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Chronically Unhappy People vs. Happy People

“I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.” Martin Luther King Jr. April 3, 1968

You and I have experienced people who seem to be stuck in chronic unhappiness. It is as if they had “Victim” tattooed on their foreheads and wore a badge saying, “long-suffering”

There is no question that some of the chronically unhappy people have suffered severe trauma and bad times. But there are other chronically unhappy people who seem to have everything going for them. They may justify their gloom with excuses like, “How can I be happy when some animals are going extinct?”

However, there are many more of us who have had horrible things happen to them, but remain basically happy people.

Those of you who know me, recognize me as a happy person. You also know that I have been through some horrendous experiences, most recently, losing three of my adult children. These losses were by far the worst of the 25 or so relatives, friends, colleagues and clients that have died in the past 10 years. But I’m back.

For most healthy people, their happiness in the moment is influenced by what’s going on in their lives. What is important is that their feelings of happiness and unhappiness act as signals that something is going right or that something is going wrong.

If you find yourself suddenly unhappy, you take it as a signal that something has to change, that something needs fixing. For example, if you have suffered a loss, you grieve so you can face it, accept it, and get back into your life. You pushed through your unhappiness and resumed your life. If you got stuck, you got help, because for you, being stuck in chronic unhappiness was not an option.

Sadly, the chronically unhappy usually refuse help. For one thing most don’t believe that happiness is even a possibility for them. Added to that is often the belief they don’t deserve happiness: “I should have been the one who died.”

The major reason why chronically unhappy people will not seek help is because they are afraid of what might change. They are comfortable in their unhappy state. It serves them to be victims, since victims don’t have to take responsibility and no one blames them.

Think about it: A change from chronic unhappiness to happiness would mean taking responsibility for one’s life and moods. One would have to give up victim-hood. And sadly, going to the mountaintop to take a peek at what’s on the other side is far too terrifying for most chronically unhappy people to consider. It’s safer and easier to believe their condition is terminal.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

15 comments to Chronically Unhappy People vs. Happy People

  • Cristian

    It’s funny,I have the same problem with ‘chronically happy’ people that you do with sad people. Accountability. The laws of this country (US: in case you’re somewhere else) are specifically designed to sap the most needy to feed anyone with their hand in public coffers. But you play it off like ‘extinct animals’ are the only thing worth worrying about.

    That is a one of a kind bit of denial you stated there sir. And it is that sort of disconnection that is at the heart of everything wrong with modern life.

    Maybe people that you describe as chronically sad would just be better of in say an agricultural society. Or simply a world that doesn’t require quite so much fudging IE: credit, taxes, fees upon fees and other assorted traps.

    Here’s a perfect example of how everyone in this country is disconnected and truly ignorant only for the sake of being happy and prosperous.

    In any situation, An eye for an eye is totally unacceptable. There are laws for it even. But how many people have died over the past 10 years over the attacks on NYC and such? Hundreds of millions of people in this country and there aren’t enough to get this war stopped? How is that even possible?

    I’ll tell you how. Cause people would rather get a new Iphone than stick up for anyone. People would rather sit home with their face in a romance novel than take a look at themselves and say “I shouldn’t work for this evil corporation even if it is great pay and benefits”. And that attitude bleeds through every part of our society. Happy people are deep in denial just so they can stay happy. There is no other explanation for it.

  • Hello Christian,
    Thank you for jumping into the discussion. I sense a lot of pain.

    The attacks on NYC were act of terror. Terrorist acts are not about killing people, but about instilling fear in an entire population. And they were highly successful. Whenever I have visited the united states over the past 10 years, I have been struck by the almost palpable level of fear, even among successful professionals. And from the perspective of an outsider, the apparent extreme greed, wealth-seeking and self interest that are arising from that fear appear to be turning the US into an even more inhumane society. However, it won’t be the most fearful and unhappy that refuse to put up with “evil” institutions, in my opinion, but it will be those who get their happiness from within, rich and poor, who will turn American society around.

    I am a happy person, perhaps chronically happy, but no one who knows me would ever accuse me of being out of touch with, not caring about or being in denial about what’s happening in the world.

    That kind of happiness that comes from within is a resource, not a problem. Do give some thought to how to harness it.

  • I used to be a chronically unhappy negative person as a “victim” of child abuse. Now I have changed my thinking and taken responsibility for my life and have become the “victor”. No one can take anyway my happiness now. It was strange at first to come out of depression to being happy…I almost resisted it to be more comfortable, but now I embrace it. Great blog!

  • This is a great article. I used to be really negative and unhappy as a “victim” of child abuse. Through therapy and listening to motivational/inspirational spiritual speakers, I learned to take responsibility for my life and become the “victor”. I have manic-depression so it felt strange to be happy. I almost thought I was hypomanic. Then I got used to it, and maintian a happy life now.

  • tina

    What do we do when we find our self in the midst of these unhappy people, because they end up erasing the little happiness in you all the time.

  • bea

    I wish I knew the answer to that one. If you are not bound to them as family members, I think the obvious answer is limit your exposure to them. If you can’t do that, all you can really do is try to limit their influence on you – distance yourself from them emotionally – try not to take their pain personally, it belongs to them and you can’t lessen it by sharing it. It will just suck you in.

