How to be miserable, and maybe, how not to be
The last year I spent working in London (2016-2017) had my mental health, and general well-being, slowly decline. I’m now back working in the city, having had a year out to do my masters. During my masters I recovered, due to a combination of therapy, support, and making lifestyle changes.
I was keen to ensure that this slow attrition of my mental and physical health that happened in this window didn’t ever happen again.
As such, I’ve spent much of the time since experimenting with putting systems and routines in place to make sure I stay feeling positive. Prevention is often preferable to cure.
I wanted them to be robust, as the life of a city worker is generally more taxing, both mentally and physically, than the life of a student.
I’m pleased to report, that after a month back in the city, these systems have served me well. My mood is elevated, and if anything I feel on an upward trajectory, rather than a downward one.
Obviously a huge amount of factors that affect well-being are beyond our control - and this post is not intended in any way to place blame or responsibility on those that are miserable or depressed for those reasons. I simply dedicated time to making sure I was taking control of the factors that affected me that I actually could exercise some meaningful control over.
This post is about that process.
Part of this process was doing research. There was a singular book that informed how I thought about many of the changes I made. This was the wonderful How To Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use.
It is, effectively, a not-to-do book. Authored by psychologist Randy J. Paterson, the book explores the emotion of misery, and how seemingly bizarre it is that despite how many of us live in luxury that would have been beyond the dreams of humans living thousands of years ago, many of us spend much of our time feeling miserable.
Early in the book, he talks about a thought experiment he conducts with groups he works with who are suffering from depression. He asks them:
“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 thought experiment was an exercise in making the group aware of their own impulses. He would later to say to them, after they had come up with a plethora of ideas:
“..what feels right when you’re miserable is what feeds the misery, not what feeds you”.
Something about this articulation - of thinking about what not to do, versus what to actively do, I found profoundly helpful. We all know there’s more we could be doing to improve our health, happiness etc. That list is infinite. However, focusing on the things we already do, and stopping or changing those habits, is quite finite, and to me feels achievable.
All of us have experienced negative emotions - some far more severely than others. It’s normal, it’s increasingly common, and it’s a problem. Often we can find ourselves in a downward spiral because misery begets more misery.
Recognising that our impulses in these situations don’t help us is where having systems/habits in place becomes so useful, as you can rewire your habits to default to doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it.
The book divides the curriculum of misery mastery into four modules:
Adopting a miserable lifestyle
How to think like an unhappy person
Hell is other people
Living a life without meaning
Here are some of the strategies that the book suggests in adopting a miserable lifestyle:
Avoid all exercise
Eat what you’re told (follow advertising blindly)
Don’t waste your life in bed (i.e. don’t sleep)
Live better through Chemistry (drink lots of alcohol and caffeine)
Maximise Screen Time
If you want it, buy it
Can’t afford it? Get it anyway!
Give 100% to your work
Be well informed (read all the bad news)
Set vapid goals
Lots of his advice is based off of research, though some later chapters seems to consist more of his opinion as a practising psychologist. That is to say - obviously this book isn’t gospel, many people can find plenty of happiness while adopting these ‘miserable’ lifestyle choices.
I should also note, the book is written in tongue-in-cheek style, still giving actionable advice for if you want to do the reverse e.g.”The only caution about exercise is that it must be avoided religiously. As noted in the above studies, just thirty minutes of exercise three times per week is sufficient to disrupt unhappiness in most people. And exercise beyond this level is even worse”.
Since reading this book, when I’m feeling miserable I ask myself this question:
“is what I’m doing now a practice or habit that is conducive to more misery?”
If the answer is yes, I can consciously make a decision to stop, and then put systems in place to make that a behaviour I avoid in the future.
Crucially this means going against doing what you feel like in these moments. You won’t feel like stopping, because as we’ve noted, misery begets more misery. You need to consciously override your instincts, and then make changes to your environment that make that behaviour harder to do, or a new habit easier to do.
One of my personal anchors - which I’ll write about in more detail in future, has been exercise.
I’ve done some form of regular exercise since I was 11, and while this has changed dramatically over the years in what it actually consists of, it’s been probably the singular most healthy habit I’ve developed. I always feel better - both psychologically and physically, having trained in some way. Regardless of how bad a day I’m having, exercise will make me feel better. As a result, I’ve made it a priority in my lifestyle, ever more so in the last few years.
To those who struggle with exercising regularly, or who inwardly sigh at the ever repeated knowledge that it’s a good-thing-to-do while also feeling how much of a struggle it will be for them internally, I can only say this;
It gets easier. That isn’t to say it will always be easy, but it gets easier. You get used to it, after a while it’s not hard to get yourself to the gym. It’s like brushing your teeth - it’s not always a fun thing, but it’s just something you do, and are better for.
