The Reason People are Unhappy in Relationships

The reason people are unhappy in relationships is that we were never designed to be happy in relationships. Human beings, like all life, evolved for evolutionary fitness, not for romantic satisfaction. Therefore, a lot of dissatisfaction is the result of urges people have that they believe will make them happy, but in fact do the opposite.

I’m using relationships as an example, but this disconnect between our urges and what fulfills us is everywhere in life. Humans have evolved with the urge to eat foods with lots of sugar and fat, rare for most of our history. But today, those same urges work against people, where excessive calorie intake results in obesity.

There’s a popular idea within goal-setting, the idea that you should strive after everything you want. No doubt this is an improvement over apathy. Going after what you want is better than wandering through the world indifferent and pessimistic.

However, what happens when the things you want are the things that hurt you? When your urges don’t correlate with what will provide genuine happiness. Either because your urges were designed for simpler times (like the desire for sweets) or because your urges were never designed to make you happier in the first place (like adultery when you’re in a loving relationship).

Evaluating Your Wants

If you aren’t setting goals and actively pursuing them, that’s square one. But, I’m guessing that most people who are reading this blog, have some interest in self-improvement and suggesting goal-setting isn’t going to cause a revolution.

But if you’re past that, then square two has to be evaluating your wants. Are your urges you’re chasing after going to fulfill you? Or will they just leave you as empty as before?

A few years ago I read Neil Strauss’s book, The Game. The book chronicles his discovery and eventual adoption into the pickup and dating community. What struck me most about the book wasn’t the sexual exploits of the characters of the book, but how many of the characters remained utterly unhappy and depressed despite their newfound success with women.

I’m not trying to say working to improve your dating life is a lost cause. Or even that the pickup community won’t be able to help a few guys. But, I think what became clear from the  book was that many of the characters were following their urges to decide what would make them happy in relationships, and often that made them feel no better than when they were alone.

Naive Goal Setting

I think the naive approach to goal setting is to chase after what you want. It’s naive because it assumes that what you want and what will satisfy you when you reach it are the same thing. Sometimes they are, but there are many times when they aren’t.

In the book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert provides dozens of studies that demonstrate that people are fairly bad at determining what will make them happy. We aren’t perfectly rational, and blindly chasing after what you want is a bad way to reach satisfaction.

I believe people need a more sophisticated approach to goal-setting, that starts with what you want, but goes beyond that. Deliberate goal-setting also evaluates your wants themselves, deciding whether they are worth chasing after. Or if your wants are appropriate, figuring out how far it is worthwhile to chase.

Following Your Heart

There are obvious areas of life where people control their urges. When someone goes on a diet or avoids laughing during a serious discussion, are clear examples. But while there are some areas where people express self-restraint, there are other areas where society sees it as a virtue to stop thinking.

In many parts of life, and especially relationships, following your urges even when they don’t make sense is not just undeterred but celebrated. Every romance movie celebrates the heroine who follows her heart and ends up with prince charming. But for every movie ending, there are dozens of women who stick with an abusive spouse because they love him and want him to change.

Similarly, every story of the successful entrepreneur/actor/athlete encourages people to follow their dreams. But with every success story, there are many more cases of people who missed out on a quieter happiness keeping their passion as a hobby while they worked on a career they could actually be the best at. For every glamorous movie star, how many people are waiting tables, barely getting by?

I suspect I’ll get a lot of angry comments from readers who are holding on to these “follow your heart” narratives. Even suggesting they aren’t true is a sign you’re a jaded cynic who has lost the spark for life.

I disagree, I think that whenever you follow your heart you should follow your brain as well. There is no reason you can’t chase after what you want, but you do need to evaluate what you want carefully so that you don’t get tricked into dead-ends.

Follow Your Brain

Instead of following your heart, I think you should also follow your brain. Evaluating your urges carefully so that you can get both what you want, and make sure that chasing after it won’t burn you in the end.

