Many people look upon unhappiness as a result of external circumstances - those things over which they feel they have had little or no control. This is part of, in psychological terms, the "locus of control." Locus of control is the extent to which people perceive outcomes as either internally controllable by their own efforts and actions, or as externally controlled by chance, luck, or other outside forces (Myers, 2008).
Unhappiness that continues as more than a passing moment in time is often attributed to a feeling of having no control over circumstances. We are, in fact, victims of our circumstances, with few resources for finding solutions. Happiness, in this case, is elusive. If it is experienced, it is fleeting.
When we look at unhappiness as a result of external circumstances, we look to all of our past experiences as possible reasons for our feelings. Perhaps childhood was less than it could have been, or worse, included abuse in any of its various forms. These were not our internally controlled circumstances, but were factors that were attributable to external forces - other people and bad situations. Childhood experiences are often regarded as external reasons for unhappiness.
If our unhappiness stems from other external factors - a failed marriage, economic reversals, or a child's failure to succeed, for example - we can only consider these factors in hindsight and assess their real contribution to our unhappy feelings. Setbacks in our lives in any number of different situations can be regarded as the result of external circumstances. How we view our setbacks can be pessimistic or optimistic.
The optimistic way to approach life's challenges and obstacles is to consider unhappiness as a passing situation that may or may not have been caused by outside circumstances. From there, we can go about changing our perspectives. Experiencing a more internal locus of control directly relates to feelings of empowerment and effectiveness.
The internal locus of control provides a more hopeful outlook. How much control we have over our lives determines how successful we are at living our lives and how fulfilled we feel. Performance in the workplace, sustaining good relationships, and achieving better mental and physical health depend on how much control we feel we have over our own outcomes.
Myers, D.G. (2008). Social psychology. (9th ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.