A mere 14% of people said they were very happy in a recent report. In fact, we are more unhappy than we’ve been in 50 years.
Yet many of you wouldn’t know it. Most people don’t walk around sulking. Friends are good at putting up an emotional front. We are good at buying the illusion. Then, when that friend’s behavior changes, we take it personally. We forget there were signs all along. It was never about us.
Understand the subtle signs of unhappiness and you’ll deepen your empathy. You’ll better understand yourself. Above all, you’ll have better social relationships, which is tied to better health, happiness, and longevity.
In Defense of Soccer Moms
I worked retail for three years at a higher-end interior design store, Crate & Barrel. I actually loved the job. It was low pressure and I got to meet and talk to random people. However, I did see my share of difficult customers. On one occasion a woman came in looking a bit frazzled. I’d just checked her out minutes beforehand. She slid her open box across the table and blurted out, “Sir. I’m sorry but you packed this wrong.”
I looked at it and saw nothing off. I asked her what the issue was. She said, “You put the wrong gift wrapping paper inside. I asked for blue.”
I looked down and said, “Ma’am, that’s the only blue we have.” She held up the box, “No this is turquoise! You didn’t listen!” I was caught off guard by the aggression. I explained that turquoise was all we had. She stormed out of the store without saying anything more.
She was my Karen before the ‘Karen’ meme. We’d actually been trained on dealing with these situations. A senior manager taught us that outbursts are rarely about us personally. Often, they are about a bigger problem in that customer’s life. It doesn’t excuse the rudeness. But it gave us better context.
It’s in this way that the Karen meme, the high-maintenance soccer mom, is a bit unfortunate. One could foresee a homemaker, who has a thankless job. She’s in a thankless marriage. Her kids are out of control. Her husband isn’t helping. She’s tired. Gift wrapping paper became a channel for that unaddressed frustration. The outburst is no different than when your parent went nuclear over your forgetting to make your bed. Their vitriol was more about their deeper frustration with you.
When You Don’t Understand Their Behavior
A married couple I know was going through this difficult phase. The wife was complaining to us about her husband. He was sleeping all day. He’d come home and just stay in his bed for ridiculous stretches of time. He’d wake up, go to work, work very hard. Then he’d return home and shut down.
Understandably, his spouse was very unhappy as he wasn’t giving her attention or helping at home. The couple had been fighting a lot in the time leading up to this. Fast forward, they got divorced, in no small part due to his behavior.
He was later diagnosed with depression, which is a confusing disease in that it can have conflicting symptoms. You can have insomnia. You can be oversleeping. You can be staying out all night. I’ve noticed it when there is a sudden and consistent change in someone’s energy levels. They are either persistently more tired or fluctuating between extremes. That’s when I get concerned.
True Communication Breaks Down
My partner works in academia as an archaeologist. She runs a lab where they 3-d scan artifacts. She hired a vendor to do a few special scans. She gave the guy his payment upfront. Months of drama later, she still couldn’t get ahold of him. He didn’t answer his phone. He didn’t reply to emails. He occasionally reached out to cancel meetings. His excuses were always ridiculous.
Sparing you the full details, we know he drinks a lot and has personal issues. But the situation and his nonacquiescence have created much bigger problems for his life. He took a company’s money and refused to deliver services. He’s ruined key business relationships and his reputation. He’s effectively tanking his career.
When someone’s communication breaks down, when they stop answering calls and doing their normal duties, it’s not usually a good sign for their wellbeing. Depressed people often avoid and put off communication. I’ve seen otherwise great friendships and careers totally implode because a person started ghosting everyone, including their boss and their partner.
A Secret and Universal Sign of Unhappiness
Years ago, I was in a relationship where I wasn’t particularly happy. At the time, I didn’t even understand I wasn’t happy. I lacked the self-awareness and emotional language to articulate that to myself. I was also in denial. I’m generally a pleasant person and you’d have probably never guessed it if we spoke.
In hindsight, it was glaring. I was burying myself in my hobbies rather than spending time with my partner. I got obsessive over stupid things that kept me from being around her. She rightfully resented me giving attention to those other things. Meanwhile, I didn’t enjoy our time together because we bickered too much. In reality, we weren’t meant for each other. She’s a great person and has moved on. I’m happy for her.
I was doing what many unhappy partners do. It was an act of escapism. You see it when boyfriends start gambling, playing video games, hanging out with friends. Some new thing suddenly eats all their time. In its darker iteration, escapism manifests as cheating. Ultimately, a person is just doing a bunch of things that evade staring down their problems. Avoidance is a major indicator of unhappiness.
Empathy is an all-powerful life skill. Sharpen your eye for unhappiness and you’ll be more likely to spot it in yourself.
You could change someone’s life by noticing their suffering when others don’t. Someone pulled me out of a rut years ago when nobody else noticed the problem. Look for these signs in their subtler forms.
Recap for your memory: four signs of unhappiness
- They begin sleeping all day or having sudden changes in their energy levels.
- They start flipping out over silly things. They are channeling deeper unhappiness.
- Their communication starts to sputter, fade, or change. They retreat away from talking or following through on commitments.
- They suddenly take up new hobbies and bury themselves in them to avoid reality. They practice escapism.