Why Can’t I Be Happy?

There is nothing more torturous in modern times.

As a species, humanity has almost everything it has ever wanted. We live with dozens comforts which would have been considered unthinkable just 50 years ago.

But there’s still something we don’t have, and we know this intuitively.

According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide depression rates increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker offers a strong argument for the case for global conditions being in a far better place now than any other time in human history.

Unfortunately, the knowledge that overall things are better doesn’t negate the sense that something isn’t right. And this brings us to a question that our guilty modern psyche may coerce us into asking;

Why can’t I be happy?

This feeling that something is missing has fuelled the global economy for the last hundred years, inspiring a cultural movement that is the equivalent to a dog chasing its tail.

The dog in this analogy is the modern human being, and the tail, our happiness.

However, there is something paradoxical about this chase. In the words of the late great existential psychotherapist Viktor Frankl; “happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.”

Our endless desire for happiness has become so intense that we find ourselves both pursuing feelings of happiness and being pursued by fears of our own potential for unhappiness. This never ending loop is somewhat akin to a Chinese finger trap; the more we attempt to escape, the more it begins to constrict and consume us.

So the question we need to ask therefore is not “how can I be happy?” it is “what conditions can I create which may allow happiness to ensue?” The difference may seem like a triviality, but it’s not. When we obsess over the goal of happiness, we can trip ourselves up, stumbling over a mess of expectations, projections and stress. On the other hand, when we are focused on the conditions and not on the outcome, happiness is far more likely to arise, often when we least expect it.

The intention of this article is to explore how you may be tripping yourself up. I’ve also offered some actionable solutions as to how you can go forward and untangle yourself.


So, if you find yourself asking the question ‘why can’t I be happy?’ read on and take note.

You have unrealistic expectations for what happiness is

This isn’t your fault. We don’t set our own expectations, they’re given to us by our environment. Our family, friends, co-workers, the news, movies, music and popular culture – these all implicitly feed our mind disjointed and conflicting roles about who we should be and what we’re capable of.

It’s tough for our psyches to manage so many opinions. We live in a culture that is hyper-focused on success and greatness, and so punishing towards mediocrity. The word mediocrity stems from the Latin mediocris, meaning of middle height or degree. So what happens if we find ourselves in the middle of the field, if we are average?

Well in our culture, average isn’t considered worthy of love or respect – so we all create intricate internal projections of what we could be. We all want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Serena Williams or Nelson Mandela, but for most of us that’s an impossible expectation.

Happiness works the same way, we compare ourselves to what appears to be the happiest person we know. And we chase the elusive idea of happiness like a drug.

Stop chasing happiness. There are a number of ways you can stop chasing happiness. Firstly, you can actively try to let go of expectations about how happy you should be. It’s normal that as human beings we live rough lives, and the fact that we have been able to do so is a testament to our resilience, which overly high expectations may allow us to forget. You can also limit how you use the word in your vocabulary. When you consider what you want, focus on something more specific like peace of mind, playfulness, or hopefulness. Finally, you can set realistic goals that aren’t related to happiness, and stay busy. When we’re engaged in a task we don’t have the time to fall into the trap of ruminating over our wellbeing.

Your Focus Muscle is Weak

Neuroscience has come to understand that an unfocused mind is quite often an unsatisfied mind. This is believed to be because the natural state of a wandering mind is to gravitate towards thoughts about ourselves, and the degree to which we reflect on ourselves is both a contributor to, and predictor of, our own happiness.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” – Matthew Killingsworth, Harvard Psychologist

When we are focused, we are engaged, and we may be fortunate enough to find an activity that allows us to frequently get into what is known as the flow state. Put simply, the more you are able to focus, the more you are likely to lose yourself in the activities in your life, and less likely you are to develop anxiety or depression as a result of maladaptive thinking styles.

