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A checklist for when you’re feeling unhappy

man pointing at a checklist with caption 'Feeling unhappy? Check these things.'

Some problems aren’t easily fixable. But sometimes we’re unhappy because of basic needs. Having a checklist for when you’re feeling unhappy can help you identify and meet these needs.

I recently came across an amusing analogy on Episode 3 of the Paul Cope Podcast. In talking about depression, he noted that when a baby’s crying, we find it completely normal to run through a mental checklist of why they’re feeling unhappy. Are they tired? Are they hungry? Are they sick? But when an adult is unhappy, many would find it absurd to do the same.

I hadn’t really thought about it in quite the same terms before, but I’ve long had a checklist I run through whenever I’m feeling unhappy and I’m not sure why. To me, this is the more dangerous type of unhappiness. If you don’t have an obvious cause, or set of causes, then there’s not as much you can do to combat it.

It’s the way it feels – in my limited experience – when you’re depressed. The generalised I’m sad because I just am kind of sadness, rather than the more specific, concrete unhappiness that comes because of an upsetting event or change in circumstances.

Anyway, here’s the checklist I use, in rough order of importance:

N.B. I haven’t rigorously created this checklist from scientific studies, nor can I promise it will be helpful to everyone. But I’d guess that it’s sufficiently generalisable to be of some use to some people. So borrow from it as you wish.

The checklist for when you’re unhappy

  1. Have I exercised?
  2. Have I slept (well) enough / too much?
  3. Have I got an illness?
  4. Have I socialised, ideally in person, or virtually?
  5. Have I had physical contact with someone (a hug)?
  6. Have I eaten healthily?
  7. Have I had too much alcohol/caffeine/other drugs etc.?
  8. Have I been working on tasks/projects/goals that are ill-defined, or unrealistic in the time I’ve allotted?
  9. Have I meditated?
  10. Have I laughed?
  11. Have I read something for pleasure?
  12. Have I (gratitude) journaled?
  13. Have I spent too long around people that bring me down?
  14. Have I listened to (happy/uplifting) music?
  15. Have I done something for others?
  16. Have I been making too many decisions?
  17. Have I complained too much?
  18. Have I made a big lifestyle change recently?
  19. Is there anything wrong with my immediate environment? i.e. pollution of some kind, whether that be air, noise or just general mess
  20. Have I let my things get unorganised?
  21. Have I spent too much time on social media?
  22. Have I spent too much time consuming the news?
  23. Have I stuck to my prescribed treatment for a previous problem?
  24. Have I got a chronic illness that I’m not managing properly?
  25. Have I experienced a known ‘trigger’ that I haven’t planned for?
  26. Have I started taking a new drug?

Focusing on things you can change

It’s worth pointing out that all of the above have the word ‘I’ or ‘my’ in them. That’s no coincidence: the point is that they’re all things that you could probably change in order to make things better, admittedly with a bit of effort.

However, I don’t wish to deny in any way that plenty of unhappiness is caused by factors outside people’s control. In the event you’re aware of a specific problem that’s causing the unhappiness, and it isn’t something you can change, then it may be worth trying these 11 ‘reframing’ techniques from 80,000 Hours. I like to add a further couple of my own to this list:

  • Have I got this in perspective with the big problems in the world?
  • If I look back on this problem in one/five/ten years, how am I likely to think about it?
  • Have people bounced back from similar problems before? (How did they do it?)

I also really like the following section from Matt Haig’s popular book Reasons To Stay Alive:

You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your arms, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t yet tried, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.

As ever, I’m interested to get feedback on how these could be improved, and where they have or haven’t worked.

Key takeaways for if you’re unhappy

  • Sometimes you’re unhappy because of very basic things
  • Checking these things in a list when you’re unhappy can help identify the problem
  • For many of these problems, you can change them quite easily

One final caveat: this is not intended to be a guide to dealing with serious mental health problems. If you have those, seek help from a trained professional.