Chronic unhappiness is a large, sweeping problem of our generation.
In the recently released World Happiness Report, the United States was shown to have decreased in its happiness for the third straight year in a row. People in the US are the unhappiest they’ve ever been, even though crime rates are lower and the economy is strong.
This finding substantiates the results of another study. Researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, discovered that circumstances only contribute to 10% of our overall happiness.
Even though America has the circumstances that might suggest greater happiness, more people are feeling unhappy because circumstances don’t matter as much as we think it does.
Lyubomirsky’s study revealed that the main factor that influences our happiness is actually our thoughts and actions—namely, our internal world.
You can influence your happiness. But it doesn’t come from changing your circumstances. It comes more from how you think and what actions you take.
Yet for years, society has tried to solve the problem of chronic unhappiness by changing life circumstances.
I believe this was primarily because we didn’t have the language or the tools to identify our source of unhappiness beyond life circumstances. We didn’t have the resources to self-diagnose our internal state.
This is why I developed the concept of Negative Defaults™.
We each have custom, specific Negative Defaults that pull us toward unhappiness. And if we can understand our Negative Defaults, we can actively change our thoughts and actions to influence our happiness.
What are Negative Defaults?
Negative Defaults are the common patterns of thoughts and actions that contribute to our compounding unhappiness. We have the same thoughts we think, the same emotions we escape, and the same pleasures we go to that influence our growing unhappiness.
You have Negative Defaults. I have Negative Defaults. We all have Negative Defaults. They’re all different, and they all make us unhappy.
To understand your negative defaults, you first have to familiarize yourself with The Unhappiness Cycle™.
The Unhappiness Cycle is a pattern of behavior where our desire to escape pain actually strengthens our stressors. In other words, the more you try to ignore, numb, or escape your pain, the more you increase your stress and negative affect.
Here’s how it works:
First, you experience a neutral circumstance (or stressor).
Then, the neutral circumstance produces a thought which is measured by your mind as negative.
This negative thought then produces a negative emotion which triggers you to want to suppress or escape it.
You then engage in a pleasure. A pleasure is what psychologists call anything that rewards you with a big blast of dopamine and makes temporarily happy. Drinking when you feel sad, binging Netflix when you feel bored, or scrolling on social media when you feel angry are all examples of pleasures.
But since these pleasures don’t actually make us happy in the long run, they are false pleasures. They only give us the illusion of happiness.
Here’s the problem: the more you seek to escape the emotion and reward yourself with false pleasure, the more your brain craves these big blasts of dopamine that do nothing for you.
Instead, it creates a habit where you only know how to feel better by escaping the negative emotion, which doesn’t help you in the long run.
It’s a cycle. You’ll eventually experience the stressor again, which will produce the negative thought, which will repeat the trigger, which will result in a false pleasure. And then, the cycle repeats.
(Brief sidenote: you can remember this cycle with the acronym STEP.)
The more you follow this pattern of behavior, the more you compound your unhappiness. Why? Because escaping emotions with a pleasure teaches you nothing about how to confront your stressor. It only teaches you how to be a victim of it.
Therefore, your unhappiness compounds as your stressors intensify.
Science proves that The Unhappiness Cycle only intensifies the stressors.
Consider this study from James Dillard at Penn State University and other researchers who studied pregnant women vulnerable to the Zika virus in the United States. Dillard and the other researchers found that women who tried to suppress their fears only experienced higher levels of fear later, which then prompted them to engage in more emotional suppression. It created an intensifying cycle which only caused them to escape life more and more.
The Unhappiness Cycle compounds your unhappiness.
So what are Negative Defaults? Well, if you look at The Unhappiness Cycle, you’ll see that your Negative Defaults are . . .
- The typical thoughts you think that cause your negative emotion
- The typical emotions you try to ignore, suppress, numb, or escape
- And the typical pleasures you reach for to avoid feeling pain
By completing The Unhappiness Cycle, you can understand your Negative Defaults, and start fighting against their influence on your life.
How to Determine Your Negative Defaults
So what are your Negative Defaults? What are the specific scripts pulling you toward unhappiness?
The Unhappiness Cycle finds its foundation in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is the idea that thoughts influence behavior so if you can change the thought, you can change the behavior.
This is also the basis for what’s called The Model, by master life coach, Brooke Castillo. The Model is as follows . . .
Circumstance → Thought → Emotion → Action → Results
It is our thoughts about an event that cause our emotions, and our emotions produce our actions.
The difference with The Unhappiness Cycle is that what compounds our unhappiness is our negative relationship with our emotions. The only reason we reach for a false pleasure is because we want to escape feeling a negative emotion.
So to determine our Negative Defaults, we have to back up and explore . . .
- The stressors that cause our negative thoughts.