Improve your focus. The fastest way to do this is to find something to focus on. Again, this comes down to appropriate goal setting. Being unemployed is a huge factor that leads to depression. Why? Not because we all love our jobs, but because work gives us something to focus on. However, the most effective way to do this is by practising concentration via meditation. You can significantly improve your ability to focus in less than a year if you put in the hours, and it can help you become more engaged in all areas of your life.

You’re not being true to yourself

We’ve all heard the cliche “be true to yourself.” Like most cliches, it’s profound advice, but only when we apply it in the appropriate context. If for example, we have feelings of anger, and we lash out at others, but we justify it by saying “well I had to be true to myself” – that’s an example of the wrong context.

On the other hand, if you understand who you are on multiple levels; beyond the stories you tell yourself, the barriers of your biology, and the narratives you’ve been fed by your culture. If you understand who are you are as a biological, psychological and spiritual being – then you can be guided by balance and not by bias.

Figure out who you are and be true to that. This is easier said than done and may take a lot of soul searching. But the best place to start is to talk to people with more life experience than you, and read biographies of people who have dug deep to understand themselves: scientists, philosophers, psychotherapists and spiritual teachers.

You’re legitimately in a difficult situation

Sometimes the reason you can’t be happy is not complicated. It doesn’t require you to look deep into your psyche and try and pull out reasons why. Sometimes, you’re just in a really difficult situation, and there is not much else to be said about it. What can be said, however, is how you deal with it – and most importantly, how you treat yourself.

Practice self-love. When there doesn’t seem to be a solution for your unhappiness, despite how hard you try, you can begin to blame yourself. It’s incredibly unfortunate, because this punitive attitude will ultimately be counterproductive. By consistently practising self-love, such as in the form of loving-kindness meditation, you’ll see a ton of benefits, including patience, acceptance, and a sense of calm.

It’s just not your time

Some people aren’t going to like this point. Maybe it’s because it’s the hardest pill to swallow. But for some people, it’s just not their time to be happy. They can do everything right; they can get professional help, take medication, eat well, exercise, socialise, forgive themselves, practice acceptance, and read hundreds of books – and still be unhappy.

Recognising that there are forces outside of our control that may be dictating our happiness is never a reason to give up the fight. It is, however, a reason to allow some of the stress of trying to be happy to just melt away.

Patiently wait. Yep, the solution to this point is as boring and painful as it is to accept it in the first place. However, patience is a very important skill, and the more you become an expert at patience, the less stress you’ll tend to experience.

You have set the wrong goals for your life

If you begin to realise that there were things about yourself that you didn’t know, then it should come as no surprise that you may have set the wrong goals. Often our goals are determined by our family, peers, and the wider culture we inhabit. This, however, doesn’t always make them appropriate for us.

Reverse engineer goals from where you want to be. Speaking to a therapist can help you see things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t have. They can also help you set healthy and effective goals going forward.

You have a chemical imbalance

The human body is an incredibly complicated machine, and imbalances in our neurology, microbiology and central nervous system have all been correlated with depression and anxiety. When you’re comparing your happiness to those around you, it can be very difficult to accept that your low mood may be a result of a medical condition. Again, this is only a further reason to reach out for help. We’re social creatures, and we need social solutions – don’t try to go it alone!

The most obvious solution is to see a psychiatrist. Despite the prevalent belief that modern cultures are overmedicated (and we need less psychiatry), the reality is that most people fight against medical intervention for months or even years before seeking the help they need. If you’re having suicidal thoughts you absolutely should see a psychiatrist. However, if you believe that you’re just going through a rough time and are not ready to take that step, consider a psychotherapist to lead you on the right track. If your diet is poor, a nutritionist may also be able to help you by providing an anti-inflammatory diet that can guard as mood swings.

Published by

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

2 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Be Happy?”

  1. Hi Ben,

    My name is Krist and I am the Content Manager for The Ladies Coach. I really loved your article on “Why can’t I be happy” we have so many women in our community who struggle with finding their happiness in life and would love you to write a piece for us on that topic.

    Please don’t hesitate to email me so I can send through more details for you if this is something that aligns with you.


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