How To Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use by psychologist Randy J. Paterson challenges us to make our lives more miserable than they already are. The sneaky bit? He’ll make us realize that we’re already doing a lot of those things inadvertently.
The book consists of 40 lessons. These are divided into four cheekily named parts: adopting a miserable lifestyle, how to think like an unhappy person, hell is other people, and living a life without meaning. Some are a little more serious in tone, but most are quite humorous. The chapters are short, making it very easy to read even if depression is making concentration difficult.
To start off, Paterson shares the $10 million question he posed to clients in his depression groups. If you could earn $10 million for half an hour’s work that involved making you feel even worse, how would you do it? While it may sound silly, it actually sheds a great deal of light on the problematic patterns of thinking and behaviour that we often engage in throughout our daily lives. Paterson acknowledges that there may be negative external events that we can’t change, which he labels as column A. This book focuses solely on column B, those things that are within our control.
The first section of the book covers things like exercise, eating habits, and screen time. Regarding sleep, the author suggests that in order to be miserable one should “cast off the tyranny of slumber.” Substance use is described as an indirect route to misery: “One of the great paradoxes about lowering your mood is that it often works best to strike out in the direction of happiness rather than aiming straight at misery. The quest for uplift often hides a stairway leading sharply downward.”
Part two covers thought patterns, including filtering (magnifying the negative and discounting the positive), perfectionism, and self-blame. The author suggests writing a personal story of misery, connecting as many negative memories as you can think of to create a themed, self-reinforcing narrative.
One chapter that might surprise readers states that “pinning your present happiness on a bright but conditional future automatically sows the seeds of misery-inducing anxiety.” The author adds that the law of attraction accomplishes this by focusing on hoping while sitting back and waiting for the “mysterious forces in the universe” to do the acting.
Paterson also explains that self-esteem only involves active processes when it’s low and we put ourselves down. This is where the large self-help industry comes in with books and workshops claiming to fix the problem. As the author points out, though, people with high self-esteem actually aren’t thinking about self-esteem; they’re just focusing on the task at hand.
The third section focuses on relationships with others. This addresses topics like social isolation, comparing oneself to others, boundaries, and unreasonable expectations of self and others. In our hyperconnected digital age, the author writes that we should go ahead and kid ourselves “that you have substituted in-the-flesh social contact with the pixelated kind. It is one of the most effective routes to happiness that exists.”
The book also looks at reacting to what people actually say versus what you think they intended to say. If you have a strong negative reaction to something that wasn’t actually in the message, the author cautions that you should be prepared as “the lovely forest of your friendship will have been set aflame, and you can warm your hands as it burns to ashes.”
The final section of the book is about living a life without meaning. One chapter focuses on choosing fashion over style by suppressing your own individuality in favour of what’s socially expected or popular. Another chapter focuses on the comfort zone, and Paterson points out that entering the zone of discomfort causes it to shrink, whereas the comfort zone only expands by leaving it. For anyone who gets frustrated by the idea that happiness is a choice, Paterson writes that “the relentless pursuit of happiness is actually a fairly good way of producing its opposite.”
The book explains that much of our emotional pain comes from prioritizing short-term comfort over long-term outcomes. This skews our perspective on the choices available to us. “We pluck roses all along the road into misery, never realizing where we’re headed.”
Paterson effectively draws the reader in with a light-hearted, engaging, easy-to-read style. There is no sense of the author talking “at” the reader. The book is based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles, but it’s not a book about CBT. Even for people who know the “right” things to do to manage depression, the humorous spin makes it easy to see where we may be hijacking those very things. This book will make a good read for people living with depression and those who love them, as well as for mental health professionals interested in adding a new tactic to do their work with clients with depression.
How To Be Miserable is available on Amazon (affiliate link).