‘To be happy’ is a universal aspiration. Everyone want to be content and for at least 3,000 years philosophers and thinkers have been telling us how to go about it. These days, despite this accumulated wisdom and an abundance of books on the subject, most of us persist in doing things that not only ensure we stay un-happy, they actually increase our misery!

This might seem odd, given that so much media space is devoted to things that are supposed to help make us happy, but the truth is most people spend more time doing things that bring them down or keep them miserable, than they do focussing on what makes them feel good. We seem to be happiest making ourselves feel unhappy.

Unhappy in our own way

There is no limit to human creativity so the following list is not definitive; to paraphrase Tolstoy, we can each be unhappy in our own way. Still, there are some common patterns, things most of us do in our habits of thinking that successfully bring us down and ensure that we struggle at least some of the time:


There is always someone better looking, richer, luckier, smarter… then we are. Accept it. Most comparisons are false or unequal anyway (smarter, richer etc. doesn’t mean happier), and comparison can easily evolve into resentment, envy, and bitterness.

Of course, if you stick with it you score extra unhappiness points because it all goes to show how unfair life actually is, doesn’t it?

‘Success’ equals self-worth

Judging our value as a human being by success or failure is guaranteed to upset us. We all fail more than we succeed anyway, and successful people understand that this is part of the process (authors have books rejected, actors fail auditions and any entrepreneur will tell you about their failures). True, success helps build self-esteem but don’t let it define you. Balance things by learning to welcome failure too.

‘If only…’

“I’d worked harder…”, “my kid had made it to university…”, “I’d had a happier childhood…” Get it? Aspiration and ambition are fine (though not the same; aspiration provides direction, ambition the driver). Regret is understandable and at times necessary, but lamenting and bemoaning can lead to unproductive self-pity and negativity.

Rehearsing failure

Many have the habit or re-running their daily setbacks and failures. It doesn’t take much training to spot our mistakes, and it is even easier (an cheap), to zero in on the errors of others. Highlighting their mistakes can hopefully make us feel better about our own perceived failings, but it doesn’t help us to get over the habit of dwelling on the things we do (or didn’t do), that upset us.

I feel it, so it is

Mixing up thoughts and feelings indiscriminately leads to all sorts of problems. Emotions are very persuasive, that is their job, so it is easy to believe that “because I feel something it must be that way.”. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Thinking and feeling work so closely together that it can be hard to separate the two. A lot of people say ‘feel’, when they mean ‘think’ but if we genuinely confuse the two and this can have dire consequences.

‘Bad’ choices

Did you marry the right person? Are you in the right job? What is the right colour for your new feature wall… the right holiday destination..? The list is endless, so plenty of scope for worrying and with luck – if you get it ‘wrong’ – proof of your inadequacy as a human being.The great thing about this one is that you can use it to look back and regret (as in “I chose the wrong option”), or to worry about the future (“I must make the right choice”).

There are many things we can make sensible choices about, but often we won’t know if we did the right thing until much later. And se may never know, then we are in the philosopher’s domain.

Over generalising

One bad experience equals the same every time, for ever and ever. We’ve all done it “I tried spinach once….”; “My ex used to do that…”; “I had a terrible holiday in (choose a destination)…”. We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident, opinion or piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, we decide that it will always be the same.

Let me count the ways

There must be at least 43 of these dogy ways of thinking (or cognitive distortions to use the jargon), probably, like human creativity, they are limitless. My main point here is that we are all likely to engage in shaky thinking habits at times, particularly if we are not at our best, when we are tired or worried, for example. We do this without question which is odd considering that we tend to put happiness so high on the agenda.


I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.