I hate self-help books. Actually, no, that’s an understatement. I loathe self help books. Most of the ones I’ve read are full of vapid, meaningless advice that’s designed to make you feel good about yourself without giving you anything really actionable. They give you a brief feeling of general confidence that you can be ‘happy’ but no real steps to take to get there. And yes, I know there are exceptions. However, this is not a debate on the merits of self-help books. This is the introductory paragraph to a blog post that is going to eventually get to a point. Not in this paragraph – we have a few more paragraphs, photos and a YouTube video to go until we get there.
Given my hatred of self-help books, when I was advised to read one I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. My therapist assured me that this one was different, though. This one isn’t going to give me advice on how to be happy. It was going to give me advice on how to do the opposite. It was going to teach me how to make myself miserable.
That…at least was unique enough to get my attention.
The book in question is “How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use”. If you follow CGP Grey on Youtube you might be familiar with the concept from this video.
Give it a watch – it’s good, and gives some more context for the rest of this post.
The basic premise is simple. Happiness is a vague, nebulous concept that we struggle with. Instead of trying to achieve happiness, what you should do is figure out what makes you unhappy and then do the opposite of that. Even if you don’t get to some kind of nirvana-state of pure bliss, which isn’t really possible anyway, you’ll at least be less unhappy with your life.
This…I actually could get behind. It’s a fairly straightforward goal, it has a clear path to results, and you can easily measure how you’re progressing – if time spent on making yourself miserable decreases, then you’re doing it right.
But I am nothing if not compulsive in how I approach tackling problems, and I didn’t like that I wouldn’t know if I was improving if I didn’t have a baseline to compare it to. So, for the last week while reading the book, I made no changes to my life. I went to work, I wrote, I scrolled social media, I laid in bed and stalled getting up and facing the day, I played with my cat – I did everything I normally do, but this time I tracked myself. I used the app Toggl to do it, and sorted everything into projects:
- Day Job Related
- Other Creative
- Health and Wellness
- Maximizing Misery
That last category was the important one. It was time I spent doing things that, when I was done with them, I realized were making me unhappy. So vapidly flipping through Facebook or Reddit and feeling stressed about the world? Maximizing Misery. Spending time laying in bed wishing I could go back to sleep? Maximizing Misery. Feeling bummed out about some upcoming changes to my work but not doing anything to try and prepare for them? You guessed it, Maximizing Misery.
Note that for Maximizing Misery, I’m only counting things that I’m not required to do. Cleaning up a hairball from Loki and scrubbing the carpet was not a pleasant experience, but it’s not Maximizing Misery because it’s something I have to do. I don’t like cooking, but it’s something I need to do. On days when I really don’t feel like going to work, going is not Maximizing Misery. It’s being an adult. The goal wasn’t to make myself feel bad about doing things I don’t enjoy, it was to stop doing things that I don’t enjoy and have no reason to be doing.
And now, the week is up, and I can tell you exactly how much time I spend on being miserable in an average week: 13 hours and 12 minutes.
If you’re like me, you’re probably looking at that number incredulously. It certainly didn’t feel like I was spending over half a day on it. Because it wasn’t being spent in one lump sum. It was broken up throughout the day. Twenty to forty minutes convincing myself I have to get out of bed. Ten minutes here and there on the mindless scrolling. A full hour at one point watching YouTube videos I’d seen so many times I could repeat them verbatim. None of them were huge things that ate into my productive time too much. But the cumulative effect added up to over half a day.
And thus we get to the month of misery. Using that as a baseline, that meant that – over the course of a year – I was spending a little over 28 days on making myself miserable. I was, basically, spending the entire month of February on misery every year. Imagine if that time was continuous. Imagine if you spent all of February not sleeping, not seeing friends, not going to work, not having fun…just making yourself feel miserable.
Because, until you start keeping track of your time, you easily could be doing that and not realizing it.
So, now that I have a baseline, I’m going to reduce that number. If I find myself logging time for making myself miserable, I’m going to do something else. I’ll read a book. I’ll do some writing. I’ll bother my cat with a laser pointer or something that jangles on the end of a string. It doesn’t need to be productive – trying to be productive 24/7 is a different way to maximize a different kind of misery – it just needs to be something that contributes to unhappiness.
And that’s what I’d like you to try. Track the time you spend maximizing misery. Just see how much time you spend doing things that meet the criteria of making you less happy and isn’t something you have to do. Then…try to make that number smaller. Let me know how it goes, and check back here later when I can report how it went for me.
I have high hopes for this one.
You can pick up “How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use” here if you want a more in depth exploration of the things we do that make ourselves miserable. And if you want something to read that I promise won’t make you miserable, why not try out my book?