    If the people you are talking about are anything like my husband, they will spit any sympathy or advice you have back at you and then attack you for not being sympathetic enough. They can’t be comforted or appeased. Just try to counter the black spot they leave in your home with as much sunshine as you can let in for everyone else. If they ever find their way out of the darkness, it will be because they decide they have had enough of it. Don’t hold your breath though. I almost passed out doing that the first year I was married – – – remember to breathe.

  • Kate

    Thank you so much for this article, Dr. Neill. My life circumstances are not particularly conducive to happiness at the moment. I am separated from my alcoholic husband of 22 years, and we just sold our lovely home in a short sale. My sister graciously opened her home to me and am I living with her until I can get my life sorted out. Living with chronic stress and trauma from early childhood has taken a toll on my physical being and I struggle daily with fibromyalgia and CFIDS. Daily pain and fatigue are well known companions on my journey. I have spent many past years in depression and hopelessness, but no longer want to remain in the Slough of Despond and have decided to get out of that pit, whatever it takes.

    “What it takes” for me, is weekly sessions with a compassionate and knowledgeable therapist, 12 step meetings many times weekly, and a chosen family of kindred spirit people that offer mutual connection and support. It’s still hard, and I still struggle, but came to a point in my life where I was ready to stop being unhappy, and turned my will in a different direction. I don’t know why it took 55 years to get to this place of being entirely ready to change, but it just did. It takes what it takes.

    I still have bad days, but they don’t turn into bad weeks, months, years. I’ve made my mind up to stop viewing my life as a tragedy. Choosing a different way is very new to me, but I can already see a big difference with just these few months under my belt.

    Thank you so much for your articles, they provide much food for thought and are full of encouragement for those who have/are struggled.

  • Naive Spirit


    I’ve suffered my whole life with sexual abuse; beaten, bullied, etc. I had no idea how to stop being a victim.
    I think you are blessed. I didn’t know that I could have done something to protect myself. No one taught me how. I’m 42 now. God had grace upon me for the sins of my father. I wish people had more compassion instead of being judgmental.

  • Cindy

    I have been with my husband for 22 years, married for 19 years. I love him, but asked him to leave 3 months ago due to his drinking and lack of employment. He has been depressed off an on for years. It seemed to be seasonal when we lived in the northern US 15 years ago. Now that we live in the southern US, it seems to be all the time. I’m not sure if it is the location, his age and increase in alcohol intake, or the increased responsibilities of parenthood. What I do know, is that I have suffered emotional and financial abuse from him often over the years.

    I am losing my home and have terrible credit as a result of the poor choices I have made. It is unfortunate that I did not protect myself better. I have now recognized and accepted that I am codependent. My intention for the new year is to find happiness in all the “little” things that occur in my life. I want my 4 year old daughter to see that I am strong, and learn that she can be strong too. We deserve to be happy, healthy, and safe. I will make that happen for us in 2013!

  • S. Ladouceur

    What a great article! So true! Chronically unhappy people really need to try and access the happiness that is buried deep inside themselves, and take responsibility for their chronic unhappiness, and stop trying to pollute other people’s lives with their unhappiness. Enough is enough!

    Remember the best things in life are not things!

  • Jennifer

    I am happy, fulfilled and light my own day. When I go to bed at night, I sleep. When I get up in the morning, I thank God for giving me the POWER of happiness. No pills, medications, therapists, fake friends, bad jobs or anything or anyone else can take away my thoughts for being happy. Sorry I don’t have friends, a boyfriend or a kid, but I am HAPPY!

  • Jennifer

    Dr. Neill,

    Do you have any books on maintaining friendships with positive people whom might go through social bullying in the workplace as adults?

  • Chas

    I found this article very useful. I’m only 22 years old and I had a pretty decent childhood except the fact that I was all ways made fun of and my older sister would physically abuse me for no apparent reason while my mom was at work. I’ve recently found happiness within the past month or so. I still tend to slip into my negative ways and thoughts, but I believe I’m doing much better with controlling them.

    I’m a good person with a big heart, but I don’t think I’m friendly enough. I actually know I’m not. I was in the habit of letting it be known that I don’t like people, but now I’m trying to change my life and be friendlier and I believe I need help, but don’t know where to find it. All in all, I do find myself smiling and thinking positive rather than filling my brain with useful negative thoughts. Do you give feedback?

  • Chas

    I was also picked on by the other kids through our my childhood. I’ve never really had friends, but always wanted some.

  • Jan

    I am generally a happy person, but can get overwhelmed when bad things happen. I take exception to people who only want happiness in their lives at all times. I lost my best friend of 31 years because she could not handle that I was not as upbeat as usual when my son was bedridden for six years. She “dabbled” a bit in helping out or offering support from a distance, but when I didn’t bounce back up with the weight of caring for my son on my own while working full time, she just avoided me. I eventually ended the friendship. Even people who are usually quite happy, can find themselves in a slump. It is the true friends who stick it out….because they are able to allow some sadness into their lives as well as happiness. Life isn’t always a bed of roses.

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