Causes of Unhappiness: Csikszentmihalyi’s 2 Reasons

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the main causes of unhappiness? Why do you need to understand what causes unhappiness before you can be happy?

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says that there are two main causes of unhappiness. First, our universe is a harsh place to live in—we have to weather disasters, diseases, lack of resources, etc… On top of that, solving challenges doesn’t eradicate them forever—something new will always come up.

Here’s what Csikszentmihalyi says we need to understand about unhappiness.

What Causes Unhappiness?

Understanding what happiness is requires understanding the causes of unhappiness. Csikszentmihalyi offers two reasons it’s difficult to find happiness:

1. The universe is a harsh place. Cold temperatures and darkness make the universe inhospitable to life. On Earth, disease, natural disasters, and famine have made survival challenging for millions of years. 

To weather chaos, humans created myths, religions, and cultural norms. For example, as kids, we’re taught how the world is, and we think living will be better and easier when we’re adults. We also may think that struggle in the present will bring happiness in the future. For example, a teacher might reassure you that a boring class will help you land a job as an adult. 

Discontent occurs when our reality doesn’t match how we’re told the world should be, making happiness feel difficult to achieve. This happens when people in an established, successful culture think their continued progress is inevitable, but they experience a setback. For example, the Chinese thought their culture would keep advancing until they were conquered by the Mongols. 

Realizing Reality

When we realize life isn’t as easy as we thought, we may:

  • Ignore it and seek out more of what we’ve been told makes life good. For example, we may acquire more material wealth, such as fancy cars or a powerful job. But despite our success, we rarely feel satisfied, and we still want more.
  • Address the problem with concrete solutions. For example, if we realize we’ve gained weight, we may join a health club and make fitness goals to get healthier. While this may help in the short term, it’s impossible to escape the reality that the body isn’t immortal and will eventually wear out. If you don’t come to terms with this, you’ll waste energy feeling upset that your efforts to stay healthy won’t thwart death.
  • Escape from reality with hobbies, alcohol, or drugs. Though these can be good distractions, they don’t typically help us find meaning in life.
  • Turn to religion. Religion is one of the main ways people find meaning in life, but it can be difficult to reconcile with science or other contemporary teachings.
  • Develop anxiety about the beliefs we held about how the world works and feel disillusioned or apathetic about our purpose in life. On the extreme end, we may not feel like the world makes sense or want to continue living.

None of these reactions provide long-lasting solutions to the problems we face.

2. When we solve challenges, new challenges appear. For example, finding cures for diseases means people are living longer and overpopulation is harming the planet. Also, when your basic needs are met, you tend to develop new needs. For example, if you achieve a certain level of wealth, you’ll likely want to continue growing it rather than feeling content with what you have.

There’s nothing wrong with continuously working to improve yourself and your life as long as you’re not so fixated on the outcome that you don’t enjoy the present. People who prioritize enjoying the present are able to enjoy whatever they do, even if it’s hard.

Causes of Unhappiness: Csikszentmihalyi’s 2 Reasons

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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