns:
Your attitudes and perceptions make up your reality. And on some level, we know this, which is why we say “first world problems right?” - because we are doing our best to shift our frame of reference.
Unfortunately, our brains’ typical thought patterns are deeply ingrained. If we’re used to getting frustrated by morning traffic, it’s going to take a lot more than a simple phrase to permanently shift how we respond to that traffic.
It requires digging deep to identify our triggers and our default response tendencies, catch them in the act and then regularly practice new ways of thinking.
The hope is that eventually new, desired patterns of thought become more deeply ingrained than the old, negative ones, effectively replacing them.
But this takes a lot of self-awereness, work and time, which most people aren't interesting in or capable of.
3. Low energy:
We run ourselves ragged. We try to accomplish a billion more things in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime.
But our brains aren’t designed to keep tons of information ready at the drop of a hat and to be “on” all day. Even if your job isn’t busy, it’s likely that you’re still trying to balance and manage a multitude of factors on a constant basis.
Not to mention the negative effects that a lack of sleep, poor eating, drinking too much, and sedentary lifestyles have on our energy as well.
So, we’re busy. Our attention is pulled in a million different directions, so much so,that we’ve gotten really bad at being present and paying attention for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Being in a state of flow is the truest form of happiness but with all the distractions out there pulling at our attention, being fully immersed in a challenging task we enjoy is hard to come by.
5. Living out of alignment with our values:
If you’re feeling miserable, chances are it’s because you’ve learned to prioritize a cultural set of values you don’t actually ascribe to.
We each have our own set of values - things that are important to us and that bring us a sense of meaning - but when we don’t honour those, we feel a sense of unease and unfulfillment with our lives.
We chose to pursue profitable rather than meaningful careers and we place power, success and recognition above our passions.
6. Not following through
We can easily bail on commitments and we do so often.
Don’t feel like it? Send a text. Too tired? Hit cancel.
We can’t seem to form new healthy habits or practice productive and meaningful actions that would get us out of our slump.
Humans are designed to exert minimal effort and we opt for short-term gains (like a rest on the couch) much more than the long term gains we get from behaviours that require more effort up front (like that spin class).
7. Mental health issues
The circumstances of your life might have made things such a struggle for you that you’ve developed a mental health problem or they’ve exacerbated an existing one.
Sometimes it’s not life circumstances alone or at all that are to blame for low mental health.
Feeling miserable can be a sign of depression or anxiety and it’s important to pay attention to your mental health and figure out what’s normal for you and how to address things when they get bad.
What can we do about it?
So for those of us living these “good”, “upper income country” lives and yet are feeling miserable, what can we do about it?
Are we all just doomed? Should we learn how to suck it up once and for all? Should we kill our inner spirit and convince ourselves to settle?
Not necessarily. But the solution will require effort, intention and energy.
In addition to the standard advice to eat healthy, get good sleep and seek the help of a professional when you need it,
Some of the solutions include:
1. Practicing gratitude and the art of savouring:
Research in positive psychology, like that of Sonja Lyubomirsky, has found that the practice of gratitude and the art of savouring can actually change your baseline level of happiness. Focus on strategies you can take with you, regardless of life circumstance.
2. Mindset coaching:
Learning to shift your perspective by catching your default reactions and consciously replacing them with ones that serve you requires practice and help.
Book a free 30 minute call with me to experience it first hand.
3. Self care/pursuing passions:
Self-care goes way beyond the occasional candlelit bath. It requires you to identify your boundaries and recognize when you’re approaching them and to make a conscious decision about what you can do to preserve your well being. Don’t neglect the things that feel good in favour of a set of culturally prescribed rules you don’t believe in.
4. Values realignment:
If you haven’t ever done any values work, it can be really enlightening. My worksheet helps you identify your top values and explore where in your life you’re living out of alignment with them and invites you to make changes to live more closely in alignment with what matters most to you.
5. Learning tips and tricks for sticking to habits and setting goals:
Humans are by nature, quite lazy. But there are things called “neurohacks” - ways to trick your brain so that it’s evolutionary functions work for you, rather than against you.
If you’re trying to break a bad habit or set a new, healthy one, there are certain things that have been proven to make you more successful: like buddying up, including a reward, or ‘stacking’ behaviours - performing the action for a new habit right after an existing, routine behaviour.