Unhappiness is a learning opportunity

Cartoon 1871 ridiculing Charles Darwin

Most people who seek therapy are unhappy in one way or another. As they say to me, ‘I just want to be happy’.

In turn, many therapists adopt the view that everyone is entitled to be happy and take steps to remove unhappy feelings. Doctors do this through the prescription of drugs, which flatten affect. Psychologists prop up clients’ self-esteem, reassuring them that they are okay.

I don’t agree with this approach. I see unhappiness as a fantastic learning opportunity. In propping up the self-esteem of their clients, therapists can inadvertently rob them of an opportunity to reflect upon their lives, recalibrate their habits, learn new skills and change their way of being in the world.

After all, there may be very good reasons that clients are unhappy. Perhaps they have poor skills in forming relationships. Perhaps they cannot hold down a job. Perhaps they do not know how to assert themselves in social situations. Perhaps their aggression drives away the very people that they love.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I try and figure out the underlying cause of their unhappiness. There are many possible reasons: poor social skills learned in childhood, insufficient marketable skills, bad diet and unhealthy habits, and so on. It sounds basic, but we only have one brain, and we often do not recognise our skill deficits because they occurred at a time when our choices and opportunities were very different.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I also think of Charles Darwin. Darwin was deeply unhappy. He suffered terrible anxiety, three of his children died in childhood and he was vilified and ridiculed for his radical theories of human evolution. Yet he is nowadays revered for his profound contribution to human knowledge.

Perhaps aiming to be happy is aiming too low. Whatever the case, it is not an end in itself. It is better to think about how we can take care of ourselves, form good relationships and make a worthy social contribution, and let happiness look after itself.