Science is beginning to understand how much our feelings affect the world around us. Our thoughts and perspective have more power over our bodies and our lives than most people realize. We live in an age where many people spend the majority of their waking hours doing work that is not fulfilling. Happiness is becoming a precious commodity. If you cannot remember the last time you felt truly happy, your emotional state might actually be shortening your life.
Unhappiness is more than just an occasional unpleasant feeling. It is normal to experience moments of worry, sadness, disappointment, and anger throughout our lives. But when we are constantly unhappy for weeks or months, our bodies begin to wear down.
Chronic unhappiness is closely linked to chronic stress. Often, one creates the other. And they both have seriously detrimental effects on the nervous system, brain, and heart. When we are chronically unhappy the body behaves as if we are under attack or dying. Chemicals are released that increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and stimulate the production of more of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Many people do not realize that when they are bracing themselves to go to the job they hate or to have another unpleasant interaction with their partners, that they are actually shifting their bodies into fight-or-flight mode. The nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual danger that we need to be prepared to run away from or battle, like a hungry tiger, and a danger that is only emotional or psychological, like a verbally abusive boss. Stress is stress, and over time it wears us down.
Chronic unhappiness dramatically increases a persons likelihood of experiencing a heart attack. It causes the arteries to freeze, making it so that they no longer function properly. Over time, all of the factors associated with unhappiness weaken the muscle tissue of the heart. This condition is call cardiomyopathy, and it can be caused by different kinds of emotional stress such as deep unhappiness, hostility, grief, or constant anxiety. In some cases it causes people to quite literally die of a broken heart. Studies of heart attack risk factors found that people who suffer from chronic stress are at the same level of risk as those who smoke cigarettes, and higher than people with diabetes and high cholesterol.
And beyond the dangerous effects on the heart and nervous system, chronic unhappiness saps at our spirit. When we are unhappy for a long period of time it becomes a lot harder to find the motivation to care for our bodies. This means we tend to eat unhealthy food, stop exercising, and in general spiral downwards into depression and neglect, shortening our life spans in the process.
Recognizing When We Are Unhappy
Sometimes we can be so mired in our misery that we have no idea how unhappy we actually are, but self-awareness is key for healthy lives. So examine your own level of happiness by asking yourself these questions:
- Does my work fulfill me?
- Is it meaningful?
- Do I feel like my life has meaning?
- Do I feel deeply connected to my partner/friends?
- Do I spend time doing something that I truly love everyday?
- Am I caring for my body and mind to the best of my ability?
- Do I know what happiness means for me, and I am experiencing it on a regular basis?
- Do I laugh out loud in true joy at least a few times a week?
If you answered no to more than one of these questions, you may want to reevaluate your work, your relationships, and especially your life purpose as it relates to how you are actually living now.
Choosing to Be Happy
As with any healing process, the first step is awareness. Recognizing your current level of happiness can help you take steps towards finding whatever spark you may have lost. The journey will be unique for each person, but generally you want to let go of things that make you clench your teeth, and move in the direction of things that make you come alive.
Perspective can go a long way in shifting our level of happiness. When you think about your work and relationships, see if you can let go of any habitual thought patterns and be curious. How does each work task or person you spend time with make you feel? Can you look at them all with gratitude and love, or is that impossible because you feel harassed, threatened, resentful, unappreciated, or authentically unhappy in some other way?
If you realize that your job or relationship is truly unhealthy for you and it is not simply a matter of needing to shift your perspective, then you will need to change it. If you do not, your creativity, passion, joy, and eventually your health will suffer. No awful job is worth your life, and you cannot buy your way out of an early grave if you work yourself to death.
Happiness is a complex issue, and it means different things to different people. But unhappiness is so stressful for our bodies and so expensive to our health that you owe it to yourself to find out what makes you actually happy, and live it.