I think chasing after the perfect man or woman will lead to relationship unhappiness. It often encourages people to chase more physically attractive or exciting people who aren’t necessarily going to be interested in you, or when they are, perhaps aren’t the best partners. Following your brain means redefining what perfect is to you, instead of chasing the person who has no flaws on your checklist, find someone who is attractive enough, fun and will love you.

I think chasing after a perfect career will lead to career unhappiness. It often encourages people to chase incredibly competitive fields where the chances of success are low to impossible. Following your brain means redefining what the perfect career is to you. Something you enjoy and can be exceptionally good at, so good that you can dictate the terms of your life.

Just as stuffing your face with chocolate and burgers results in feeling fat and sick, chasing after every desire isn’t the best route to happiness. The solution isn’t to become distant and cynical to every dream you have. Instead, it’s to look at those dreams carefully, to see that you aren’t distracted by the most colorful pictures when what you really want is sitting innocuously in the corner.

Following your brain makes for a bad movie plot, so I don’t expect to see the perfect narratives disappearing anytime soon. But I feel following your brain is an ultimately more satisfying way to live.

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  • Valentino

    “Similarly, every story of the successful entrepreneur/actor/athlete encourages people to follow their dreams. But with every success story, there are many more cases of people who missed out on a quieter happiness”

    you’re wise man! : ) that makes a difference from just-inspirational material! I’m tired of this superman stories that teach only exceptions, and not rules.

    for the rest of this article, imho making a contraposition between Brain and Heart is not healthy, and a little manicheist. I understand your point and I share it, but this two words have a wide range of meanings and can be misleading. And plus, it seems an oversimplification.

  • Chris

    I totally agree with the message in this article. Sometimes I think part of becoming more mature is getting better at telling yourself, “This is just a shallow urge. Fulfilling it won’t really make me happier. What’s really good for me in the long term is this other less glamorous option”

    There have been a few times in my life where I achieved some big dream or conquest, and my response on actually getting it was a surprising, “Meh, this is no big deal really”, and then a week later I barely thought about it anymore.

    It also goes back to what you’ve said a few times before, about how the chase/journey is often more exciting then actually getting the payoff in the end.

  • Basu

    I think instead of following you heart or your head, the approach I prefer to take is to follow my heart but have my head provide a liberal, but forceful sanity check. For example, I followed my heart in coming to the United States for college, but I follow my head in terms of what to study and how to spend my time.

  • Dave

    “Similarly, every story of the successful entrepreneur/actor/athlete encourages people to follow their dreams. But with every success story, there are many more cases of people who missed out on a quieter happiness”

    Very true, that is why people should pursue goals intrinsically. Fame and prestige are inherently available to few, which means for every person that achieves that level of success, scores will be disappointed. Continuing with the sports theme, if you’re really passionate about soccer, perhaps your goal would simply be to earn enough income to support playing on a U25 team rather than trying to make the MLS.

    My question is, what goals have you achieved that has made you happier? I know you plan on adding x lbs of muscle–do you think it will make your happier?

  • Karthik Kumar | Between a Brea

    Well said Scott!

    I’d like to add a few nuances:

    We must follow our heart and intuition in pointing us in our general life direction. But once we have identified our passions at an general level, we must then use our mind to creatively find a proper outlet for that passion.

    Using our heart for both feeling and thinking doesn’t make sense. Similarly, using our mind for both thinking and feeling doesn’t make sense either. And it makes absolutely no sense to use our heart for thinking and mind for feeling!

    Start with the feeling, then narrow it down with the thinking. But stay optimistic throughout this process, constantly on the look out for new information!

  • Dave Shepherd

    I think you should always set your goals based on what you enjoy doing, not on what you think you would enjoy having.

    Set your goals around progress instead of focusing on the result.

    I pursue the goals I have because I like doing the stuff that I have to do to achieve those goals. I pursue filmmaking because I enjoy being on set and writing scripts. I don’t really care about what’s at the end of the road, I like exploring the road itself.

