As citizens of the most affluent society that’s ever existed, you’d think Americans would be happy—yet too many of us are anything but. We’re stressed and overworked. Unhealthy. Self-destructive. We’re disconnected from those we (presumably) love. We consume and consume—buying up not just food, but expensive homes, cars, vacations, high-tech "toys"—yet nothing fills the hole. If you’re skeptical, let the numbers speak for themselves:
* 75% of doctor visits are stress-related.
* 43 million people abuse alcohol or prescription drugs, or use illegal drugs.
* Over 38,000 people commit suicide each year and more than 400,000 are treated for self-inflicted injuries.
* 40 million people suffer from anxiety.
* More than 100 million people in the United States are obese.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, our nation, the so-called "land of plenty," is mired in a misery epidemic.
Misery is very different from pain. Pain is grief, sadness, and mourning. Misery is fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, remorse, envy, jealousy, self-pity, pride, and guilt. Life gives us pain, but misery is optional—and self-inflicted.
America’s misery (like all misery) boils down to a central truth. We don’t have a healthy love for ourselves, and this manifests in every area of our lives. When you don’t love yourself, it’s impossible to be comfortable in your own skin, to have healthy relationships, or to make happiness-promoting decisions. You’re constantly looking for fulfillment and validation elsewhere.
Of course, America doesn’t have a monopoly on misery. Citizens of any nation are susceptible. But our American culture—with its emphasis on so-called success, our appearance, materialism, and self-centeredness—inherently breeds misery. Here, I share seven specific reasons why we Americans are so miserable:
1. We’ve lost our integrity (and we don’t even know it). The term "integrity" refers to the quality or condition of being whole, complete, undivided, and unimpaired. If we’re not we have a hole. And this produces restlessness, an inner tension, a yearning to find something to fill that void and feel better. Unfortunately, many of the ways in which Americans strive to repair their integrity are inherently destructive and contribute to our misery. For instance:
* We try to buy happiness (fill the hole with status and stuff). Think about it: We work ourselves to the bone so that we can buy "the" house, "the" car, and all the other luxuries we think will make us happy. (The American Dream, anyone?) But instead of "arriving," we end up overworked and overstressed, always feeling that we’re less than, and with strained family relationships—in a word, miserable, not happy and whole.
We spend our lives trying to fill that inner emptiness with money, possessions, and social status. We may find temporary satisfaction when we get that new smartphone, car, or promotion, but this often fades, and soon we are out chasing more of the same.
* We sacrifice our own best interests on the altar of approval, accolades, and applause. Our actions are often influenced by what we believe will please and impress others. This may begin in childhood as we struggle to please our parents, and later, our friends as peer pressure takes hold. And we don’t grow out of it. We may even make life’s most important decisions—from choosing a career to settling down with a life partner to buying the "right" house in the "right" neighborhood—because we want the approval of our peer group or society in general.
Maybe the hunger for approval drives you to go to medical school and become a doctor when the truth is you’d be far more fulfilled working as a park ranger. Sure, you have the money you need to acquire the window dressings of a "successful" life, but if you’re not living a life that’s true to who you are, you’re going to be miserable.
The need for approval doesn’t manifest only in the big things. Even small behaviors, like gossiping about a friend, can stem from the desire to impress others. But there’s always a price to pay for abandoning your integrity.
2. We depend on other people to fill our void. Let’s say you got married thinking your life together would be a mostly effortless partnership with lots of romance and togetherness—or that the other person would make you feel complete and life would be great—but your spouse spends weekends hanging out with her friends or retreats to his shed to do woodworking instead of spending time with you. You get upset. Arguments and recriminations fly. Or you just withdraw, settling for isolated mediocrity.
Perhaps you see your children as a measurement of your own success. Then you’re disappointed when they don’t make the honor roll or the varsity team (or, to return to the example in our last tip, when they become park rangers instead of physicians).
Too often we look to other people—our partners, our children, our friends—for happiness, fulfillment, entertainment, and the solutions to our problems. This always leads to misery. We must learn that other people can enhance our happiness, but can never create it. All healthy relationships—romantic, parental, and otherwise—must begin with a healthy self-relationship. Trying to shortcut the process produces chaos and turmoil.
“We must learn that other people can enhance our happiness, but can never create it.”
3. We’re self-centered. (Just look at our selfies!) In a nation that celebrates rugged individualism, it’s no surprise that most of us live our lives believing that putting "number one" first is a winning strategy in the search for happiness. But the truth is, self-centeredness (which is very different from healthy self-love) is often the source of the problem and not the solution. Decisions based solely on "what’s in it for me?" almost always lead to misery and mediocre relationships.
