Happiness? We all want it, and, in 2016, there is no shortage of people telling us how to achieve it.
Self-help books, celebrity life coaches and well-being websites abound – each aiming to offer the elusive secrets to eternal contentment.
Friday is in the vanguard of this positivity push. It is our mission to try and help our readers feel fulfilled and experience joy – and we take it seriously. In the last few months alone we have featured foods to improve your mood and exercises to strengthen your happiness muscles.
But now a new theory in the field may be the most unusual yet: if you want to feel happy, it says, think deeply about things that make you miserable. Yes, really.
‘I appreciate it may sound completely counter-intuitive,’ says Dr Randy Paterson, the Canadian psychologist behind a new book fittingly called How to Be Miserable, which advocates the system. ‘But it genuinely and truly works.’
How so? And is it any good for you? We’ll come to that shortly.
For now, Dr Paterson is speaking exclusively to Friday after the tome – which he hopes will revolutionise well-being thinking – was released in June. And he is keen to explain exactly how his ideas are the result of 20 years of working on the problem.
He, himself, has run his own mental health clinic – Changeways Clinic in Vancouver – since 2002. His work includes individual therapy practice, public speaking on psychological issues and training other mental health clinicians. In 2008 he received the Canadian Psychological Association’s annual Distinguished Practitioner Award.
But it was in 1993, while working with people suffering from depression, that his happiness thinking first started to take shape.
‘I was leading discussion groups with patients who were, understandably, very sceptical that anything we could do in such sessions would help make them happier,’ recalls the 57-year-old. ‘So I tried something that turned the typical exercises round on their head a little.
‘I asked them, ‘‘Imagine you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work tomorrow. All you have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now. How do you do it?”’
What followed, he says, was a free-for-all of ideas. What amazed him most, though, was not how his patients took up the task with such relish, but how much they laughed while doing it.
‘After one session, a hospital cleaner stopped me in the hall as I was locking up,’ he says. ‘She asked what had been going on in the room and I told her it was the depression group. ‘‘But they were laughing,’’ she said. ‘‘You don’t hear that in this building.’’ I’ve always remembered that.’
The young doctor wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant. But he did know one thing: tapped into right, it seemed, searching for unhappiness might be the key to achieving the exact opposite.
So, how exactly did it work?
Dr Paterson has been refining his thoughts – and his classes – on that question ever since. And he has concluded it comes down to two factors.
Firstly, thinking about things that make us miserable helps people see clearly what they already have in life. Seeing this clearly, in turn, helps us to value it.
‘It’s a kind of flip side to visualising happiness which, when you don’t feel happy, can be incredibly difficult – maybe even impossible – to do,’ he says. ‘Visualising misery is somehow easier. And when you do that, it can make you realise how much worse things could be. And when you realise that you tend to find contentment in the life you have.’
This is not, in itself, hugely original thinking. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus famously advised parents to imagine their child dying – as a prelude to being truly thankful for their existence. ‘What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: tomorrow you will die?’ he wrote in his volume Discourses.
Along similar lines, the little country of Bhutan is regularly considered one of the happiest in the world. Indeed, it was here, in 1972, that the now globally used Gross National Happiness index was created as a way of monitoring and improving the population’s mood. Yet, bizarrely perhaps, researchers have put the nation’s contentment down to a Buddhist-inspired ritual in which many people think about death up to five times a day.
Doing this, explained Linda Leaming in her 2014 book, A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up, ‘makes people seize the moment and see things they might not ordinarily see.’
Carmen Benton, managing director of Life Works personal development training centre in Al Wasl Road, Dubai, doesn’t necessarily advocate dreaming of death – either yours or your child’s – but she does think there’s some merit in the general principle.
‘It’s about being grateful for what you have rather than always wanting more,’ she says. ‘People have a tendency to think the grass is always greener on the other side. By reminding ourselves that this is not the case – by reminding ourselves how lucky we are – it can inspire our own happiness for sure.’
The second way in which thinking miserable can inspire happiness is less direct – but, says Dr Paterson, no less effective.
‘What it helped my patients do is create a road map that they could use to find happiness,’ he explains. ‘Often, when we attempt to concentrate on what we need to do to be happy, we find ourselves coming up with these quite abstract, long-term goals: make more money, have more friends, do better at work, this kind of thing. And then you take those goals and you realise, “I really don’t know how to make that happen”.
‘But when we reverse it and think about what we could do to make ourselves more miserable, these are often much easier, more direct things to ‘achieve’. You know, “How can I make myself feel worse here? Easy – by sleeping less, by eating bad foods, by buying things I can’t afford”. And so – bingo! – you’ve found a path down towards more misery.’
But herein lies the crux.
If that road takes you towards a valley of distress, surely it must also lead upwards to the heady peaks of happiness.‘It’s all part of the same mental terrain,’ concludes Dr Paterson. ‘So, once we’ve located this path, what we need to do is turn 180 degrees around and walk up instead of continuing down. It’s really that simple.’
Simple, perhaps, but it leaves one big question: once we’ve identified the way down, how exactly do we turn around?
Simple again, says Dr Paterson: ‘it stands to reason if something makes us miserable, then the opposite action will also have the opposite effect – so we do the opposite.’
Using this as a starting point, his book goes on to offer 40 easy ways that have been scientifically proven to lead to discontentment. The contention is many of us are doing them already – not eating well, cultivating toxic relationships – and if we continue to do so, we’ll soon end up at the bottom of the valley.
‘I can be your guide to misery,’ says Dr Paterson ironically. ‘Just follow what I say and we’ll get there in no time.’
He pauses. ‘Or alternatively, you can take these pieces of advice, reverse them, and head for the high ground instead.’
Among the tips listed are look at screens more (‘really ignore the people you’re with’), relive regrets, be guided by impulses and exercise less (‘why bother? Sit back on that sofa and stew’). If they result in our feeling woeful – and research upon research proves such things do – then the opposite will bring delight. But the message is also that we shouldn’t just use Dr Paterson’s list, but also think about the actions that make us personally miserable – and reverse them too.
‘There are so many people and books out there telling us how to be happy,’ says Dr Paterson as our enlightening hour together comes to an end. ‘And self-evidently something is still missing – otherwise why is there still such a demand for this stuff. I just thought if we changed our thinking and came at the problem from a different angle maybe there might be a breakthrough.’