The Comfort Zone of Unhappiness

A heart that's full up like a landfill

A job that slowly kills you

Bruises that won't heal


You look so tired, unhappy

Bring down the government

They don't, they don't speak for us

The lyrics from Radiohead’s 1998 song No Surprises constitute a reality that most people experience in our culture. We write about it, we sing about it, we make movie and TV shows about it and we’ve reached a point where nothing could be considered more normal than living an unfulfilling, unhappy life that goes exactly according to the expectations of our culture (or society if you like).

You have a job you don’t like or you can’t stop thinking about it and your career, you’re stuck in a relationship that is not what you thought it would be, your kids (if you don’t feel bad about not having any) drive you crazy or worry you, you can’t wait to get out of stupid school, you worry about money or your house or your car or your insurance or your pension. There is always something to complain, worry, regret, whine, vent. You’re constantly looking for compensation or balance in your life, through sport, TV, tranquilizers, comfort food, Facebook, pets, smartphones, sex.

None of this is news. Everyone knows that. Why? Because our culture permanently tells us so, affirming our beliefs that our lives mostly suck and that this is normal. The normalization of unhappiness, misery, dissatisfaction, frustration, disappointment and emptiness is going at full throttle.

You switch on the TV: You see suburban, white couples trying to deal with their lives.

  • They sell pot to the awful neighbors in Weeds.
  • They produce crystal meth and become gangsters in Breaking Bad because that’s more appealing than cancer and being a shitty teacher.
  • They cover up murdering their wife because she was so mean to them in Fargo.
  • They find good reasons but are still not happy with cheating in The Affair.
  • They become professional escorts because that seems more appealing than a regular job in Satisfaction, The Girlfriend Experience and Hung.
  • They work for the best ad company in New York and sell happiness to others but cannot even imagine what it is like to be happy in Mad Men. 
  • They constantly try to get out of family situations, job frustration, awkward relationships, annoying friends and conversations with their kids in Modern Family, King of Queens, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Friends, New Girl, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Superstore, Life in Pieces and You’re the Worst.

And that’s just TV shows that depict everyday life. There are also all those otherworldly or historical or criminal shows that mostly follow the same premise of casual unhappiness, just in other contexts. Who exactly seems satisfied with their lives in Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Daredevil, Downton Abbey, Stranger Things, Arrow, The Blacklist, House of Cards or even Sherlock?

You watch a movie:

  • John Wick spends his second chapter killing people although he really wants to be left alone to be gloomy.
  • Fifty Shades Darker posits that relationships need to be, well, dark, mysterious and with just a little bit of spanking, because otherwise you can’t fill the void.
  • Logan wallows in self-loathing, even as an old man, haunted by whoever turned him into a superhero.
  • The characters in Manchester by the Sea face so much tragedy that it’s almost unbearable and happiness seems constantly out of reach.
  • The characters in La La Land struggle to follow their dreams or to keep up their relationship or to find a balance between the two, only finding happiness in dreamlike musical numbers.

You listen to the most popular songs in the German charts:

  • Ed Sheeran sings that his “heart is falling too” but he’s “in love with your body,” after partying and drinking through clubs to find a lover.
  • Zayn and Taylor sing that life is “just a cruel existence like there’s no point at all” so it makes sense that they “don’t wanna live forever.”
  • Kaleo sings that his father tells him “we get what we deserve,” so “way down we go go go go” as “they will run you down till you fall.”
  • Sia says to “never give up,” which sounds optimistic but that is considering she “battled demons that won’t let [her] sleep.”
  • Rag’n’Bone Man sings about love that makes him feel “helpless” and “shackled” and wonders “How tragic is this game?”
  • Sia again reminds us that “there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide” which “eats us alive.”
  • Katy Perry asks if we are “crazy” since we are “trapped in our white-picket fence” and “live in a bubble.” She also summarizes all of this perfectly by saying we’re “happily numb.”

So, you go and get a good book from the bestselling list on Amazon:

  • The main character in Lisa Gardner’s Right Behind You enjoys working for the FBI because “they are all experts on monsters” like her alcoholic father who beat her up and was killed by her brother, who might now be a serial killer.
  • The main character in James Patterson and Candice Fox’ Never Never has to figure out if her brother (yes, again) is a sex killer and is reassigned to a town in a “desolate landscape” which is full of “characters who thrive on the fringes of society.”
  • The main characters in JP Delaney’s The Girl Before both try to deal with traumatic pasts by accepting an apartment that asks them to live without “personal effects of any kind.”
  • The main character in Nicholas Sparks’ Two by Two “has it all” and “is living the dream” but “underneath the shiny surface of this perfect existence, fault lines begin to appear.”

