Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, most of us spend our entire lives striving towards one goal: happiness.
Yet happiness often proves to be an elusive target; the actions that we thought would, directly or indirectly, bring us joy end up pulling us in the wrong direction and fail to prevent our descent into the deep, dark valley of misery.
Irrespective of our financial and social status or the amount of good fortune that is showered upon us by fate, most of us will, at one time or another, struggle with sadness and when we do, a whole industry is waiting in the wings, ready to dispense advice on how we can deal with our issues and cure our gloom through a readily available tool: the self-help book.
The self-help genre constitutes a lucrative industry with many such manuals being published every year. And while their efficacy remains dubious, they are still immensely popular with an audience that is trying to find ways to improve their lives — by becoming slimmer, prettier, smarter, wealthier — and find happiness.
In one of the latest additions to the sagging bookshelves in the self-help section, Canadian psychologist Randy J. Paterson has put a different, more interesting spin on the concept with How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. Instead of trying to advise readers on how to be happy, he has turned the idea on its head and decided to do the exact opposite by telling us how to be miserable.
A humorous and pleasant take on combating misery using reverse psychology
Inspired by a talk the author gave at a lecture series for the public, How to be Miserable aims to analyse the actions and thought patterns that ultimately make people less happy.
Most of the strategies in the book arose from an unorthodox discussion exercise for depression groups wherein the participants were asked what the writer calls the 10-million-dollar question: “Imagine that you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work — let’s say tomorrow morning between 11:00 and 11:30. All you would have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now. Worse, in fact, than you’ve felt in the past week. How would you do it?” The responses presented the opportunity to learn what we do to feel worse instead of better so that we can (hopefully) make a conscious effort to mend our ways.
Before dispensing his advice, the writer acknowledges that we all encounter unwelcome circumstances that are beyond our control, and that these “capricious whims of fate” aren’t the subject of the book. Instead, the volume focuses on the “mood-influencing factors that lie within the scope of our own choices”.
The tongue-in-cheek guide to misery is divided into four main sections, presenting a total of 40 strategies (10 per section) that lead us to unhappiness. The first part, titled ‘Adopting a Miserable Lifestyle’, describes the day-to-day choices such as avoiding exercise and nutritious food, reducing the hours of restorative sleep, seeking emotional fulfilment by purchasing things, and spending too much time in front of a screen, that we can make to enhance our gloom.
The second section teaches the reader ‘How to Think Like a Miserable Person’ by creating a low mood via alterations in your thinking, such as rehashing the regrettable past, constructing future hells, valuing hope over action, and aiming for perfection.
Then comes ‘Hell Is Other People’, the third part of the book, which deals with generating unhappiness through social interactions, by employing techniques such as having high expectations, cultivating toxic relationships, and holding others to higher standards than we do ourselves.
In the fourth and final section, the writer talks about ‘Living a Life Without Meaning’ through methods such as being ruled by our impulses, deferring life in favour of meeting duties, staying in our comfort zone, and turning everything into a competition.
“Our ancestors developed in a primitive, tribal world inherited from earlier hominid species — one that continued fairly well, intact until not many thousands of years ago. Their bodies and their psychology were adapted to and shaped by that world. Take a fish, an admirably adapted creature, and plunk it in the desert; things will not go swimmingly. Take a hominid and plunk her in a vastly different world of computers, automobiles, television, and 40-hour workweeks, and she, too, has some difficulty adapting. The environment does not fit her nature. ‘Oh, but wait,’ says the know-it-all in the back corner. ‘Our cave people created this modern world specifically based on hominid needs and psychology — so it should be perfectly matched to us.’ This is not actually true, however. This world was created based on hominid desires, not on a dispassionate analysis of what might work best. Take creatures from a sugar-poor world who have consequently developed a powerful sweet tooth, and they will create a society of candy bars and soda pop.” — Excerpt from the book
By following his guidelines, the author assures us that we, too, can dive into the abyss of despair, although his real intent, of course, is the opposite. At the end Paterson explains how to apply what we learned from the book to make our lives better.
By dissecting the ways in which so many of us mess up and complicate our lives, the readers will hopefully become aware of these pitfalls and avoid these mistakes, ultimately opting to escape the cycle of misery and striving for long-term contentment instead of chasing short-term highs.
Laced with irony, How to be Miserable provides information and inspiration to shun unhealthy habits. The author offers a different take on ideas that you’d think were positive — like giving 100 per cent to your work, and being well informed — by highlighting their negative impact on our lives.
Other points discussed in the book seem more familiar and obvious; still it’s hard to deny that we’re guilty of many of these things anyway, and it really is interesting to see what mental tricks we play on our unsuspecting selves. That said, while the ideas in the book really do sum up the many bad habits that we fall prey to, they don’t offer anything remarkably innovative to the readers.
All of the 40 strategies mentioned basically come down to common sense and there isn’t anything particularly surprising in its content that you haven’t already realised or read elsewhere before. In effect, the book is an engaging, witty summary of well-worn ideas about healthy living, but with a reverse psychology spin. While you won’t find anything here that will blow your mind, the content is still likely to help shed light on your failings and inspire you to work on them.
Also, since How to be Miserable touches upon 40 points, it obviously isn’t easy to remember everything the author talks about — or even be mindful of just the strategies that apply to you — at all times. The reader will need a fair amount of dedication to truly benefit from this text by repeatedly going back to the book, picking a few strategies at a time, and then trying to apply them to his or her life.
Paterson’s gentle, amicable tone, with humour sprinkled throughout the text, makes the book pleasant and friendly while the short, succinct chapters make it a quick read. The writer has distilled years of experience into this book (and on occasion also refers to the work of other experts), explaining the kind of things that you would probably learn in therapy, although the book is obviously not a substitute for professional help, nor is it intended for those with severe depression as the author himself points out. Its effectiveness also depends on the reader and their willingness to embrace these principles.
Ultimately, How to be Miserable will let you identify some of your weaknesses, and, if you’re willing to put in the effort, it could help you tweak your life and make it more fulfilling.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
Originally published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 30th, 2016