happy couple and kidDear Michael:

I feel like such a fool. I have a great job, good health, a loving husband, great kid and a good group of loyal friends…but I still feel empty and miserable inside and find myself crying for no reason. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy and grateful for all the good stuff in my life?

Ungrateful in Little Italy


Dear Ungrateful:

First of all, you have insight and self-awareness, so give yourself credit for that.  Billionaire/philanthropist David Geffen once said, “Everyone should be rich and famous at a young age so they’d realize that this alone will NOT make you happy.”  You don’t say if you’re rich or famous, but the idea is useful regardless.

Many people achieve their childhood expectations (or go beyond them) only to find themselves feeling empty and somewhat disappointed.  “Is that all there is?” the refrain from that old Peggy Lee song, may temporarily be your song too.

Where to go from here?  I don’t know much about you, so let me posit some questions for your consideration:

First off, how useful is it to look to externals for happiness?  The world outside us always changes: people leave or disappoint us, jobs end, health shifts, etc.  It may be more helpful to look for happiness internally.  Looking inside yourself is not easy or comfortable, but it is very productive.  S

When you look inside, what do you see?  How do you see yourself?  Does everyone else see you as a great success and you don’t?  It matters far more what YOU think about yourself than your boss, partner, parents or friends.  Their kind actions and words of love/praise are useless if they do not ring true to you.

You may be ready for the next step of your life: are you ready to go deeper?

We don’t have breakthroughs until we are “ready” for them.  Maybe your psyche wasn’t strong enough to see the sadness and disappointment until you were in a solid place.  Maybe it was always there – on the back burner – but you were too busy to notice.  As a psychotherapist, I’ve notice that often in therapy, real “breakthroughs” occur when you least expect them…perhaps just when you’re ready to quit therapy!

Maybe you’re ready to move beyond previous drama in your life.  When times of struggle and upset are over and you are feeling pretty strong, THIS is the time to look underneath the surface of your life.  What’s going on down there anyway?   Crying jags can give you useful information: they are likely telling you that something is off and that it’s time to look into yourself (not at other people, places or things) and see what’s going on with you: thoughts, emotions, body sensations, etc.

Another set of questions that may be helpful involve looking at what’s next in your life: if you’ve achieved most of your childhood dreams, you’re now seeing just what they’re brought you.  Perhaps the life you thought you wanted isn’t the life you want any more.

In an interview, actress/film producer Salma Hayek (“Frieda”) talked about her long, frustrating search for happiness.  She spoke of her success as an actress in Mexico and how surprised she was to find herself feeling empty and unfulfilled.  She asked herself:  “This is not my dream…why am I here?  How did I get here?”

It sounds like you are in a similar place.  This could be the result of an unexamined life.  But it needn’t remain unexamined and you needn’t remain “empty and miserable inside” and continue “crying for no reason”.  When you pay attention to your internal life and ask yourself some good, juicy life-altering, bone-crunching questions, your potential for happiness and gratitude will grow tremendously regardless of your job, health, partner and friends.  You are likely to see:

(1) why you feel empty and miserable inside,

(2) where those thoughts and feelings come from, and

(3) where to go from here.