Why Self-Unhappiness Leads to All Other Problems

Post written by Leo Babauta.

It started with a close family member who was having relationship problems — she was always anxious about what her boyfriend was doing, whether he was talking to other girls online, whether he was calling her enough or whether he cared enough.

This worry about her boyfriend was turning her into an anxious, unhappy young woman. I tried to help her, but as I did, I realized that the root problem was that she was insecure about her relationship because she was insecure about herself. She didn’t have faith in herself, and needed her boyfriend to have faith in her instead.

And she sought happiness from her boyfriend because she didn’t know how to be happy by herself. She wasn’t whole, so she was always looking for someone to make her whole.

This is extremely common, for men and women — they want their partner to make them happy, and when that inevitably doesn’t happen some of the time, they are then unhappy.

But then I saw the same problem in another relative … an older woman who drinks, takes pills, eats too much, watches a lot of TV, is overweight, and constantly depressed. She was unhappy and seeking happiness in the drugs, alcohol, food and television. She couldn’t find the happiness in herself, and so sought it in external sources. The problem with these external happiness sources is that they only give you a temporary burst of happiness (“chocolate! yay!”) but then what happens when you’re done eating or drinking? Where do you go next? You go for your next fix.

The more I considered this problem of self-unhappiness, and seeking happiness in external sources, the more I realized this was the problem that I had for so many years … and it’s the problem that many of my students have in these courses, where they can’t seem to get their habits to stick … and it’s the problem that all my readers have when they email me with their individual problems.

I’ve never really helped people solve this problem, but in truth, I’ve worked on it myself for years now. I’m still learning, actually.

So What is Self-Unhappiness?

Well, that’s probably pretty obvious — self-unhappiness is simply not being happy with yourself. But it can manifest itself in many ways … and often we’re not aware that this is the real problem.

For example, if you’re eating a lot of unhealthy food, it might be because you are depressed … which is because you can’t find happiness in your life … which is because you’re seeking it in external sources … which is because you don’t know how to be happy by yourself, without external sources.

Many people are unhappy with their bodies, which is a very common form of self-unhappiness. Others don’t have trust in their ability to stick to a habit change — another common form of self-unhappiness. Others are always worried that other people are judging them, and are not confident in their abilities. Many people fear being abandoned, or rejected, and allow that fear to stop them from doing some really great things.

Self-unhappiness doesn’t mean you’re always beating yourself up (though it might). It just might be a lack of confidence in yourself, a fear that you’re not good enough, or an inability to find happiness in yourself without finding it in external sources.

The Problems that Self-Unhappiness Causes

Let’s take a quick look at some common problems, and why they’re caused by self-unhappiness.

  1. Weight problems. Actually there are lots of reasons for weight problems, but one of them is unhappiness with your body. Another is addiction to food as an external form of happiness.
  2. TV or computer addiction. When we need happiness, we often look to external sources, and TV and computers and video games are common sources. For example, when you want something interesting in your life, you might look at Facebook or Pinterest, or watch soap operas or comedy, or porn.
  3. Debt, clutter and shopping addiction. People are conditioned to find pleasure in buying things (it’s why advertising exists). And so we get some pleasure out of buying shoes, or a gadget, or furniture, or a car. That lasts for a little while, then we do it again. As a result, we rack up huge debt and a lot of clutter.
  4. Hoarding. Why do people hoard stuff? Because they think those things have emotional value (external happiness) or security (not confident in their own abilities). This is not a judgment, btw, but an observation of myself and many others. So we have difficulty letting go of these things because then we will lose our external happiness or confidence.
  5. Procrastinating. We procrastinate because we fear doing something we aren’t confident we can do (not confident with ourselves), and also because we are distracted by the fear of missing out on something important (not confident with ourselves).
  6. Relationship problems. We think someone else will make us happy, and when they do, we are joyful, and we love them. When they don’t, we are angry or depressed. This anger and depression, btw, doesn’t make it more likely that the other person will be happy with us. We are insecure in our ability to be happy alone, and in our ability to be OK if someone else leaves us, which leads to insecurity about the relationship, jealousy, paranoia, playing manipulative relationship games, neediness and more.

These are just some examples, but you’re probably starting to get the picture. Pretty much every problem can be related to this root problem

How I Learned to Be Self-Happy

I will admit that I learned this the hard way — trial and error, with plenty of mistakes. But over the last 7 years or so, I’ve learned to be a lot happier with myself, and while I haven’t completely solved all my problems, I’ve learned a lot. I’ll share what I’ve learned in this course.

What did I learn? Here’s a short version:

All of this took time, and really I learned it as I was making various changes in my life. I learned it because sometimes these problems would stand in my way, so I had to reflect on them and learn about myself. I learned all of this one step at a time, and often taking two steps back.

It takes time because you slowly uncover things about yourself you didn’t realize, both “good” and “bad”. Actually, none of it is really good or bad, but some of them you can let go of, and others it helps to embrace.

It is my hope that by learning about some of these things, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and in the process, learn that you are already awesome, no changes needed.