3 Mental Habits Making You Unhappy

We all want to be happier.

And in our search for happiness, we frequently end up looking outward for the next big thing that will help…

  • The next big idea from our favorite author that’s sure to help us turn things around
  • The next big promotion at work that will finally eliminate our imposter syndrome
  • The next big romantic relationship that’s sure to make us feel whole again

But for thousands of years, the wisest among us—from philosophers and poets to spiritual masters and neuroscientists—have been telling us that the source of happiness is not without but within.

The great benefit of science is that it can contribute tremendously to the alleviation of suffering at the physical level, but it is only through the cultivation of the qualities of the human heart and the transformation of the attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering.

— Dalai Lama

Now, that’s not to say that external things don’t matter at all for our happiness. But our control over external things like other people and events that befall us is usually pretty limited.

On the other hand, we have a great deal of control over ourselves. In particular, we can learn to control the habits of mind that actively lead to suffering and unhappiness.

What follows are three mental habits that make us unhappy. If you can learn to identify and adjust these mental habits, your chances of increasing your happiness go up. And along with it, your sense of agency, self-respect, and confidence.


1. Unrealistic Expectations

Expectations are an assumption about how things should be.

For example:

  • You expect your boss to be compassionate and constructive in her report on your performance and then are surprised, outraged, and disappointed when she’s critical and harsh with you.
  • You expect that you will willpower your way to the gym after a long, hard day at work and then become judgmental and self-critical with yourself for wanting to relax on the couch instead.

One way to think about expectations is that they are a form of wish fulfillment—temporarily satisfying a desire through unconscious or habitual thinking.

  • Because you wish for a compassionate boss, you expect that she will be, which for a brief moment, makes you feel good.
  • Because you wish to be the kind of person who goes to the gym after work, you expect that you will, which at the moment makes you feel good about yourself.

Sadly, those brief moments of feeling good are usually quickly drowned out by all the pain that comes when the expectation is eventually violated.

In other words…

Expectations feel good because they give the illusion of certainty and order.

The problem is that the world is neither certain nor orderly, especially when it comes to our fellow human beings. And in the long-run, high expectations typically do more harm than good—perpetual irritability, strained relationships, anxiety, and even depression.

The trick is to see expectations for what they are—a relatively primitive defense mechanism against the anxiety of uncertainty—and then cultivate healthier ways of managing those fears and anxieties.

Here’s one good place to start: Hold on to hope—let go of expectation

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.

— Lao-Tzu


2. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is when you use how you feel as evidence for what you should do:

  • You feel irritated with your spouse or partner so you decided that it’s a good idea to air all your most pressing grievances with them.
  • You feel lethargic and unmotivated so you decide you need to stay in and rest instead of going for that run or hanging out with friends like you told yourself you would.

It’s tempting to follow our feelings when deciding what’s true or helpful because they’re so loud. And because they’re loud—because we feel them so strongly—they seem persuasive and convincing.

But here’s the thing…

The strength of a feeling is a poor indicator of its truth or usefulness.

For example:

  • The anger and outrage you feel after reading your sister’s Facebook post about abortion pushes you strongly in the direction of commenting back with a snarky and sarcastic comment that you feel is sure to show her the error of her ways. But is that really the best way to behave in this situation?
  • The shame and guilt you feel for that big mistake you made 15 years ago pushes you strongly in the direction of ruminating on what you should have done different and how things would be better now if you had. But is that really the best way to behave in this situation?
  • The anxiety you feel as you imagine your spouse getting in a car accident on their long road trip pushes you strongly in the direction of worrying and catastrophizing about all the terrible things that could happen to them. But is that really the best way to behave in this situation?

But if it’s obvious that acting impulsively on our emotions usually isn’t very helpful, why do we do it so often?

Well, the simple answer is that it makes us feel better…

Strong painful emotions like anxiety, shame, irritability, sadness, etc. are aversive, which means we want them to go away as quickly as possible. And acting on these emotions often helps quell them temporarily.

The problem is by always doing something to alleviate these painful emotions you’re getting in the habit of making decisions based on how you want to feel rather than your values—what you believe is true and genuinely helpful:

  • Staying on the couch instead of going to the gym is trading a temporary feeling (relaxation) for a long-term value (physical health).
  • Taking those three shots before going to the party makes you feel better temporarily(anxiety relief) but in the long-run only reinforces the self-destructive belief that you need something in order to function in social situations.
  • Making that sarcastic comment to your spouse feels good in the moment because it boosts your ego, but in the long run, you’re eroding trust and intimacy in your relationship.

The best way to break out of the emotional reasoning trap is to get in the habit of clarifying your personal values.

