About 20 years ago, Randy J. Paterson, a clinical psychologist and currently the director of the Changeways Clinic in Vancouver, wasn’t having much success with one particular therapy group he was leading. It was composed of individuals who had faced such severe depression that all of them had been hospitalized at one point or another. Paterson’s job was to keep them safe and out of inpatient care, and to alleviate their symptoms to the extent he could.
The trouble stemmed from the group’s understandable pessimism. Paterson’s patients had all been through eviscerating battles with mental illness — what reason did they have to think that group therapy would help? “The patients were quite skeptical that anything we would do in our little eight-session group was going to make them feel happier,” Paterson explained in an interview with Science of Us. Then, he and his colleagues had an insight: What if they asked the members of the group, “Well, what if you wanted to feel worse?” “Suddenly the floodgates opened,” recalled Paterson. “People came up with all kinds of answers to that question,” and a much more productive therapeutic environment followed.
That insight eventually gave rise to Paterson’s wry new book How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, in which Paterson offers a counterintuitive counterpoint to our national happiness obsession: Focus on the bad. “Between the influences of our culture, our physiology, and our psychology,” Paterson writes, “it appears that striving for happiness is a tiring matter; we’re swimming against a powerful current. We might almost say that happiness in such circumstances is unnatural.” In other words, the pressures of our culture (we need to earn more!), our bodies (on less sleep!), and our minds (and be happy about it!), contribute to a cycle in which the pursuit of contentment only results in an ever-snowballing accumulation of disappointment and self-blame. But if we consciously go after the opposite, if we, as Paterson puts it, “optimize misery” by becoming more aware of our own detrimental habits, we can paradoxically open up new and helpful behavioral pathways.