Why am I not happy?

I have everything I want but something is wrong

Topics: Since You Asked, depression, psychotherapy,

Why am I not happy? (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I’m not happy and I don’t know why.

There’s nothing wrong — in fact, I have everything I ever really thought I wanted — a great job, a wonderful relationship, great friends, financial security, a beautiful house, a place in the community. This even is a big change from even a couple of years ago, when I had a job I hated and was in a terrible relationship. But I’m not happy.

I have been thinking about death a lot. Not in a way like I am thinking about killing myself. I want to make that clear. Just in a way like, wondering when I will die. Or how. Or saying goodbye to my boyfriend in the morning and thinking what if something terrible happens and I never see him again? And I think about getting old (I am 34, which some days feels old and other days does not) and how I don’t want to. Or I see someone on the street with one of those signs about supporting three kids and needing a job or some food or some money, God bless, and feeling sad and wondering why there is so much misery in the world and what is the point of it all, and then feeling stupid that I feel unhappy because what in the world do I have to be unhappy about?

I’ve tried to do what I can to feel better — exercising every day, eating right, getting out in the sunshine, playing with my dog, taking time off work, seeing friends, doing fun things with my boyfriend, planning trips, gardening and growing things. And I enjoy those things, but I still feel unhappy.

I feel like I’m not living up to some undefined potential — undefined because I’m not sure what else it is I want to achieve. I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen, or that there’s something more I should be doing, but I’m not sure what. I feel like my life is going by and I have nothing to show for it.

My boyfriend says I need to connect more deeply with my faith. My sister, who is a psychologist, says I am bored and need a new challenge, like moving to a new city. That idea intrigues me, but I’ve been building my career here. I’ve made partner at my law firm and it would be stupid to give it all up and start all over. And what if I’m not happy in the new place, either? My mom says I need to get over myself. They probably all are right but mainly I don’t understand why I’m not happy when I have everything going right in my life, and I don’t know what would make me feel better.

Unhappy

Dear Unhappy,

Of course it is always a good idea to consult with a therapist or psychiatrist to see if we are exhibiting signs of treatable disorders, such as depression. But it is also worth noting that as we grow spiritually and emotionally we pass through periods of intense speculation about life’s meaning. We think about death. We feel empathy for the poor. We wonder why our system seems to feed injustice and misery. We feel estranged from those  around us who seem effortlessly content. People advise us to straighten out, or take a vacation, or deepen our faith, but we don’t really feel like that’s it. Material success may be coming but we feel an inner unease.  Our work, though we excel in it, doesn’t make us happy. There seems to be something wrong with the world.

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There is something wrong with the world. There is a lot wrong with the world. Are you supposed to pretend otherwise?

This may be an awakening. It may be an awakening to injustice and evil. It may be the realization that  underlying our material prosperity lies a system of war and injustice and mass incarceration. It may be, if you are a lawyer and you go to court, that you see more than the raw machinery of the law: You see human suffering and you see the workings of a system that gives certain people everything and other people nothing. Are you supposed to feel nothing when you encounter the truth of the world? Are you supposed to be able to walk blithely by as beggars rot in their own filth on the roadside, begging for change, and families lose their homes and children sleep in shelters and on the streets? Are you supposed to be immune to this? Is there something wrong with you that you can’t just shake it off?

As you grow out of the protected shell of youth and accomplishment, you begin to see the world as it has always been. It is a place of great beauty but also of unimaginable horror and cruelty. If you have not made room for these things yet then eventually the time comes. You feel haunted. The world you thought you had accepted suddenly seems alien and cruel and begins to torment you. What you know about it begins to seep into your consciousness. You begin to really feel what many before you have felt, that we walk on thin ice, that we have our office parties and birthday parties and our fabulous outings over a very thin and brittle skin of collective denial.

These things are not your imagination. The world is full of pain. The world you grew up in is beautifully orchestrated to make it possible to ignore the pain at its center. Yet because we are human we sense these things.

It is good that you are sensing this. If that is what it is, it is a good thing. You have compassion for the poor. You wonder about the meaning of life. Things don’t seem entirely right to you. There is a gravity outside the edges of the laughter you hear. I get that. It’s a good thing.

You may be surrounded by people who don’t hear what you hear and don’t feel what you feel. That can make you feel like you’re the only one, or you’re going a little nuts. They want you to relax and enjoy the party.

I say deepen this. Go into it. Go into the true sources of your unease. This is the world speaking to you. The world is full of pain and sadness and it is speaking to you. Accept it.

It doesn’t mean you have to become depressed or suicidal. But it does mean, perhaps, that you have some grieving to do. Perhaps you have lost someone dear to you in the past year or two. Perhaps you are seeing life with greater clarity and an open heart. Welcome this sadness. It is OK. Don’t turn away from it. It will only follow you. Welcome it.

The right therapist can help you a lot. It will have to be someone special. Get checked out for any organic causes. Take note of any classic symptoms of depression. But if what you have is not a treatable disorder, I think it is probably just the voice of the world, speaking to you of all its sadness. Welcome it into your life.

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