Admit it to yourself, if only as an intellectual exercise (it’s alright, I won’t judge): We like to be unhappy sometimes.
Now, before everybody fetches their pitchforks, let me offer a brief explanation. When I say that we like to be unhappy, I merely mean that unhappiness—like all other states of mind and emotional situations—has a hidden purpose, and gives some recessed corner of our lizard brains a kick that keeps us wanting more. In short, something about the act of being upset has fomented addiction. It doesn’t matter what the particular flavor of this upset is; it could be sadness, or anger, or even shame. We’re as neurologically addicted to feeling low as we are to euphoric states.
Upon first glance, this might seem ridiculous. Why would we like to be unhappy? Our lives, for the most part, are an elaborate dance intended to stave off those very feelings. Or so it would seem.
When we’re upset, particularly due to someone else’s carelessness or apparent faults, we’re often filled with a sense of righteousness. We might feel superior to somebody who insulted us, then go down the rabbit hole of planning even more severe insults to “teach them a lesson.” If we lost something dear to us, we might cling to the bittersweet flood of emotions that accompany our separation from the object. Even the act of feeling shameful or guilty can become an exercise in self-glorification, urging us to see ourselves as unworthy or unlovable creatures that must wallow in pity for ourselves.
The human brain is remarkably adroit at riding the waves of emotional experiences, both high and low. What both of these extremes offer us is a (perhaps temporary) boost to the self-image. When we’re gripped with pleasure, our minds are filled with the idea “I love this, I want more of it.” Likewise, when we’re in the depths of misery, our minds overflow with thoughts such as “Poor me, I hate this, I wish it were different.”
Who or what is this mysterious “I” that keeps intruding on experience?
As we can see from the examples above, the sense of “I” only intrudes once the event in question has come and gone. The inciting incident—eating ice cream, for example, or going through a breakup—almost always occurs without our sense of self turning inward. It’s only in the aftermath, when our brains begin to churn and digest their own contents, that we are beset with “I” talk.
This, in part, is why “we” like to be unhappy. The sense of self (or ego, if you prefer) loves fuel in any form, whether pleasurable or painful. It loves to be prized and loves to be a victim. It seeks out any and every experience it can, craving some anchor to reify itself and prove to you that it deserves the spotlight.
There’s no trouble with this on its own, of course. The nature of the self is one of grasping and constant conflict with the nondual nature of reality. In order for a self to exist, it must necessarily be in conflict with the world it perceives “around it.” The only trouble comes when we start to believe our “I” talk, solidifying it and paying it in the currency known as our attention. The worst thing we can do for painful self-talk is feed into it and treat it as an accurate map of reality. There’s a difference, after all, between skillfully attending to our moment-to-moment experience and drowning in the mental chatter of a highly emotional situation.
Eckhart Tolle has referred to this phenomenon as the activity of the “pain body,” which he likens to an entity siphoning energy out of us. While I think that even this concept lends too much reality to the unhappiness-craving element of our mind, it does vividly illustrate the fact that part of the human “wiring” eagerly responds to the fuel of negativity. When walking a spiritual path, we must not only rein in our desires—we must recognize and navigate, with utter equanimity, our tendencies to bask in pain and pity.
To wrap things up, and perhaps to avoid being hunted down and burned at the stake for such an absurd claim, I don’t believe that we inherently like to be unhappy. I do believe, however, that we have conditioned ourselves to believe that unhappiness and emotional valleys are things we deserve to suffer. Whether the brain follows this programming out of genuine guilt complexes or for a shot of dopamine, ultimately, doesn’t matter much.
What matters is that we remain aware of our most peculiar addiction, and we give it as much comfort and mindfulness as every other part of our experience.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about how we construct good/bad paradigms and imprison ourselves in them, check out my latest Youtube video.