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8 Major Causes of Unhappiness: Why Everyone is so Unhappy

by Christian

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Key points

  • Unhappiness often stems from negative behavioral and cognitive patterns.
  • Identifying and altering these patterns can enhance overall happiness.
  • Techniques like journaling and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can facilitate positive change.

Unhappiness – or sadness – is a part of life. Everyone experiences unhappiness once in a while. But what if it seems like you’re unhappy all of the time? What causes your unhappiness?

Research seems to show that unhappiness – and happiness – is caused by patterns in our lives: patterns in how the things we do, which are called behavioral patterns, and patterns in the things we think, which are called cognitive patterns. Different behavioral and cognitive patterns lead to different emotional patterns, which are part of what determines how happy we feel from day to day.

The path to being happier can be long, and sometimes requires great changes in one’s life. In fact, being happy is something you need to cultivate every day, but adopting the right patterns in your life and then sticking to them. In this article, we’ll look at some of the common patterns that lead people to be unhappy, and what you can do about them.

We all feel down from time to time – and if it’s in response to a particular situation, that’s normal. However, many people feel unhappy much of the time, and that points to a bigger problem. So what are the main causes of unhappiness? Why is everyone so unhappy? And more importantly, what can you do if you often feel unhappy?

This article will explain everything.

Behavioral patterns that lead to unhappiness.

We all have good and bad habits; that’s part of being human. Nobody’s perfect, and that certainly shouldn’t be your goal.

Instead, it’s important to identify which habits or behavioral patterns in your life are contributing the most to your unhappiness, and then try to change them. There are lots of different behavioral patterns that can have a negative effect on your happiness, but here are some of the most common ones.

1. Staying indoors

There’s more than one good reason to leave the house. For example, did you know that spending time in nature is scientifically proven to increase happiness? Recognizing that fact has never been more important than today when so many of us spend more time indoors.

People who do spend more time in nature tend to report being generally happier, and studies show that spending time outdoors increases cognitive functioning, improves your immune system, and reduces stress and blood pressure. All things that help contribute to being happier.

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2. Isolating yourself

There’s another good reason not to spend too much time at home. Humans are social beings; it’s one of the main ways we deal with stress.

And yet, only about half of Americans experience meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis. In some parts of Europe, up to 40% of people have only one meaningful interaction with friends or family per month.

Social isolation leads to feelings of loneliness and boredom, which can both cause severe unhappiness. In fact, one article from the American Psychological Association linked social isolation with “adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.”

3. Excessive drinking and drugs

What? No way. Alcohol is fun! Well – yes and no. Alcohol and drugs (including cannabis) can cause a person to be less inhibited and experience short-lived feelings of happiness. But in the long run, they both can negatively impact your happiness.

Alcoholism and drug dependency can lead to some seriously negative consequences: fatigue and decreased energy, feelings of guilt, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feelings of pessimism, insomnia, irritability, loss of appetite, and physical pain.

It’s probably okay to have a glass or two of wine with dinner or a few beers with friends – but if the next day you find yourself feeling unhappy, stressed, or anxious, it may be time to reevaluate that behavior.

Everybody’s different, which means that your friends or family’s behavior may not be right for you. Alcohol and drugs have become deeply ingrained in our culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not contributing to your unhappiness.

4. Not sleeping enough and not sleeping regularly

There are so many ways that sleep is important for your happiness. Doctors recommend between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, and for good reason. When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain can’t regulate itself properly, and your emotions can start to go wild and take over. While the science may be complex, the evidence is clear: people who get adequate sleep tend to feel happier.

This effect of sleep on happiness was personally tested here on this blog as well!

5. Chronic inactivity, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition

Physical activity and nutrition are both fundamentally linked to happiness. In fact, one study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that “People who were inactive … were more than twice as likely to be unhappy as those who remained active.

And it’s not just a question of unhappy people being less happy – becoming physically active led participants to be happier.

That’s not surprising, given that physical activity has been linked to increased confidence and emotional stability, positive body image, improved self-control, decreased anxiety and depression, decreased feelings of hostility, and reduced abuse of harmful substances like cigarettes and alcohol.

Finally, when it comes to happiness, you are what you eat. One study found that, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, weight and physical activity level, children with poorer diets were consistently less happy.

And one German study found that healthy eating correlated with improved mood and happiness, the biggest effect caused by eating vegetables.

Cognitive patterns that lead to unhappiness

Just like our poor behavioral habits can detract from our happiness, so can poor cognitive patterns – that is, the way you think about yourself and the world around you. Luckily, this is something that you can learn to control. If you recognize the following patterns, you’ll know where to start.

1. Tending towards dissatisfaction

Chronic dissatisfaction can manifest in a couple of different ways. Perfectionism, or feeling like you ought to be better at things than you are, is one of them.

Especially when you’re already unhappy, it’s easy to feel like you’re failing at one or more things in life. But as Dr. John D. Kelly points out, “perfectionism is a byproduct of dysfunctional thinking”, like a preoccupation with insignificant details, focusing on negatives, and disproportionate thinking.

Others feel dissatisfied with aspects of their life – their job, their relationships, or their living or financial situation. There’s a difference between being driven and being chronically dissatisfied.

If you find that you tend to be more dissatisfied than satisfied with things in your life, chances are you’re stuck in a negative pattern of thinking. If your coworkers, partner, friends or parents seem to constantly let you down – you may have developed an inappropriate cognitive pattern.

2. Skewed affective forecasting

We’ve spoken about affective forecasting before – the ability to accurately predict how a situation’s outcome will make you feel in the future. All humans are pretty bad at it, but some people tend to overestimate negative impacts and underestimate positive ones. As a result, you may often feel like there’s nothing to look forward to.

