1.1 Why? What do you want to change and why?

why are you unhappy

1.1 Why: Motivation, happiness and values: What is making you unhappy?

Why pursuing happiness doesn’t work

What do you want to change and why?

Are you feeling unhappy, distressed or dissatisfied? If so then it is likely that you unhappy about one of the following. It could be your:

  • Career
  • Relationships 
  • Habits
  • Finances
  • Work-life balance
  • Health and fitness
  • Life purpose and direction

Ok, so you have identified what you are unhappy about, what about why you are feeling unhappy?

If you are feeling bad, then there is a good chance that your reality is not living up to your expectations. Economists and researchers Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells worked out the fundamental equation of happiness: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

Surely, that is it then. Change your expectations and everything is sorted, right?

The actual reason why you are unhappy

The usual reaction to unhappy feelings is to set a goal and set out to achieve something that we expect will make us feel better. I am quite task focussed and this has often been my solution. But then, I succeed in something, and the good feelings are short-lived. Why?

Achieving a goal often does not solve the underlying issue, like unhappiness, and our expectations about being content, are actually rooted in our purpose and values. Our dissatisfaction is often caused by a misalignment between core values and what is happening in life and work.

Therefore the expectations gap is not just the gap around what we want to achieve, it is around why we want to do something and how we go about it.

Thus, even if you did set and achieve a goal without understanding this, you may well find you end up unhappy again. If you do not make a decision in the context of your key principles then it is likely you will make the wrong decision, pick the wrong goal or not really solve the deeper cause of your unhappiness.

Pursuing happiness won’t help

Pursuing happiness for happiness sake probably won’t work. One reason for this is life is not always what we would wish it to be.

Let me give you a short example:

Victor stepped off a train. But this was no ordinary commute. He had lost his job. He was separated from his family, including his wife, who would die before they saw each other again. All his worldly wealth had been confiscated. He was hungry and soon to be on the verge of starvation.

All hopes and dreams of happiness, a decent life, of any life, lay shattered as on 19 October 1944, Victor Frankl arrived at Auschwitz concentration camp. 

But Victor Frankl did not give up hope. He did not lose his purpose. In the awful crucible of his experiences in the Nazi death camps, he developed great wisdom about life, happiness and meaning, which helped him and many others to survive. Frankl realised:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Victor Frankl

After the war, he realised that “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for”, and so he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. He knew that there was no happiness without purpose.

“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Victor Frankl

So what can you do to be happy? If happiness is an unintended side-effect, what can we do to make progress?

The first thing we need is a reality check.

Acknowledge the brutal facts

Another survivor of extermination camps, Admiral Stockdale, lived through being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He learned that you cannot afford to have false hope and wrong expectations. You have to confront what he calls the brutal facts of the situation. This became known as the Stockdale Paradox: To face the most brutal facts of your current reality and retain faith that you will prevail in the end.

Once you acknowledge the reality of your situation and realise that you still have a purpose, you can learn to be thankful and find contentment, whatever the circumstances. You can choose to act positively, to pursue your greater purpose, as Victor Frankl did.

This is a truth lived out by yet another prisoner, St Paul, who eventually lost his life following his greater purpose. He was able to write and say that he could be thankful and was content in all circumstances.

Pursue purpose; contentment and happiness will follow

So what can we do to be happy?

Contentment is having a realistic view of our situation, a dedication to a greater cause, and exercising the freedom to make positive choices inspired by our values. The more content we are, the more likely we are to be happy and find joy in life, no matter what our circumstances.

So, don’t start by asking ‘what will make me happy?’ Instead, ask yourself ‘how can I better live by my values?’ That is the best way to achieve your purpose and find happiness along the way.

So how do you start?

Well, our destiny and our actions are linked by our values. As Mahatma Gandhi noted:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts. 

Your thoughts become your words. 

Your words become your actions. 

Your actions become your habits. 

Your habits become your values. 

Your values become your destiny.”


You can work this logic both ways. By understanding your values you are in a good place to work towards your destiny or purpose and understand the actions and habits that can help make a change for the better. 

Understanding your own values or principles is therefore vital in order to be effective and happy or content. And that is not just me saying that. Ray Dalio shares his precepts in his book ‘Principles‘ and urges others to discover theirs. Brene Brown evidences the importance of values in ‘Dare to Lead‘ and Steven R Covey argues for a model on leadership based on being Principle-Centred.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek is another who argues the same way; that before we work out what to do we should ‘Start with Why‘.

Why do we want something? Why do we feel that way? Why do we want to change? These are the questions that will help us understand our motivations and our greater purpose. Then we can pick the right goals.

Discerning your values and purpose is no small task. It is a life long journey, but you can take a step right now.

Values Exercise Using the 5 Whys Approach:

Take a few minutes and ponder the question we started with: What do you want to change and why?

Write down your thoughts. Now you can apply the ‘5 Whys’ approach. This technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota industries, as a means to get to the heart of a problem. It is an iterative approach, meaning that each time you give an answer, you ask ‘why’ of that answer until you reach the ultimate underlying cause.

So write out the question, write your first answer, then apply the process of asking why 5 times. Each time write down your new and ask why again.

This will help drill down to the deeper meaning or motivation. Five times is a good rule of thumb but keep asking why until you think you have the real reason.

Reinforce your learning:

At the end of the day consider any challenges you faced and use the 5 Whys technique to analyse them (use a journal) and come up with a solution that you can use to a similar problem in the future.

“Happy is he who acts the Columbus to his own soul!”


Further resources:

Read this post:

Why what we value defines our personal identity

Watch this video:

TED talk: Simon Sinek explains the need to ‘Start With Why’

Read this book:

Start with Why – Simon Sinek