There are many things that make us miserable that we can’t control. Our employer is forced to make cuts, and our job is part of the downsizing. Our colleagues are bullies. We’re born with a bad lung or poor eyesight. We’re too short for the sports team we’ve always wanted to join. There’s traffic, construction zones, storms, and a driver who was texting and smacked into your parked car.
But thankfully there are other things we can control. And we may be unwittingly doing things that are only making us miserable. Below are three examples, along with other insights from Randy J. Paterson’s practical, tongue-in-cheek, valuable book How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use.
You’re so optimistic you gloss over other—plausible—outcomes
Paterson, Ph.D, refers to this as “toxic optimism.” Instead of hoping for a positive outcome, you assume it’ll happen. It has to happen. For instance, “you want the job, so you believe you’ll get it.”
You put all your eggs in one basket. You think, “why create several products, when I know this one will be super successful?” or “why apply to other positions, when I’ll get the one I’ve always wanted?” You might ignore other outcomes: “Why take a lifejacket when the boat isn’t going to sink?”
You have sky-high expectations. As Paterson writes, you incorporate the promotion you know you’re going to get into your life—before you even get it. “Should the promotion actually come your way, you will get no great lift, because you were counting on it anyway. Should the position be handed to someone else, however, then the great yawning maw of an unforgiving and incomprehensible universe will stare you in the face.” In other words, you’ll be constantly disappointed and you might be flailing without a Plan B.
A better approach is to acknowledge the full range of possible results, take steps to increase the likelihood of the outcome you want, and have contingencies just in case.
You’re determined to be happy
You read books about happiness. You listen to podcasts about happiness. You focus on happiness-boosting habits. The problem? For starters all our emotions are necessary and wise, not just feeling happy. Anger tells us that someone is crossing our boundaries. Fear warns us of threats. Guilt tells us that we’ve broken our own standards.
Plus, our expectation to be happy can actually backfire: If you expect to be constantly happy, which is unrealistic and unnatural, you’ll be very disappointed when you’re not. Like mentioned above, unrealistic expectations are powerful in triggering misery.
Paterson includes this great example in his book: Imagine your friend picks up a discarded lottery ticket and says, “I think you’ve won $10.” You go to the store and find out that you’ve actually won $10,000! In another scenario, your friend says, “I think you’ve won $10 million.” You go to the store, and yes, you’ve won: $10,000. The only difference in these scenarios is your expectation. Because you’re still winning the same amount.
Similarly, you’ll view anything besides happiness as failure, weakness, inadequacy or a flaw on your part. For instance, when you’re sad, you’ll see yourself as weak. Or you’ll see being anxious as a terrible flaw.
You’re making it your mission to lose weight, have six-pack abs, get the promotion, be anxiety-free…become a different person
You read articles about the thing you yearn to improve. You take classes. You watch TV shows and talks. Or maybe you have several improvements in mind. You yearn to eradicate or erase what you perceive to be your flaws. Your many flaws. You’ll stop striving for self-improvement once you reach those goals. Once you become good enough.
But our culture is quite demanding. As Paterson writes:
You have to be smart enough, informed enough, fit enough, thin enough, rich enough, wise enough, happy enough, sexy enough, popular enough, and stable enough. You must not have panic attacks, bad breath, sad mornings, hangovers, loneliness, crow’s feet, high cholesterol, debt, clutter, a straying spouse, spiritual uncertainty, shyness, a sweet tooth, thinning hair, a thickening waist, wrinkles, depression, disability, career angst, bad spelling, or body odor.
In other words, you can be on the improvement train for a very long ride. What’s more helpful is to ask yourself these valuable questions:
- If I were already good enough, what would I do then?
- If, that is, you didn’t have to make up for your inadequacy, what would you do with your life?
- If you did not have to paper over your faults, what would you read?
- What films would you see?
- What courses would you take?
- Where would you go?
- Having become fully capable, what would you use that capacity for? Where would you make your contribution?
Life is difficult. We will face many difficult challenges and heart-wrenching losses. There will be circumstances—many of them—that we simply can’t control. But there are also many that we can. Which is why it’s very helpful to pause and reflect on where you might be making things extra difficult and complicated for yourself.
Maybe you aren’t doing the above. But maybe you’re doing something else that isn’t serving you. If that’s the case, and you’re having a tough time working through it on your own, consider seeking professional help.