When you’re overcome with any strong emotion, ask yourself: What do I really want in this situation? What’s going to make me happy in the long-run?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

― Viktor Frankl


3. Judgmental Self-Talk

Whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly talking to yourself—all day, every day.

You’re narrating the events of your daily life, some of which are boring and mundane (What type of squash should I get for dinner?), some of which are epic (He’s so negative… I knew I shouldn’t have married him).

But in addition to narrating the events in our lives, we also talk to ourselves about ourselves:

  • I really screwed up the talk to the sales team…
  • Damn, I look good in these new jeans…
  • I can’t do this… I’m not prepared enough. I never should have volunteered for this in the first place…

This inner speech about ourselves is called self-talk. And, again, whether you realize it or not, you probably have certain patterns or habits of self-talk.

Maybe you’re in the habit of worrying about how you look anytime you’re around other people? Or maybe you’re in the habit of nitpicking small mistakes you’ve made, ruminating on them endlessly for hours, days, even years after the fact.

In any case, our habits of self talk matter a lot because they’re the single biggest driver of how we feel long-term.

How we habitually talk to ourselves strongly impacts how we habitually feel about ourselves.

Here’s a quick thought experiment to illustrate:

  • Imagine a nasty little elf follows you along everywhere you go every hour of the day.
  • And all this nasty little elf does is hurl insults at you—he tells you how bad you look, how dumb you sound, and reminds you constantly that nobody likes you and you’re bound to make a fool of yourself sometime soon.

Now, even if I told you that nothing the little elf says is true, how would you would feel if this was your life—to be constantly berated and insulted every minute of every day?

Pretty awful, right?

Well, that’s literally what you’re doing to yourself when you’re in the habit of judgmental and overly-critical self-talk. Even though you might know intellectually that we’re not a terrible person who always fails and nobody likes, if you talk to ourselves like that, that’s how you’re going to feel.

All of which means that if you want to be happier—or at least a little less unhappy—you’ve got to start dealing with your negative self-talk in a healthier way.

The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.

― Marcus Aurelius

22 Comments

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Absolutely amazing. I’ve been reading books on psychology, therapy on and off for over 25 yrs and no-one writes and articulates the way you do. It’s a perfect combination between personal and professional growth, both which are intertwined. Thank you!

Giving myself positive self talk seems somewhat immodest, but I suppose what you are saying is that is negative self talk?

I’m a psychologist. “Positive” self-talk can be just as self-centered/immodest as “negative” self talk. You cannot undo “negative” self talk by talking about “all the good things” to yourself despite the BS in pop psychology. Labels are adjectives, descriptions, which often are vague and unhelpful when we talk to ourselves. The goal is to focus on the facts rather than the labels because labels bring strong emotional responses, which is why mass media LOVES them. Let’s take “I really screwed up the talk to the sales team…”, which is a VAGUE labeling comment that combines unrealistic expectations, emotional reasoning, and “negative” self talk. You could say to yourself instead “I got up there (fact) and I did not do AS WELL AS I WANTED (expectation management) on the talk to the sales team. Let me listen to the feedback they have for me and try DIFFERENTLY next time (growth mindset)”

Thanks for this important information about the traps one can get themselves into by not understanding their thought process. Once one realizes this then change can happen.

This is beautiful and so helpful…I’ve expressed the same sentiment – I’ve been in therapy on/off for most of my adult life (I’m a grandmother) and nobody has ever made it so clear and easy to understand cognitive therapy which is what most of us really need. You’re a very talented and gifted individual.

Thank you Nick! I definitely get into the negative self talk sometimes! Will try to address it with the knowledge I have gained in this article!

Right on point, Nick. “But for thousands of years, the wisest among us—from philosophers and poets to spiritual masters and neuroscientists—have been telling us that the source of happiness is not without but within.”

That darn elf lives in my head….I will have to work harder at banishing it!! Thank you for yet another enlightening article.

I look forward to all of your articles, and I’m so grateful for them. You bring much to think about that can make us better people, which in turn can help us to make the world a better place one person at a time. Thank you Nick. Please don’t ever stop!

Your Articles ,Nick have me looking forward to my Monday morning inbox.Your articles are pertinent and your writing has a refreshing clarity to it.
Looking forward to your new,in the works next monday.

I am so happy this article came up in my feed. I read Psychology Today articles. Your articles are amazing!!
Keep them coming!! Very well written and super helpful!!! Thank you! ❤️

Thank you so much, I’ve been struggling with some disappointments and need to let them go so I can center on being more positive. I look forward to re-reading this to help myself.

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