Plus, like all habits, the longer you do it, the more deeply ingrained the behavior becomes. Once you fall into the pattern of negative affective forecasting, you’re more likely to start seeking out possible negative outcomes and ignoring the positive ones.

3. Focusing on negative past and future events

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:

If you are depressed, you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

There’s some truth to that, but it may be a little more complex. One study found that anxiety is related to both remembering and imagining more negative events, while depression is related to remembering and imagining fewer positive events. Either way, the problem is one of a negative cognitive pattern – the tendency to either focus on negative events or to have trouble focusing on positive ones.

How to fix your unhappiness?

These kinds of negative cognitive and behavioral patterns are the main causes of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in people’s lives. The good news is that you can take control of the situation. Here’s how:

1. Identify your negative patterns

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Okay, a little cliché, but it’s actually true. You’re going to first need to find out which of the above negative patterns or habits are contributing to your unhappiness.

And this list is by no means exhaustive – there may be some other pattern of behavior or thinking that’s affecting your happiness. That’s okay because this method works for all of them.

First, start keeping a journal. There are lots of different ways to keep a journal, and we’ve spoken about how to get started. The most important thing is to keep track of your day-to-day life and try to find patterns that can you to be unhappy. Then, there are two ways to go about identifying your habits: passively and actively.

Passive identification: How are you feeling now?

Passive identification involves evaluating your current thoughts and behaviors: do you have better days when you get more sleep? How about when you exercise? When you spend time outdoors? Are there certain activities that always cause you to be happier? Sadder? How do you normally react to (perceived) negative situations; how do you usually feel thinking about the future; how do you usually feel looking back on past events?

Active identification: Okay, now try this…

Active identification involves adding or removing thoughts or behaviors to see how they affect your happiness. Try sleeping eight hours every night; what do your journal entries look like? How about if you eat really well for two weeks? Try imagining positive future events three times per day – what effect does that have? Practice gratitude every day for a week – how do you feel at the end of it?

2. Change your negative patterns

Now that you’ve identified your negative behavioral and cognitive patterns, you need to take steps toward changing them. We know that forming new habits can be hard, but there are some excellent resources out there to help you.

One of our favorites is by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits; he’s written a guide on forming new habits. This works especially well for new behavioral habits.

As for cognitive ones, there are a number of different psychological techniques for changing the way you think. If you didn’t know that was possible, it definitely is! You can master your own thoughts, and change your negative cognitive patterns into positive ones.

One technique that’s successfully helped millions of people change their negative thinking patterns is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Hey, that sounds right on the money! Yep. CBT is a self-therapy technique that helps you to identify negative thinking patterns and replace them with positive ones. Check out this useful list of 25 CBT techniques for improving your thought patterns.

3. Keep evaluating, keep improving, stay happy

If you can successfully find which negative behavioral and cognitive patterns are making you unhappy, and address them, you’ll be able to start feeling happier in less time than you may think.

But happiness is like a garden – it has to be tended. Otherwise, weeds can settle back in.

And the longer you let them grow, the harder they are to take up. So continue evaluating yourself for negative patterns, address them as you find them, and you’ll stay happy.

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Wrapping up

We’ve written dozens of helpful articles that teach you how to be happy. Here you’ll find amazing tips on how you can tend your garden of happiness. With that said, I hope you can learn from these causes of unhappiness to avoid their negative impact on your life.

What’s your biggest cause of unhappiness? What’s the reason why you’ve been so unhappy lately? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Christian Rigg Author

Academic researcher and writer with a passion for statistical analysis, neuropsychology and mental health.

22 thoughts on “8 Major Causes of Unhappiness: Why Everyone is so Unhappy”

  1. I’ve been depressed for 12 years and then on and it doesn’t get better. Now I don’t feel any gratification and happiness for anyone or anything because no matter what I do I get sad again but I largely don’t care about it because I put that behind me and remain empty while looking neutral in front of others for the rest of my life. The only I can express myself is in private or when I can truly have the guts to trust people who can relate and feel what I’m going through at some point. The only thing that makes me feel better is living in another world besides this one or facing death to end my life instead I choose to have a dream life in another world and focus on that because it helps me cope with the life I’m living right now which is unfulfilled no boring and worthless. I feel hopeless living on earth and the reason why many people are depressed is because they have no one who cares that comforts them, the cost of living is high so they overwork just to make end meet just buy materialistic items losing out on the years they have in their life. When it comes having a life not everybody lives because they are constantly being used and abused by other instead of living life the way they want on their own and having others feel the same. I’m not surrounded by good people in my life. I’m always irratated and annoyed but mostly stay empty and I’m tired even if I get enough sleep. It’s matter of time that I won’t have to live anymore after achieving everything I want in life because I have no one else to look forward to that takes me seriously besides myself.

    • Hi Debbie,

      I’m so sorry you feel that way. Depression is a serious condition that affects so many people. I’ve interviewed a lot of people struggling with depression hereIt’s important to keep your head up and trust that you too will find happiness. You matter. If you ever want to talk, you can always email me at hugo (at) trackinghappiness (dot) com.

  2. I think the main source of depression is the way the online news narrative continues to promote no hope, and that things will only get worse as the gap increasingly widens between wealthy and poor. The rising cost of living is also a definite reality as it only makes it more difficult (in depression) to see light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who haven’t created a secure, wealthy lifestyle, or found peace and fulfillment. No one seems to be offering real solutions, and the usual advice given to seek professional help doesn’t solve it either. So called “professional help” ends up being someone who is being paid to offer the very same, typical advice that’s already available online.


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