It’s been a common theme for humanity across the centuries to seek out things that make us happy. However, what if we’ve been looking in the wrong direction? There are some things we can easily guess that will make us sad. Culprits like loneliness, stress, or burnout will make us unhappy but there are empirical studies that delivered some potentially surprising results.

Here are five things that have been scientifically shown to make us feel lousy.

Social media 

Back in the mid-2010s, studies started suggesting there was a link between social media usage and higher rates of depression. To some, it seemed like it was nothing more than scare-mongering, similar to the riots against the printing press and warnings against Victorian women reading too much. However, further studies have continued to identify the same findings, as recently as 2020

The criticisms of social media platforms are wide-ranging. There is the increased ability to compare yourself to others and feel ‘less than’. They are also places to harbour suspicion and jealousy within relationships. Facebook has brought independent fact-checkers to their platform to battle the misinformation and ‘keyboard warriors’ who hurl abuse from behind their screens.

It is also noted in many studies that there are positives of connection, which help with loneliness. This is particularly the case with marginalised groups, like young people in the LGBTQ+  community.

Access the benefits and reduce the risks by:

  • Using social media mindfully
  • Check-in with yourself about how you’re genuinely feeling 
  • Make social media a small part of your schedule.

Money worries

Money stress


When we
don’t have enough money, we can suffer in some terrible ways to the point of not being able to feed, clothed or even house our families. What might surprise you is that having too much money can actually lead to depression

The World Health Organization carried out a survey of 89,037 people from 18 different countries in which depression was found to be more prevalent in wealthy countries. The lowest incidence of depression was in China with 6.5% compared to the highest in France of 21%.

Research suggests that the need for material possessions is actually an emotional version of a plaster on a broken leg. We seek wealth, trying to fill a subconscious void without ever dealing with the real issue. It is this hamster wheel of dissatisfaction that leads to the increased levels of depression.

To resolve this, we should instead consider creating a lifestyle where our earnings provide us a comfortable lifestyle. This means paying bills, providing food, and shelter. After the important bits are covered, the freedom to choose how you spend the rest of your time delivers the balance that provides a stable, positive mental health. Focusing on enjoying nature and creating social connections is recommended, although perhaps not solely on social media as aforementioned.

Option overwhelm

Having too much money can create an insatiable misery in the hunt for more ‘things’ to make us feel good. In a similar way, too much choice can make us feel equally unsatisfied.

How we view choice can change depending on where we grew up in the world and our education level. It’s been found that those who went to university can find too many options overwhelming, even debilitating. They are also more likely to suffer from ‘buyers’ remorse’, which is when you worry if you’ve made the right thing and regret your decision.

Professor Hazel Rose Markus said in a 2010 study from Stanford University: “We cannot assume that choice, as understood by educated, affluent Westerners, is a universal aspiration and that the provision of choice will necessarily foster freedom and well-being.” 

“Even in contexts where choice can foster freedom, empowerment, and independence, it is not an unalloyed good. Choice can also produce a numbing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness.”

Decision dilemmas

Buyers’ remorse isn’t the only time when people may doubt their choices. Some people doubt their decisions regularly, which causes them to feel utterly rotten.

Florida State University carried out a study in 2011 and identified two distinct types of decision-makers. Dr Joyce Ehrlinger and team named them ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisfiers’. The former make decisions only after obsessively considering them, followed by doubt that they made the right choice. The latter rather tend to decide faster and move on, simply dealing with any consequences.

“Identifying the ‘right’ choice can be a never-ending task (for a maximizer),” Ehrlinger and her co-authors write.

“Feelings about which option is best can always change in the face of new information. Maximizers might be unable to fully embrace a choice because they cannot be absolutely certain they chose the best possible option.”

Whether it’s choosing some flip-flops or choosing a husband, maximisers are driving themselves towards stress and unhappiness, fast.

“Maximizers get nervous when they see an ‘All Sales Are Final’ sign because it forces them to commit,” says Ehrlinger, in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“Maximizers show less commitment to their choices than satisfiers in a way that leaves them less satisfied with their choices. Maximizers miss out on the psychological benefits of commitment.”

Daydreaming dangers

A 2010 study by Harvard University suggests that allowing your mind to wander can be a way of wandering into poor mental health.

Data from 2,250 volunteers put information into an app when randomly prompted. It asked what they were doing, how they were feeling, if they were focused on the task in hand or if they were thinking about something pleasant. 

They discovered that only 4.6% of happiness was down to the activity that was taking place, whereas 10.8% was down to what they were thinking about. It was consistently reported that people felt happiest when they were concentrating on what it was they were doing. They also found that our minds only stay focused on the task in hand around 50% of the time.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the study noted.

TV show trauma

Mental health on favourite shows ending


F.R.I.E.N.D.S ran for ten years and was a pivotal part of many people’s teenage years. When it ended, it was a shame for the millionaire actors who now were forced to seek other sources of income instead but didn’t really matter to the rest of the world.

Or did it?

A study from Ohio State University uncovered that people’s favourite TV programmes coming to an end can, in fact, be a distressing experience. During the 2007-2008 Hollywood writers’ strike, Emily Moyer-Guse, PhD, assistant professor of communication, surveyed 403 students. Questions covered topics such as what they watched and when, why, the importance of the shows, and how they felt about the characters on screen.

People who watched TV to fill a gap in their day were not as likely to be distressed by a show ending or being taken off the air. However, those who watched to enjoy the companionship of the characters, escape pressure in their own life, and relax were likely to feel distressed.

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, PhD, professor of English at Central Michigan University, said, “it’s like you have lost someone important to you. It does leave a hole there for a while. It’s a form of mourning.”

If you’re not feeling great, for whatever reason, The Samaritans are just a phone call away and are always happy to talk for free from any phone: 116 123.

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