Lessons for Living       
Lesson Thirteen: "On Being Realistically Unhappy"


"Sometimes in life it is normal to be sad."




Most people’s lives would improve if they could just learn to be realistically unhappy. Realistic unhappiness is unhappiness that is in appropriate proportion to the negative events of life, events such as losing a job, divorce, or failing at an important task. These events are distressing and it is normal to be upset. It is reality. Being realistically unhappy or distressed helps us to accept the unfortunate events of life and gives us clear direction about what needs to be done.

However, there are two ways to avoid the reality of life. One way is through denial. Something bad happens, and we look the other way. We pretend that we don’t have a problem when we do. For example, saying, "I can stop drinking whenever I want." Or, "This job stress never bothers me." Denial is like sweeping the problem under the carpet. It only gets bigger when out of sight. It festers in the dark until it can no longer be ignored and becomes a crisis. It is better to directly face the issue and be realistic, even if it makes you unhappy.

Another way of avoiding reality is through exaggeration. This is when you make everything worse than it is. Whenever anything mildly unpleasant happens, you start thinking about how bad it is going to become - about all of the things that may go wrong. You reach out into the future of imagined bad possibilities and bring them back into the present moment. You begin living as if this is your new reality. You make yourself much too unhappy for the actual event. You become "unrealistically unhappy" as you create more trouble than you need.

For example, the loss of a job is a real problem. Most people would be distressed. Let’s say that most people would be about 50% miserable and let’s call this normal. Now, suppose you get a layoff notice and lose a job. You are now 50% miserable but on the way home you start thinking. You think, "This is terrible. You know, I will never get another good paying job like that one. My spouse will be upset. My kids will be mad. My car will be repossessed. I will lose my home and wind up living on the street. This is terrible." By the time you arrive home your misery may have doubled to 100%. Where did all of this extra misery come from? Well, you made it up from an imagined future. You have made yourself unrealistically unhappy, too unhappy for the event.

If, in a few days, none of these imagined bad things happen, and you get a lead on a job, you may shrink your misery back down to 50%. Back to normal. Your life will have improved but you still have a problem – you don’t have a job. However you are now only realistically unhappy and can use this normal unhappiness to motivate yourself into action.

Remember, when life gives you a problem, don’t create more misery than you need. Learn to be realistically unhappy and life will go better.

2000 Daniel H. Johnston. All Rights Reserved.

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