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Don't Worry, Be Happy?

February 16, 2006 By:
FRANK ROSCI -JE Feature
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Unhappy about the way your life is going? Take heart; you’re not alone!

According to a new report by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, more Americans are unhappy about their lives today than they were in 1991, the last time the study was conducted.

Of the 1,340 people surveyed, some of the main reasons for their distress, researchers found, were money, or more precisely, the lack thereof; illness; unemployment; and broken romantic relationships. Overall, the percentage of respondents who reported at least one significant negative life event rose from 88 percent to 92 percent.

Contributing factors to a general feeling of malcontent with modern life, identified by several local experts in the field of human behavior, include a long list of other concerns as well, ranging from war to international terrorism.

“Besides the current economic situation, which has many people working harder than ever but still has them just making ends meet — only about 5 percent of the U.S. population has truly made it in terms of no money worries at all,” explained Diane Gottlieb, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine. “People are concerned and unhappy about ongoing wars, the very real threat of world terrorism, the recent Palestinian election victory by Hamas, rising health costs and any number of other issues.”

People are unhappy also, she said, because working harder and longer means they have less leisure time for themselves and their families. And less leisure time can lead to more stress.

“This is in addition to the normal stress people already have in their lives from major life events, such as marriage, the birth of children, divorce and death,” she said.

“Some people are just better than others at handling these things, and also at blocking out troubling world events, such as Sept. 11, and whether Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is alive or dead. So, despite the combination of all of these negative forces, some people may not be as unhappy as those who find it all too much to bear,” stated Gottlieb.

Ask for Support 
One of the best steps unhappy people can take is to establish a support network of family and friends. They can also get involved at the local level, socially and politically, to try to effect the kind of change that will make a difference, suggested Gottlieb.

“If able and not clinically depressed, of course — a genuine danger since that could lead to isolation — people should do what they can to develop a more positive outlook about their lives and the world around them, while not worrying about problems and events over which they have no control,” she advised.

Being unhappy is indeed a sign of the times, said Jeanne Meisler, M.D., a Main Line Health System psychiatrist who’s in private practice in Bala Cynwyd.

According to Meisler: “We live in very stressful times, with people working more than one job and with more women having to work outside the home to help support their families. Also, in today’s culture, which is a very materialistic one, people feel pressured to buy more and more, to have more possessions, thinking and believing this can make them happy when, in fact, it makes them unhappy because they’re never satisfied with what they have.”

Other issues that are making people unhappy, she noted, include world politics and economic situations, such as global warming and its obvious effects on the environment, in addition to finite oil reserves.

What can anyone do about it?

Responded Meisler: “They should look for real meaning in their lives. I draw an analogy to Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz for a time, and who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, basing the book on people who survived that awful experience not by dwelling so much on their daily struggles, but by keeping their dreams alive, and looking beyond to the future and their hopes of one day either returning to loved ones — for example, a child left behind — or resuming a career, say, as an artist.”

For baby-boomers, she added, “unhappiness may stem from factors that include intimations of their own mortality; concerns over aging parents; and the behavior and life-style choices of the so-called Generation X, those who range in age from their late teens to their 30s.”

Another issue that older Americans find especially disturbing and that causes them to be unhappy, Meisler said, is what they regard as the unraveling of the social fabric, evidenced, for example, by the loss of manners and an overall lack of civility among today’s younger people.

As for happy people who are around — and they are certainly there, she continued — it’s a matter of nature and nurture, and always has been: “By nature, they have the kind of temperament that makes them happy, while they’ve also been nurtured to be that way thanks to the environment in which they grew up.”

Psychotherapist Barbara Fishman, Ph.D., in private practice in Bala Cynwyd, said that in addition to the complexities of modern living that plague our world, unhappiness exists today because many people look for happiness in the wrong places, including in elements of popular culture, such as TV shows.

“Happiness is an emotion that comes with love and kindness, and it’s available to all of us, if we take the time to see beauty in a child’s face, enjoy a good joke, feel the wonder of our bodies in movement and sense the pleasure that comes with a big hug.

Happiness is momentary and fleeting; we need to catch it whenever we can,” said Fishman.

For Dmitri Markov, M.D., a Jefferson University Hospital psychiatrist, unhappy vs. happy is simply a question of resiliency: “With more ‘stressors’ — or adverse events today — some people — usually around 15 percent of the general population — are easily overwhelmed, and can be left feeling unhappy and even helpless.

“The key to dealing with the reality of major negative life and world events,” he explained, “is how resilient someone is to the bad things happening in their lives — a trait that can be strengthened through supportive relationships with family and friends.”

 

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