Being self-centered makes you jealous and suspicious, inflates your ego, creates a false sense of entitlement, and cultivates a victim mentality—none of which leads to happiness. Acting lovingly, openly, and generously toward others, even when we don’t want to, feels so much better than being selfish, self-righteous, or self-centered. Healthy love—and the healthy relationships it creates—must replace self-centeredness if we’re to enjoy peace and happiness.
4. We accept "surfaces" as reality. (Social media has made this tendency far worse.) Anyone with a Facebook account knows the drill. You upload the photos of your vacation, your sparkling Christmas tree, your cute new Schnauzer. What you don’t document are the credit card bill that arrived after your trip or the huge fight with your spouse that resulted from it, your child’s temper tantrum when he didn’t get the game system he wanted from Santa, or your tears of frustration when you cleaned up your pet’s urine for the umpteenth time.
Everybody does this, but usually, when we scroll down social media feeds, click through Pinterest boards, and skim blog posts, we don’t consciously register that we’re seeing carefully edited snapshots of other people’s lives. We judge our "insides" by other people’s "outsides." We may feel envy for all they seem to have that we don’t. Or instead of accepting (and even embracing) the very normal flaws and imperfections in our lives, we use them to beat ourselves up and feel less than.
5. We blame other people and things for our circumstances. It’s not like there’s a shortage of likely culprits. For instance: "The government is taking away our rights!" "Big business is screwing the little guy!" "I’d be doing fine if it weren’t for this crappy economy." "My boss is out to get me." "I’ve always been treated like the black sheep of the family." And so on.
Seeing yourself as a victim and blaming others for your problems is counterproductive. Whether you realize it or not, you’re painting yourself as weak and giving away all of your control to other people and entities. Even if you didn’t choose for something bad to happen to you, like being laid off from your job, you can choose how you react.
Yes, it’s okay to feel hurt, pain, and disappointment when things don’t go your way, but also realize that many things happen to you as a result of a chain of decisions you made. This is actually an empowering thought. You can change your choices and change the results. Once you can truly own your role in your circumstances, you can finally begin to shape the kind of life you really want to live.
“Once you can truly own your role in your circumstances, you can finally begin to shape the kind of life you really want to live.”
6. We neglect our physical health. From America’s growing obesity epidemic, to our love affair with junk food, to our tendency to stay on the couch, to our rampant use of alcohol and other substances, it’s clear that many Americans don’t take good physical care of ourselves. The ironic part is, most of the unhealthy choices that ultimately contribute to our misery are geared toward short-term gratification.
Yes, restaurant portion sizes are huge. Yes, we have sedentary jobs. Yes, it’s hard to find time to cook and exercise. All of these contribute to our health problems. However, these lifestyle practices often indicate a lack of self-love. If we truly loved ourselves, we wouldn’t feel the need to self-medicate with food or alcohol or drugs. Healthy self-love leads to realizing that our physical health is intertwined with the health of our emotions and spirit.
7. We fill our minds with garbage. The mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. It can consume us with worry, lead us to regrettable decisions, drain and diminish us, and convince us that we must accept misery or a second-rate life. It doesn’t help that we allow our minds to stagnate on a meaningless diet of reality TV, internet surfing, and social media.
However, if you begin to replace your input of mental garbage with something more productive, like a television program or book that causes you to actually think, you might be surprised by the effect on your mood. In addition, seek out healthy, thought-provoking discussions with others. Engage with the world around you. Look for evidence when forming opinions and making decisions. And when your mind does need to relax, recognize that new practices may give you better results. Overcome your fear and lethargy and actually try a little meditation instead of checking out with television, for instance.
“You have to learn to love yourself before anything external can change.”
You have to learn to love yourself before anything external can change. The key to opting out of America’s misery epidemic is “in here,” not “out there.” Once you begin examining and recalibrating what drives you, accepting who you are, and lovingly caring for yourself, each part of you will begin to perform its intended function. You’ll begin to develop into the best version of yourself. And finally, you’ll be in a position to develop productive relationships and make decisions that honor your best interests.
Without this connection, you can’t have a healthy relationship with yourself. And if you don’t have that, you can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone else. The inevitable result? Misery.
Thomas J. Strawser is the author of Spiritual Engineering. He is an international engineer with a master’s degree in psychology. Divorce, alcoholism, and numerous losses in his life led him to seek practical solutions to his despair. Combining his spirituality, knowledge of psychology, and engineering know-how, Strawser discovered the process he calls Spiritual Engineering. He and
his wife, Patricia, continue to share the transforming power of Spiritual Engineering with thousands in seminars around the world. To learn more, please visit www.spiritual-engineering.com.