We all want to be happy. I think that’s pretty safe to say, even if we may all choose to define happiness in different ways and we may prioritize different aspects of our respective lives. And, all things considered, we are living in one of the greatest periods of human history. We’re generally wealthier and healthier, and yet about 6.7% of adults in the United States experience at least one major depressive episode each year.

Why? Why are we unhappy? I have three main hypotheses.

Constantly Coming Up Short?

Several years ago, in the early days of this blog, I wrote that goals are the bane of my existence. They lend themselves to a constant state of dissatisfaction. You keep moving the goal post, so you never feel like you’ve scored. Success or happiness or whatever you want to call it is always just out of reach, because you’re not quite there yet. You haven’t achieved it yet.

You could do better.

You could be better.

It’s true that goals can give your life a sense of purpose and direction. It’s also true that because you always have these unfulfilled goals, a cloud of inadequacy constantly hovers overhead. Society has come to fetishize the hustle culture too, so you end up feeling terribly guilty whenever you indulge in any “me” time, because you’re supposed to be working on that dream, on that hustle, on that goal.

The Modern Problem with Seeking Happiness

Delayed gratification is becoming increasingly difficult when it’s so easy to reach for the low-hanging fruit. You could be grinding it out toward achieving some larger vision, or you could distract yourself with just one more YouTube video or just a quick scroll through your Facebook feed.

Advances in technology now provide us with endless opportunities for boundless procrastination. The rush of instant gratification is not only just a click (or tap) away, but we can also choose so specifically how we want to entertain ourselves. We don’t have to wait for our favorite show to come on TV, because we can stream it (and any episode of it) whenever we want on Netflix.

We don’t have to wait for our favorite song to come on the radio (only for it be interrupted by the DJ), because we can call up that track on Spotify whenever we want. We keep seeking these glimmers of happiness, which could be ultimately sabotaging our chances at contentment. It’s important to recognize that fleeting happiness and sustained contentment are distinctly different things.

As much as we (myself included) complain and gripe about it, the real problem isn’t that we don’t have enough time. It’s that we are allowing ourselves to be tempted and distracted. Fast fashion won’t make you happy in the long run. Watching another episode of Fuller House is not going to give your life a greater sense of purpose and meaning.

Yes, I realize this is utter opposition to the earlier point about allowing ourselves to have some “me” time, to take a break from the “hustle.” We’re all stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that might be why we’re unhappy.

Who Is Steering This Ship?

And that leads us to one last theory (for now), one that hits especially hard for me after transitioning to my life as a work-at-home dad three years ago. A big part of the reason why I got into freelancing in the first place was that I wanted to exercise my sense of autonomy. There is great pride in ownership, including when it comes to small business.

Even before I became a dad, I wrote about how happiness can be largely derived from a feeling of perceived progress and control. You want to feel like you’re better today than you were yesterday, and you want to feel like you are acting out of your own agency. You’re choosing where you want to go and what you want to do.

But when you feel like you are at the mercy of everyone around you, it’s easy to be unhappy. It can feel like you are playing an increasingly difficult game of Whac-a-Mole, and all you have to show for it at the end of the day is that you are out of quarters. Where’s the progress? Where’s the control?

I don’t have the answers. What I will say is that I am motivated to keep moving forward and I hope that you will continue to accompany me on this journey.