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Why You’re Unhappy – 7 Things You Should Know

As we get caught up developing our careers and bringing up our families, we often think ahead of the time when we will have more time for ourselves.

Those golden years of retirement – those years of leisure… and pleasure!

If our expectations are too high as we head into those years, then there is a danger that we could be in for an unpleasant awakening.

If we sit around expecting to be happy simply because we don’t have to go to work every day, then we are likely to be disappointed. We need to recognise that happiness is a skill, and we develop that skill by understanding how our brains work.

7 Things You Should Know About Your Brain

We’re Not Wired for Happiness

Our brains were simply not wired for happiness – they were wired for survival and to seek out threats.

Think back to our ancestors who lived in caves – the focus was on survival. They likely didn’t waste time wondering if they were happy – they were too busy hunting down animals for food and finding a way to make fire.

They were driven by purpose, and when they were hunting, they were flooded with dopamine as they looked forward to that delicious meal they were going to eat.

Unhappiness Is Not a Disease

Everyone seems to be chasing happiness, believing that joy is the norm and we are entitled to be happy. We might even feel that everyone else is happy and there is something wrong with us if we are not!

In turn, that can lead to a belief that bad feelings are a disease and that we need to seek out medication so that we also will be happy all the time.

The demand for fast and easy spurts of happy chemicals results in 25% of American women over 60 being on anti-depressants.

We Need to Understand Our Unhappy Biology

Rather than relying on the medical profession to “fix us,” we should focus on understanding how our brains work.

We are better off simply accepting our unhappy biology. It’s uncomfortable to think that we’re wired simply to survive and that our young brain developed according to our childhood experiences, but it helps to realise that we’re all in the same boat because every person’s brain is wired in their youth.

Nothing Is Wrong with Our Brain!

Let’s be thankful for our beautiful, complex brain!

Humans have a very long childhood compared to other species because we learn continuously and thus wire our brain from lived experience.

Lizards leave home at birth and if they don’t run fast enough, a parent eats them. A mouse’s childhood is two months long. A gazelle must run with the herd when it’s a day old.

Human childhood is extremely long by comparison and that lengthy period has its purpose. It evolved to build the neural network that guides us for life.

The Ebb and Flow of Well-Being

No one has happy chemicals all the time and no one completely escapes negative feelings. It would be nice if you could get your brain fixed the way your car is fixed. It would be great if “society” could spark your happy chemicals for you. But it’s better to know the biological facts and put the work in to change our own neural pathways.

We can build new and healthy habits which will create new neural pathways. We can journal to process our emotions, and we can develop a meditation practice to reduce our stress levels. We can learn more about neuroscience so we can take charge of our brain.

Bridging Pleasure and Meaning

The neuroscience of happiness suggests that a balanced life is not merely about accumulating pleasures but about weaving these pleasures into a meaningful life.

This could be the key to unlocking sustained wellbeing.

The brain’s reward system activates not only when we receive but also when we give. In other words, we are wired to derive joy from helping others, and that’s why volunteering can be so life-affirming when we no longer work full time and have time to spare.

Resilience and Recovery

Every life will be touched by setbacks and loss, and the ability to recover will affect our future happiness. Rapid recovery from adversity and the ability to sustain positive emotions contribute significantly to our overall happiness.

The resilience of the human spirit can be traced back to neural mechanisms and has been well documented in literature such as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl wrote, “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power as Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in their life.”

Recognising the fact that we are not here simply to “be happy” and that we need to find more purpose and meaning in our life is important.

Recognising That Happiness Is a Skill

We need to accept the fact that no one is effortlessly happy because those happy brain chemicals evolved to reward steps taken toward meeting our needs.

Everyone is unhappy sometimes because unhappy chemicals evolved to alert us to obstacles to meeting our needs. These chemicals are controlled by pathways built from past experience.

Fortunately, we have billions of extra neurons ready to build new pathways. We can learn to redirect our electricity from potential threats to potential rewards, and thus shift ourselves from threat chemicals to happy chemicals.

The neuroscience of happiness offers insights into how our brains process the experiences that make life worth living. It’s not just about finding joy but it’s about how we integrate this joy into a meaningful existence.

We can find happiness in our lives by finding meaning and purpose and accepting life and all of its parts – both the good and the bad. By finding meaning in life, we can create our own happiness.

Finding Happiness – A Personal Case Study

I had relied on wine to make me feel happy for many years. As I reached 63 years, my health problems were accumulating. I felt exhausted and permanently worried that my breast cancer would return.

I decided to quit drinking, and sure enough, my first few months of sobriety were tough, very tough.

The benefits of quitting alcohol started to appear as promised. I lost weight, slept better, my skin looked great, eyes were clearer. I saved money – and yes, I even learned to love mornings.

Yet in spite of all that good stuff, life felt rather flat. I seemed to have a lot of time on my hands.  Time I wasn’t quite sure what to do with.

There were no despair-fests at 3 am but there were no highs either.

I felt like I was facing a void.

I decided I was suffering from anhedonia which is the inability to enjoy everyday pleasures.

Sunsets, walking on the beach, meeting up with friends just didn’t hit the happy spot.

I worried that this dull and miserable place was “sobriety” and was on the verge of giving up many times. If this was sobriety, I wasn’t sure it was for me.

I decided to hang in there for a few months in the hope that the low would pass.

I also felt just a bit “trapped.” Everybody was so “proud of me” and my sober buddies urged me to stay strong and keep going.