If you live in a culture that constantly shows you people being unhappy with their lives, it reinforces the idea that it is perfectly normal to be unhappy with your life. If you complain about your job, your relationship or just your general mood, no one will be surprised. It is much more likely that they join the chorus of discontent, again reinforcing your own feeling that this is how things are supposed to be. You can normalize diversity by making more stories with a diversity of people. You can normalize racism by saying racist things and becoming President despite/because of it. You can normalize eating meat if you serve it to your kids every day. In our culture we normalize discontent and unhappiness.

What effect does this normalization have? Most importantly, it discourages change and encourages the status quo. If you think it is normal to be dissatisfied, you stop believing that there is a way to change it. If unhappiness was considered to be unusual, people would try to be happy again, like everyone else.

Most of the stories I mentioned above will depict miserable lives without ever considering alternatives. People might try to break out but it rarely leads to anything substantial. Lester Burnham in American Beauty can only break out of his horrible life because he tricks his boss into giving him money (the same way Jack gets his semi-freedom in Fight Club, by the way). In the end, he will neither find freedom nor happiness and we are left with a certain sense of disorientation but not with new ideas. In Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (and its movie adaptation over forty years later) the characters seem to be aware of the problems of this culture but they are so caught up in it that they can’t get out and it ends in tragedy. Even in stories like Into the Wild or Captain Fantastic, where the characters have clear ideas what’s wrong with our culture, their only solution is to run away and to isolate themselves, also avoiding real change.

Therefore, if students talk about how school sucks and they know that it is normal that school sucks because their parents tell them that school sucked for them too and their teachers tell them that they have to accept it, then they will not believe that anything is wrong and will not fight for improvement. They can’t imagine that there is an alternative.

If people talk about the rate of divorces, they will all agree that this is really bad and that relationships are really difficult. They will not discuss whether the model of an exclusive two-person relationship is really the only available model or if other models might work better.

If only about half the population takes part in elections and the results are discussed with either disillusion, disappointment or, more commonly now, shock, now one suggests that maybe this political system of democracy is not the best we have despite its flaws.

If you suggest to students of a regular school that there are alternative schools, their eyes glaze over or they make “dancing your name”-jokes or they even get angry or they get really skeptical. If you talk to people about open relationships they will say “That’s not for me” without ever really considering it or they tell you that they don’t understand it or they might get angry. If you tell people that democracy is not the only way of living together and probably not the best, they look at you as if you switched to a different language or they ask you if you want to go back to communism or Hitler, often not without a sense of anger.

If you point out to the prisons most people are living in, they mostly will refuse to look at it because they have learned to accept prison as the normal state of things. The kid in Room goes through a long period of fear and regression because to him being locked in a room with your mom all your life was normal. People in unhappy relationships or mind-numbing jobs or hindering childhood traumas are often the same. They rather live with someone they have stopped loving a long time ago instead of thinking about alternatives. Sure, they might have an affair but it’s clear that this is wrong and temporary. Having a career in a job you don’t particularly enjoy seems more reasonable than to find a more likeable job. Therapy seems threatening to many.

But the way out of this is not to be nicer, to be less greedy, to listen to your heart or whatever your self-help book (of which there are thousands) tells you. It is to stop doing what doesn’t work and to try out something new. Not to repeat the same phrases to your children or students or partners that don’t really mean anything to you but that you feel you have to say. “Well, that’s just life.” “Sometimes you just got to bite the bullet and do what you’re told.” No. You don’t. If you are unhappy with your relationship, you can change something about it. If you are unhappy with your job, try to change it. If that doesn’t work because no one wants to listen to you, think about getting another job. These decisions are scary and feel risky, but if we don’t dare more we continue to tell each other that being unhappy is okay. That it is okay to be stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. That it is okay to be guided by fear and ignorance.

I let Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael put this more convincingly than I ever could (from My Ishmael, 1997):

"What's the prison then?"

"The prison is your culture, which you sustain generation after generation. You yourself are learning from your parents how to be a prisoner. Your parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. Their parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. And so on, back to the beginning [of our culture] ten thousand years ago."

"How do we stop that?"

"By learning something different, Julie. By refusing to teach your children how to be prisoners. By breaking the pattern. This is why, when people ask me what they should do, I tell them, 'Teach others what you've learned here.' All too often, however, they reply by saying, 'Yes, that's fine, but what should we do?' When six billion of you refuse to teach your children how to be prisoners of [this] culture, this awful dream of yours will be over — in a single generation. It can only continue for as long as you perpetuate it. Your culture has no independent existence — no existence outside of you — and if you cease to perpetuate it, then it will vanish. Must vanish, like a flame with nothing to feed on."

This thought still keeps me going, trying to change things every day, for 20 years now. Yes, fears keeps me from getting where I want to be sometimes. Yes, I’ve grown up in this culture too and still try to shake some of its teachings. But I cannot and will not stop trying to do things differently and teach others to try it too. I’m not “only human”, so flawed that happiness is just silly idea. I have every right to be happy. I can be happy. And so do you.

Thanks to Katharina for inspiring this post.