I think people can often be unhappy not because they have major problems (like an illness or a divorce), but due to "nonspecific discomfort", which arises from many small reasons. Most of the time it stays below the radar, but there's one particular way it can lead to large harm: you feel a gradual realization, over the course of days or weeks, that your life is missing some important specific thing, and set out to obtain it. In fact the thing is unrelated to the reasons you're unhappy, you just latched onto it randomly; and more often not, it ends up harming you instead of helping.
Here's some examples that made this idea clear in my mind:
- Musicians often talk about "gear acquisition syndrome". Basically you see a shiny new guitar in a storefront, and it starts to occupy your thoughts, giving you an illusion that it will bring you joy. Then you buy it, and no joy results. The truth is you had some other discomfort going on, unrelated to the amount of gear you own, and it coalesced around a random idea: "I want this thing".
- I know a few people who've had plastic surgeries that didn't go well; it gets so bad that their new look literally makes me want to leave the room. But they themselves never seem to notice the problem. It feels like their nonspecific discomfort randomly coalesced around a different idea: "if I change my looks in this way, that will make my life better".
- Copycat suicides. For most people, hearing about a suicide on the news isn't reason enough to push them over the edge. But in society there's always a certain percentage of people whose nonspecific discomfort is so high, that they can latch onto even this idea and imagine it's a solution to some or other imaginary problem.
- Mass movements, and savior complex. Hoffer's book is the best source on this and basically agrees with my experiences: the people joining mass movements often do that because they're unhappy with themselves, and use the movement as a substitute for the things missing from their life.
Now, it's true that my idea is a bit like phlogiston theory: "there's this nebulous thing and it's the reason behind all of life's problems". But I'm not actually proposing to explain all problems, only some. And the easiest way to judge the idea is to try it for yourself, make a measurement of your own "nonspecific discomfort", and recognize which more specific problems and solutions your brain may have made up along the way.
(This is where I part ways with psychoanalysis: nonspecific discomfort doesn't always come from childhood trauma or anything big like that, I think it's usually just a bunch of unpleasant things, not necessarily large things, but piling higher as you get older. You can dig for the deepest reasons but it would be pointless, your mind's just too good at making up more stuff in response to that; and it doesn't help with mitigating the problem, at all.)
So, if we assume for a moment that "nonspecific discomfort" is an actual thing, some kind of generic substance that problems are made of, then what are some ways we could deal with it?
- Physical activity, outdoors, preferably in the sun. In my view this is the clear winner. If you can easily access a basketball hoop, a pool with a diving board, or a place to do pull-ups - then it's a good idea to regularly spend time there! It's amazing how many problems that felt substantial before a workout, become faint shadows afterward.
- Creativity - making music, writing, drawing, what name you. The immediate effect of grabbing a pen and trying to be creative is that it makes you feel good about yourself :-) Then if you're careful to get to a concrete result in the end, something you can look back on and show off to others, that also invests in your happiness for the longer run.
- Socializing, as long as you do it for fun and not for any serious result. I've found that when people like me, and I'm having fun, a lot of problems take the back seat. In many ways, socializing is an art of distracting yourself and others - worth getting good at that.
- Cooking, making or fixing physical things, heck, even cleaning your living space - doing any kind of work with your hands turns out to be surprisingly therapeutic. I've known some people who went too deep, overdoing it, but I still strongly recommend it if done within reason.
That's naturally not an exhaustive list. But maybe to summarize, my main advice is just to recognize nonspecific discomfort, as a thing that can be a problem worth fixing. And recognize that on the margin it might be less useful to chase specific solutions to specific problems; there are things you can do to alleviate discomfort "generically", no matter where it comes from, and these can be a better investment.