So I did, I just kept going, day after day, but the low mood continued for at least three months. I tried to smile and use the “fake it till I make it” strategy. I agreed with my sober buddies that yes, sobriety was awesome, whilst thinking – really?

Then One Day Everything Changed

I had a light bulb moment. I decided I would design and facilitate a workshop for people who wanted to quit drinking. After all, I had 25 years of corporate experience in training and development. That was the day that tribesober.com was born…

That’s when the magic happened.

Creating a website, designing the workshop, setting up a membership, starting a podcast, and connecting with other people on this journey kept me busy – and happy.

Most importantly of all, it gave me a purpose and for the first time in years I felt that my life had meaning. Helping people to quit drinking and rediscover their health and happiness felt pretty good.

Eight years later growing Tribe Sober still keeps me happy!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and at nearly nine years sober I can look back and analyse just what happened and hopefully this article will help others to understand and avoid that early low that can hit and often derail us in early sobriety.

Thanks to a podcast interview I did with Dr. Loretta Breuning I now have a much better understanding of just why I felt so low a few months into sobriety.

At the time, my impression was that my low mood had passed of its own accord but in reality that was not quite true.

My low mood had passed because I had set a new goal (to start Tribe Sober) and was working in stages to achieve that goal. Working towards and achieving another step every day was keeping those happy brain chemicals flowing.

Loretta explained to me that my upbeat mood (aka pink cloud) during those first few months was triggered by the fact that I’d set myself a goal to get sober and was making daily progress towards that goal.

A few months into sobriety, my brain had ticked off this goal as “achieved,” and now I was in limbo as there was no longer anything to aim for.

Thanks to Loretta, I now understand that our “happy chemicals” don’t just start working on their own – we have to do something to stimulate them.

Rather than anhedonia being an unpleasant but essential stage on the journey to sobriety, we can avoid it completely. How cool is that ;-)

It’s Simple – Find a Project

So, I no longer advise people to brace themselves for a bout of depression in early sobriety. I advise them to find a project.

If you’re looking for a project, then why not consider improving your mental and physical health by creating an alcohol-free lifestyle?

Many people in our community treated sobriety as a research project. They read books, they listened to podcasts they watched videos. They learned a great deal and within a few months they were loving their alcohol-free lives.

If you’d like to get started on this lifechanging journey we can help you to kickstart your sobriety project with our free one-week Bootcamp which takes place on a Facebook group from 20th – 24th May.

At Tribe Sober we help people to change their relationship with alcohol.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

How many years have you been drinking? Do you drink consistently – a glass or two of wine most evenings? Have you ever tried to take a break to test your dependence? Have you noticed an impact on your looks after a taking a break? Did you lose weight? Do you ever worry about your drinking? Do you feel happy in your retirement?

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27 Comments
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Norma

This article is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your personal journey. At 84 years old I still consider myself in recovery as an adult child of alcoholic parents.
Norma

janet gourand

thank you so much for your kind words Norma xx

Joyce

Hats off to author Janet for not only beating alcoholism personally but for organizing a community to help others. Alcoholism ruined my life! Not because I drank, but because my father did. Every day was drama and some crisis in our household. In a way, my father’s drinking was a blessing to me because I never touched the stuff, and never will. Drinkers don’t realize the negative impact their behavior has on others around them. Please, if you don’t drink now, don’t start. And if you do, follow Janet’s program. Amen.

janet gourand

thank you so much Joyce – I’m sorry to hear that your childhood was impacted by your father’s drinking but very happy that you’ve managed to avoid it yourself. As you know many children of alcoholics think it’s their destiny to go the same way. I always say that genetics is the gun but lifestyle is the trigger. xx

JLS

Very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much

janet gourand

thank you JLS – discovering that our brains are wired to seek out threats rather than make us happy was a revelation to me – I found it very empowering to realise that happiness is a skill!

Pat

I have been retired 12 years. Isolation due to the pandemic.has
.taken a toll. I have been through breast cancer and treatment and have stopped drinking but have substituted chocolate. I have gained weight and feel depressed

janet gourand

Hi Pat I also had breast cancer and the evidence is clear that there is a link between alcohol and breast cancer – so well done for ditching the booze! I’m sorry to hear that you are feeling depressed due to weight gain – we often turn to sweet things when we quit drinking as we miss the sugar in alcohol. In June 2023 I did a podcast interview with Dr Vera Tarman who is an expert in the weight loss field and has a free Facebook Group – my podcast is called Tribe Sober – available on Apple & Spotify so scroll through the episodes and you will find it!

Christine

Before I place a comment on the article, which was well presented, I would like to ask for less, much fewer advertisements.

It is so distracting to not go a paragraph without being assaulted by a video or ad. It takes away from the power of the article and is disrespectful to the author.

Linda K

I counted 13 ad popups in this one blog post. Crazy. I’ve learned to breeze by them, but it is so distracting I agree.

Joyce

That is so odd! I see no advertisements, commercials, or pop-ups on this site.

Maureen

I count 14 just in the article alone. Many others on the right side panel and the annoying one on the bottom. It’s just how it works and how people make money, or a “subscription” of $$ per month to skip ads. Everyone wondered how people would make money on the internet in 1993…..now we know :)

janet gourand

I look forward to seeing your comments on the article and I’m glad you feel it was well presented

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The Author

Janet Gourand is a writer, a podcaster and a recovery coach. She quit drinking in 2015 at the age of 63. She founded Tribe Sober which enables people to change their relationship with alcohol. Tribe Sober is an international community which offers a membership program.

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