Plus, with exercise, if you do it right, unlike brushing your teeth it really can become something you look forward to and actively enjoy!
Beyond this, I’ve also recently started prioritising sleep, which I wrote about here last week in more detail here. This has made a palpable positive difference to my mood as well.
The best thing about these habits is, once developed, they create a positive feedback loop. Exercising helps you sleep, and sleeping well gives you energy to exercise well. Plus, if you’re generally feeling better, it’s easier to then add in more positive habits, or stop yourself doing bad ones.
I know it sounds terribly self-helpy to say, but another habit I’ve developed has been regular meditation - a simple breathwork practice that I do in the morning because I know it makes me feel better.
From all of these habits, I’ve developed a few systems. I use the word ‘system’ as essentially a chunk of habits, or a routine, that I do irrespective of my mood, because I consciously know it will net be better for me.
Currently, in the morning, my system looks like this: I wake up, go to the bathroom, return to my room and do some brief breathwork. If I wake up feeling awful, I know the breathwork will make me feel a bit better, and calm me down, so I do it. Once I’ve done that, I then usually go to the gym (as I wake up early). Because of what I do in the gym, it’s generally something I look forward to, however, even if I don’t feel like going (which does happen) I go because I know it will make me feel better.
At the end of the day, I make sure to do my utmost to get off screens about an hour before bed, and to go to bed at an early enough time to get 7-8 hours of sleep.
This is how it this has helped me: If I wake up at an emotional 3/10, feeling palpably awful, by the time I leave the gym I can be elevated to a 5/10 just from the regular comfort of those habits. 5/10 isn’t great, but it’s better. And if I go to bed early, the chances are the next day I’ll wake up at maybe a 4/10, or perhaps a 6/10. The cycle repeats, which means that I can consistently keep my mood quite high, and correct it when it drops.
The automatic correction that these systems bring is a source of great reassurance. I know that if my mood does take a nosedive, I have several things in the next 24 hours which can reliably elevate me. One of the worst things during my darker moments over the years was the feeling of helplessness I had, not knowing how to feel better. By having these systems in place, and having tested them over some time so I’m confident in them, it actually makes even the dips in mood easier to deal with - because I know I’m prepared.
Obviously, my routine I’ve built knowing what works for me. Waking up in the morning is something I find relatively easy, so exercising then comes fairly naturally to me. You have to experiment with what works for you. However, if you’re reading this, you’re probably human - so the classic habits of regular exercise and sleep might be ones you want to consider. And bear in mind - exercise need not mean going to the gym! Exercise can be anything from pumping iron to dancing. Experiment!
Even this last week I had a sudden huge dip in my state, due to external factors. Within 24 hours, I wasn’t back to feeling perfect, but I was much better than I had been. You can’t prevent spells of misery or depression ever visiting, however you can put systems in place to mitigate and deal with them as they do.
Ultimately, the “it gets easier” golden truth is true for all habits, and it’s something I personally have to keep in mind when trying to stop or start lifestyle changes. You get better. If you can start a habit, getting past the first few instances of it, then you have done the hardest part. Everything else is just keeping it up. Trusting in this has been, for me, the key to not feeling overwhelmed.
There’s dangerous ideas that I sometimes observe in discussions online and in person when it comes to struggles with mental ailments; anything from just feeling down, to more severe issues. It’s the issue of how much control we can truly exert on our state of being. Sometimes I see people arguing that one has no control over their depression or misery, and others - often seen as devoid of empathy - arguing that one can ‘make themselves better’.
The notion that someone can entirely control their state is potentially just as damaging as believing someone has zero control over their state. It’s is exceedingly rare that either extreme is true. In the former, you’re the reason for your misery, in the latter, you’re a victim of it. A middle ground, where we take the power we have while still being kind to ourselves and others - to me at least, seems like a much more constructive position to take.
So be nice to yourself - which often will mean making yourself do things which you know will be good for you in the long run, but also having the sensitivity to yourself that everyone deals with negative states in some form or another. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling that way, it’s a part of the human condition.
So if you’re feeling miserable, it’s almost certainly true that you can take some control over this. Not total, but some.
It’s within your grasp - take it.
These ideas are discussed with much more eloquence and precision than I could possibly muster by Tim Squirrell in his video on how he recovered from his depression. In addition, a lot of what he talks about are the habits he put in place to achieve this. I highly highly recommend you check it out, even if you’re a very happy person:
Another video, that was inspired by the aforementioned book, is the one below by CGP Grey. If you’re on the fence about checking out the book, this is a good further exploration of the ideas it talks about:
And finally, a really good video on habit formation (there are some fantastic books out there, which are discussed in the video):