For the past 30 years, Vancouver psychologist Randy Paterson has seen a lot of miserable people. Nice people, but miserable nonetheless – and to varying degrees. Some are clinically depressed, but for the most part his patients are people who are moderately unhappy, or, as he puts it, "sense they could have a more fulfilling life if they were to make changes."
So, he wrote a cheeky self-help book titled How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use on how we could all be happier if we quit doing what we're doing now, and tried the opposite. Simply put: Get out of the house, see friends and family, pry yourself off the couch, exercise and eat food you like (not only what you're told to like). Learn what it is that you admire about yourself – and stay true to that.
You experienced depression in your predoctoral internship in psychology. Why did misery pop up for you?
Everyone experiences periods of lows in their life, myself included. The irony is that, at the time, I was treating people with depression, and it managed to creep up on me, and I wasn't even aware it was happening. And I should have seen the signs. I wasn't eating very well [it was all hospital food]. I knew I needed more exercise. I knew I needed to stop working every single evening on my dissertation. And there were other things. The whole period was exhausting … and it probably lasted six months to a year.
Why is striving for happiness so tiring? And being miserable so easy?
Part of the problem is expectations. We have told people they can be almost unfailingly happy. And their expectation is that they will attain it. But the human mind is not aimed at 100-per-cent happiness all of the time. If you expect to be able to leap eight feet, and you can only leap five, you're going to be constantly disappointed. Sadness, anxiety, disappointment are all normal parts of life. So striving for happiness is like trying to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to use an overused cliché.
Becoming miserable is often simply a matter of giving in to our momentary impulses. We feel frustrated at a family member, so we yell at them. We feel tired at the end of a long workday, so we turn on the television. It takes too much effort to make social arrangements with friends, so we don't. In the short term, most strategies that make us feel worse are easier than the ones we use to make ourselves feel better.
What is the most common mistake that miserable people make?
They avoid asking themselves one thing: If I was living a happy and fulfilled life, what would I be doing? In other words, if we imagine ourselves in a happier life, we will often know the path forward in our lives. Avoiding that question is one more way to become more miserable.
Is miserableness on the rise? If so, why?
People are definitely more unhappy about their level of unhappiness. In the past, we knew and understood that life is difficult. That grief is inevitable. That disappointment is part of life. We seem to have been engaging in societal denial of this essential reality. Formerly, we may have simply thought: "Today I'm sad." Now we tend to think something has to be fundamentally the matter. Perhaps I have a disease? God, what's wrong with me? Whereas, often the simple answer is: You have a life.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Life is hard enough as it is. Terrible things can happen, and do. Including to people that you love. We don't need to make this journey any more difficult than it is. We can look at our behaviour, at our basic way of thinking, and discover how we are contributing to our own sadness. Then we can intervene in it. A lot of my book is common sense. Your grandmother could have written this book. We're not great fans of common sense in this culture any more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.