    I know what I enjoy doing, so I set goals that are achievable if I get better at what I already enjoy. To some extent, the journey is the goal.

  • Avi Marcus

    Or, you can decide to be happy and let life catch up. Ultimately, we are in control of how we view our life situation. By judging if it’s good or bad, we create that emotional reaction in ourselves. You don’t have to be stuck with your preconcieved notions, but can start to let them go (e.g. Sedona Method/Release Technique, Eckhart Tolle’s Power of now) and just in general holding yourself emotionally where you want to be – general Law of Attraction practice – the Art of Allowing, as Abraham-Hicks terms it.

    What would it mean if you could choose to be happy, regardless of what is going on around you?

  • Mark

    Hey Scott!

    I think you are on to something, would you mind exploring the subject further?

    I like the part where you recognise that fulfilling desires does not always lead to satisfaction, but you never really go into what does.

    Warm regards/ Mark

  • Scott Young

    As a general response to the comments:

    Brain/heart isn’t a mutually exclusive decision. I’m trying to advocate that you should follow your desires, but at the same time, carefully examine them.

    Dave: I never claimed it would make me happier, nor do I believe it will. This goal is simply an interesting pursuit for someone who is already in decent physical shape. I went in pursuing this goal knowing it was simply for the challenge, not the result.

    Mark: Pursuing your desires can lead to happiness, just not all of them. I’ve written a lot of articles on happiness, so my views are splattered throughout the archives. My main argument here was against the blind goal-setting and perfect narratives common in self-help.


  • Chris

    I think the actual solution to the problem is what is missing in the article and that it was already found by Steve Pavlina. In the case of career goals, it is briefly explained here:… . Rather than pitting “what do I want” against “what do I need” and/or against one of the other of the four questions given in the link, the key is to find the area where they overlap. If you pursue a career that satisfies all four criteria, it will not fail to make you happy.

  • Scott Young


    I like Steve Pavlina’s heart/mind/body/spirit overlap model for life decisions. So, I completely agree.


  • Jonathan

    Meh, happiness is overrated.

    As a goal, it’s practically meaningless. It’s like catching air: Even if you could, you can’t keep it.

    Happiness is a transient sense of reward and satisfaction you experience when you do something right or well. It’s something you experience with life, not something to achieve in and of itself.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that self-help books are really just designed to sell a common dream for profit. See:

    It’s really not that complicated.

    I agree with you, Scott: use your brain first. Nothing leads to disillusionment and bitterness faster than “following your heart” chasing some naive pipe dream, believing it’s the “good fight” or the “better way”.

    The formula is very straight-forward:

    1. Do what you like.
    2. Do it well.
    3. Get paid for it.

    The rest is details.

    Oh ya, and don’t forget to smile.

  • Aurooba

    There’s a difference between your heart and wants/desires/urges/impulses. Those who think they are following their heart by giving into their urges and wants without thinking are not following their heart, that’s just plain foolishness.

  • Sherryl

    Scott, I find the challenge of balancing heart and common sense a continual challenge, but I also think that without that balance, it’s easy to veer too far in one direction. Following your heart, when you expect an outcome of, say, publication, isn’t going to work. The common sense side of you works out how to revise effectively, how to target your submissions, how to be professional. To me, that’s not being depressing – that’s dealing with reality in a positive way that contributes to your passion!
    That way, you will have a great chance of achieving your goals and heart’s desire. I also think simply letting go of the impossible is a good strategy too. It’s recognising the impossible that is the biggest task for many people!

  • maria

    i love your blog!!

    i can’t wait to start on my painful journey to improve my social life. 😀

  • アウトレット coach

    大島麻衣 水着

  • Taina

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  • Liz

    Couldn’t have said it better myself

  • Liz

    Couldn’t have said it better myself

  • Liz

    Btw I know I’m a about 6 years late, but stumbled upon this article

  • Liz

    Btw I know I’m a about 6 years late, but stumbled upon this article