Unhappiness is a habit (but not a choice)
Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. — Adam Phillips, Missing Out
This article was originally published in The Ascent.
Unhappiness is not a place on a map. It’s not a person. It’s not a job. It’s not how we look, not what we do, not what we own. Our circumstances (unless extreme) don’t actually have a whole lot to do with our happiness at any particular moment.
For the most part, it’s a split between genetics and our attitudes and reactions. Genetics are of course out of our control. But contrary to all the ‘happiness is a choice! stop making excuses!’ bullshit being spewed all over the internet, we don’t choose our reactions either.
When you spend a substantial chunk of your life in difficult circumstances, unhappiness becomes a habit. A default mode. A comfort zone.
Events in our lives inform the way we react to other events later on. Something happens that makes us unhappy, which makes us more likely to react to future events in a way that makes us unhappy again.
So it’s a habit. Not a choice. It’s also a vicious cycle. This is a story about that cycle.
When I was at university, most days my ex-partner and I had a ritual of working in the library until late, then leaving right before the supermarket closed. They marked expired items down to pennies so we could feed ourselves for next to nothing. As boring as it sounds, that act became the linchpin of my days.
For a while, it was fun. We retreated into our own world- a small corner of the library, a corner of the coffee shop, a small room. In the evenings, I wrote and he played the guitar. We kept two piebald mice — Millie and Maud- hidden in a drawer. We’d sit outside the building smoking roll-ups and talking about the future.
I loved the routine, the morning trips to the coffee shop, the walks to class through the woods, watching the mice run around, cooking dinner at night.
But with time, I came to resent those monotonous rituals.
Specifically, I came to despise the sight of the glowing orange supermarket sign in the distance. My heart sank each time I saw it. Another 24-hours gone, I’d think, the days are going fast.
The orange sign came to represent everything I hated about my life at that point. The fun stopped. I became sullen, agitated, short-tempered.
Everything about university felt wrong. It always does if you’re there to study and can’t stand the social side of it all (I didn’t get drunk or go clubbing once.) You grow resentful of the noise, the sticky spilt drinks everywhere, the litter.
Ruminations, Conor Oberst’s haunting solo album, came out and I listened to it hundreds of times. To this day, those beautiful, harmonica garnished tracks feel like home. They feel like the only home I’ve known for a while. And before long, I ached to escape.
Looking back, that whole time feels like an anxiety fuelled, sleep-deprived haze. It doesn’t feel like something that happened to me. It doesn’t feel like a chapter in my life.
After I left university, I was ecstatic at the thought that I would never again have to face that monotony. I was now free to set my own rules and live an interesting life. That high lasted quite a while.
I went travelling, relishing the liberation of going wherever I wanted, doing whatever I wanted.In Verona, I found some measure of peace. Staying 30-minutes from the city, birdsong woke me at 3 am. I’d get up, barefoot and sit outside smoking Marlboros, watched by the wooden Jesus in a shrine opposite, accompanied by a cat called Paulo. Most days I just sat in the garden or ventured as far out in the fields as I could without facing the wrath of the area’s many guard dogs. Sometimes I took the bus into Verona and drew statues in the galleries.
And then I fell into a self-destructive rut again. In Berlin, the same happened, and in Paris too. Ruts, everywhere. No matter where I went, it felt the same.
From Ada or Ardor which I read for the first time in Venice:
He travelled, he studied, he taught. .. He learned to appreciate the singular little thrill of following dark byways in strange towns, knowing well that he would discover nothing, save filth and ennui and discarded merry cans with labels and the jungle jingles of exported jazz. He often felt that the famed cities, the museums, the ancient torture house and the suspended garden were but places on the map of his own madness.
Perhaps the lack of stability was the problem. Time to go home, get a flat and an office, settle into a groove with work. Maybe consistency was required. It certainly felt that way for a while as I savoured the feel of adulthood and unlimited solitude.
And then on a Friday night, I was walking home from my office at 10 pm as per usual. I looked up to see the glowing orange light of a supermarket sign I walked past every day without noticing. I had come full circle.
Except now I was alone, going home to an empty flat (aside from my cat), with a weekend ahead that I would spend working because there was nothing else to do. A friend had just unexpectedly died, leaving me with the overwhelming sense that nothing was solid and the worst was always around the corner.
I played Ruminations on repeat all night, hugging my cat as the words drowned out the noise of a fight outside. Waking up every hour to hear the opening verse of Counting Sheep: Closing my eyes / counting the sheep/ gun in my mouth / trying to sleep/ everything ends / everything has to. Remembering how I cried in the university library the first time I heard that song.
And I recognised that the change of environment had changed nothing. Leaving and quitting and running and hiding and wearing myself left me in the same place as before.
The monotony, the discontent, the resentment, the dissatisfaction, the frustration, the endless sense of being trapped: it was all inside me.
We all have our glowing orange supermarket signs: whatever it is that represents the feeling we most want to avoid. So we run from it, too busy glancing over our shoulders to notice we’re heading back where we started. Unhappiness is a habit, not a choice.
Framing it as a choice might be helpful for some. But it can also backfire and worsen that vicious cycle. We can end up angry at ourselves, frustrated that we keep making the wrong choice, unsure how exactly to select the other option. This makes a difficult act — changing how we think- sound deceptively simple. Oh you just chose to change. It’s easy. So when we find ourselves unable to change, we feel weak and powerless.
On the other hand, reframing unhappiness as a habit can be liberating. We can understand that we develop habits that serve us in response to circumstances. When our lives change, we continue holding onto the same habits. Except now they are destructive. Habits, however we formed them, can be broken. It’s just not as simple as making a choice. It’s as complicated and rewarding as learning to identify the thought patterns that push us to run away from what we might one day miss.