- The negative thoughts that cause our negative emotions.
- The negative emotions that we want to escape.
- And the pleasures we use to feel better and escape pain.
Once you understand how The Unhappiness Cycle works for you and what your Negative Defaults are, you’ll be equipped to combat the chronic unhappiness in your life.
Let’s explore each one.
1. What are your stressors?
People generally believe it is the circumstances of a situation that makes their life unhappy. But as we discussed earlier, this is only because the circumstances are the easiest to spot.
It is what we think about our circumstances that produces the negative emotions.
Our circumstances are just the triggers for our thoughts. So what events or situations cause stress and discomfort for you? Is it . . .
- Talking about money?
- When your boss gets irritated?
- Your child crying?
- Your spouse complaining to you?
- When someone blames you?
Take notice of the events that cause a feeling of discomfort for you, and write it down.
2. What are the thoughts you repeat to yourself?
These circumstances typically spark the same thoughts in us. And these thoughts become beliefs that filter our perspective.
Beliefs are just repeated thoughts. The more we repeat certain thoughts, the more we cement them as beliefs.
When you experience stressful circumstances, what thoughts do you typically have? How do your thoughts assign a negative meaning to that event?
I found positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s, work on the three P’s to be helpful here. The three P’s determines our emotional resilience, or our ability to bounce back after hardships. They are as follows:
- Personalization – This is when we think the problem is about ourselves. Example: “There must be something wrong with me.”
- Permanent – This is when we believe a problem will last forever. Example: “I will never be able to get out of this.”
- Pervasive – This is when we think a problem applies to all areas of life. Example: “My failure at work also means I fail as a parent.”
The three P’s are just a problem with our thinking.
Ask yourself: when you encounter your stressors, do your thoughts typically head in these directions? If so, they could produce a negative emotion for you.
3. What are the negative emotions you are trying to escape from?
Our negative thoughts produce negative emotions for us. Many people don’t know what emotions they are specifically feeling. They just feel a state of discomfort.
But in this stage of determining our Negative Defaults, we’re trying to understand what are those specific emotions we’re unwilling to feel.
If we don’t know what emotions we’re unwilling to feel, then we won’t notice when they arise in us. And the key to fighting this Negative Default is to allow our emotion instead of resist it.
Take a look at the thoughts from the last step. Do thoughts of personalization turn into feelings of shame? Do thoughts of permanence turn into feelings of grief? Do thoughts of pervasiveness turn into feelings of hopelessness?
Be sure to name the exact feelings you have after your thoughts. If you have trouble naming them, use a tool like The Feelings Wheel.
4. What are the pleasures you use to feel better?
When we feel pain, we turn to a pleasure to make us feel better. The problem is, this does nothing to help us increase our tolerance of the pain. When the stressor returns, we repeat the cycle and compound our unhappiness.
When you feel a negative emotion, do you . . .
- Binge on Netflix?
- Reach for a drink?
- Play video games?
- Blame others?
- Explode in an angry rant?
- Post on social media?
- Emotionally shutdown?
There are all examples of things that feel better in the moment, but do nothing to actually help us feel better. The more we partake in these pleasures, the more we decrease our ability to sit in the pain and grow through it.
Putting it All Together
Once you answer these questions, put these all together and you now have a script for what causes unhappiness in you.
Here’s an example of some of my Negative Defaults:
- Stressor: Unexpected expense.
- Thought: “I can never make progress on my debt.”
- Emotions: Shame, anger, and sadness.
- Pleasure: Overworking and blaming.
Now that I understand my Negative Defaults, I can make an action plan to fight against them. Note that in my action plan below, I don’t change anything with the stressor. You can’t control when a stressor comes up in life, but you can control your response to it.
- Thought: When I think, “I can never make progress on my debt,” I instead repeat the thought, “this is just a temporary blip on the way to paying my debt.” I turn my thought from fiction to fact.
- Emotions: When I feel shame, anger, or sadness, I let the feeling pass through my body instead of trying to resist it.
- Pleasure: When I feel the temptation to overwork or blame, I will pause and allow myself a moment to choose what’s best for me.
This action plan will produce positive energy for me. Negative Defaults only produce negative energy, and negative energy is not good fuel for anything productive in life.
Understanding your Negative Defaults can be a game-changer for your life. If you need help understanding and writing down your Negative Defaults, this free tool will help.
Most people don’t understand what makes them unhappy. They just accept they can do nothing about it and compound their unhappiness.
But with a greater awareness of your Negative Defaults, you can fight against the pull toward unhappiness and instead produce the positive energy you need to thrive in life.
This is how you lead a life of joy—fighting the pull toward unhappiness and growing through hard things. It all starts with understanding your Negative Defaults.