Home All Unhappiness is Part of Life

Unhappiness is Part of Life

written by Angus Skinner 22 July 2008

Angus Skinner, MAPP, works in his beloved and beautiful Scotland as an independent management consulting professional. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He has over 40 years experience of social work services across the UK. As Chief Social Work Inspector for Scotland for 15 years, Angus provided advice directly to ministers on all matters of social work service legislation, policy, and practice development. Full bio. Articles on Positive Psychology News by Angus are here.

MichelangeloYou can be unhappy any time, any place. Moreover, life without unhappiness would probably be unbearable for it would have no light and so shadow, no day and so night, no loss and so no real gain, no sorrow and so no real joy. It would be devoid of meaning. Discontent is the source of creativity, perhaps of creation. From where do our goals come if not from discontent? (Of course I hope for a positive answer; but I don’t pray for one.)

Part of Martin Seligman’s argument (and others) about the damage done by much of the self-esteem movement over recent decades pivots on the fact that it undermines children’s (and adults’) tolerance of being unhappy.

There is nothing wrong with being unhappy. Seligman, a self-confessed grouch, made clear that philosophically unhappiness is a normal state while at the same time stating that in his case, good fortune probably did not stem from those times of unhappiness. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman writes:

In terms of my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years enduring the mostly wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to feeling grumpy, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change.

Happiness is life; life is other people. Let’s wallow awhile in this discontent. Depression is a feeling that “All is impossible, simple things can not be accomplished; problems overwhelm.” Few if any of us have never felt such feelings even if often our response has been to deny them. Whatever we do, to a degree we accept that we will die; more somberly, we accept that whatever we do, others will die. We cry for our children, for others. Our efforts fail, we fall to melancholia. We conquer countries, we comfort, we lead, we fail, we fall to melancholia.

Surprisingly our brains, no doubt the most fantastic organ in the known universe, are deeply flawed. As our best friend, the brain is also our irresponsible enemy – garnering information from our senses and body that it thinks it can use to understand the world, and then trying to control it.

Positive psychology is also about understanding being unhappy. Being unhappy is OK.

How best shall I be unhappy today? Of course I need to manage my unhappiness so as not to damage others. I need exercise, sun, and engagement. I also sometimes need to be unhappy alone. So do those I love.

I will laugh. And when we laugh together, then love abounds. Unhappy is fine for the moment.

It seems to have been on probation or parole for a while but perhaps it is time we accept unhappy back into the community of positive human emotions. No need to take it on hesitatingly. It’s here for keeps, even if sometimes it needs shaking out.




Altizer, A. B. (1973). Self and Symbolism in the Poetry of Michelangelo, John Donne and Agrippa D’Aubigne. Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idées Minor.

Burton, R. (1621/2001). The Anatomy of Melancholy. New York Review Books Classics.

Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Image: Michelangelo.

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Josh 23 July 2008 - 2:45 pm

Clever… but NO thanks! You’ve just twisted everything up into a selfish heap of confusion. You can keep it. This is the problem with the left brain… you often need to cool it off when it gets absorbing and take a mental vacation that will reengage your right hemisphere.

This is simple misdirection like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Positivity and negativity cannot be allies! In the interest of the very foundations of Positive Psychology why don’t we at least try it this way… could negativity be the absence of positivity. It makes more scientific sense that they do not exist without positivity as in the case of darkness which scientifically would not exist if there were no light and therefore are not necessary for existence… (you don’t have to have darkness to have light, it is the other way around). The problem here is that you don’t admit to there being other reasons for your existence. Psych 101 = black and white thinking gets people in trouble. I seriously doubt that we were created simply to be positive or negative although giving a good report and thinking about good things rather than bad ones is foundationally helpful there are sideways actions as well and even simple laziness.

I don’t say this in any personal judgmental way, I’m sure you’re a great person, but in regards to what you have written here you seem a bit over absorbed in the subject matter and at worst you have let it enslave you. Be free friend! There are many, many wonderful layers to life.

Editor S.M. 23 July 2008 - 2:56 pm

Comment that came in by email for Angus:

“Beautifully done post on unhappiness.”

Wayne Jencke 23 July 2008 - 3:28 pm

Mindfulness is the word you are looking for. Learn to take the judgement out of emotional states. Rather than judging them as being positive and negative – they just are.

I think this is a challenge for positive psychology – “positive” is in itself a judgment.

I remember when I first started doing PP workshops and I was discussing optimism when someone set rather gloomily “but I’m a pessimist”. That was my hallelujah moment – as an extreme optimist I’d never looked at my material from a pessimists perspective. From that point onwards I was very careful to take the “positive” judgement out of my workshops. I now use the term grounded optimism.

Kirsten Cronlund 2 August 2008 - 8:09 am

I know I’m a little late to this discussion, but I just read your article, Angus, and I want to thank you for it.

One of my favorite quotes — which has become a guiding principle for my life — is “Live life to tears!” by Albert Camus. To me, this speaks of tears of joy and wild abandon, as well as tears of sorrow and despair. Sometimes the tears are clearly one or the other, and sometimes they are a mix of joy and sorrow. When I witness my son graduate, for example, there is joy in his accomplishment and hope for his future, as well as grief for myself that he is moving further away from me. I find that the older I get, the more mixed everything becomes, and the mixing makes the experience all the sweeter. As William Blake states in Auguries of Innocence, “Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine.”

The time when negative emotions become damaging, I think, is when they take over — when rumination becomes a habit, when anger or resentment overshadows the good things in life. But if a person is open to it all, and allows the full range of human emotional experience, he or she is less likely to get stuck than when there is fear or dismissal of the negative.

Thanks again, Angus. I really liked your article.


Angus Skinner 6 August 2008 - 10:34 am

Thanks all for your comments, much appreciated.
Kirsten, you are very generous and your comments most interesting. I have recently starting re-reading Camus’s The Plague- I love your Camus quote and will repeat it to my family at some appropriate time!
Wayne, I rather agree with you, though not convinced we can or should always take judgement out of managing emotions. Pessimism is of course very important – keep thriving in OZ!
Josh, I suspect we also rather agree. Unhappiness, itself, is not a problem; fear of it can be, as can failing to shake it out and move on.
Best wishes all


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