How to be unhappy

Here’s a little short story for your consideration: Once upon a time, a client whom I’ll call Tom came to see me in my Dallas, TX office. Tom plopped down on the couch and said, “I’m tired of being happy. Tell me how to be unhappy.”

“Boy, are you in luck,” I said. “My experience as a therapist has taught me all the tricks to being miserable, which I will now impart to you. If you follow these recommendations, I guarantee that you will be profoundly unhappy for as long as you would like.”

“Great,” said Tom. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Pray proceed.”

“First of all,” I said, “the most important thing to remember is to always think of yourself as different from everyone else.”

“But I am,” Tom said. “I’ve always been told that I’m unique. We all are.”

“This is true,” I said. “But I don’t mean you need to think of yourself as different in a unique-fingerprint kind of way, but really different. Separate from everyone else. Not just different. Weird. Screwed-up. Assume that if people knew the real you, they would run screaming. Because you are damaged goods. There is something seriously wrong with you, some deep, inherent flaw in your very being. Sure, other people have problems, but yours are really messed up. In fact, the world consists of two groups: you, and everyone else. When you get right down to it, you are utterly cut off and alone, and no one else could possibly understand how you feel.”

“Hang on a sec,” Tom said, pulling out a notebook. “This is good stuff. I’d better write it down.”

I gave him a few moments to catch up, and then went on. “Second suggestion: be resistant to everything that is not to your liking. Tell yourself that anything that runs contrary to your preference is terribly unfair, or a disaster, or proof that God is punishing you for being such a terrible person. Your mantra is, This cannot be! Even when it clearly is. This is especially true about things that you have no power to change. Focus on the things that make you feel powerless.”

“Powerless, got it,” Tom said, scribbling furiously.

“Third,” I intoned, “by all means, avoid the middle ground. Live in extremes. You must eschew a balanced perspective.”

“How do you spell ‘eschew’?” Tom asked.

“For instance,” I went on, ignoring his question, “when it comes to taking responsibility, you must be all-or-nothing. If someone accuses you of a bad behavior, you must deny responsibility at all costs, unless you are presented with overwhelming evidence that you really did do a bad thing. In that case, don’t just accept responsibility for the behavior – take on the blame for being a terrible person. Say, ‘You’re right, it’s all my fault, because I’m a screw-up. Everything’s my fault.’”

“Kind of like that first point you made,” Tom said.

“Now you’re catching on,” I said. “Here’s another example of living in extremes: if someone makes you mad, don’t say anything until you are so enraged that you blow your top. Go from being a passive Mr. Nice Guy to a raging, screaming demon. Just don’t take the middle road of assertiveness.”

“No problem,” Tom said. “So far, this stuff sounds pretty easy.”

“I assure you that it is,” I said. “Especially if you’re already doing these things, because then you don’t have to change a thing. It’s effortless.”

“Please, go on,” Tom said, turning to a fresh page in his notebook.

“Let’s see, what else?” I said. “Oh, yeah: it really helps to use terms like should and ought a lot, especially in regards to human behavior, yours and everyone else’s. When people behave differently from you, tell yourself that they should behave exactly as you would. And if you ever fall short of your own behavioral expectations, don’t be a wimp about it. You must berate yourself harshly. Remember, you are an inadequate excuse for a human being.

“In fact, you must never let go of past mistakes, no matter who did them,” I continued, on a roll. “Don’t look for explanations of behavior. Look for blame. Assume that all bad behavior is the result of inherent character flaws. People are either good or bad, and if they do something bad, then they are bad. You are no better than your worst behavior.

“You should define yourself by your past screw-ups and mistakes. That’s your core identity. Don’t even think about such lofty concepts as growth, or healing, or, above all, forgiveness. Whatever you do, don’t forgive anyone, especially you. You are a damaged, unlovable, deeply flawed mess, and the world is a terrible place.”

Tom scribbled away, then looked up with a smile. “Wow,” he said. “That should be enough to make me unhappy for years to come!”

“But wait!” I exclaimed. “There’s more. You must live in a constant state of want. Tell yourself that you will be happy when you acquire the right things, like a car or a big-screen TV, or a lot of money. Then, when you get any of those things, expect the pleasure you receive from them to become long-term fulfillment. That’s good for an ongoing sense of disappointment and frustration. In fact, your mind should never be content to rest in the present. You need to think about the future, either in terms of impossibly high expectations, or worst-case scenarios. That is, when you’re not dwelling on the mistakes of the past. And you must always be thinking, thinking, thinking. Don’t worry about coming up with anything new to think about – just keep rehashing the same old stuff, but be glued to your thoughts like they were revelations. Don’t think about the things you’re grateful for – in fact, there isn’t much – but focus on your fears. There is always something to occupy your mind that you can worry about, or regret, or feel wronged over. A really creative person can keep a running dialogue in their head every waking moment, and even when they’re asleep, to some extent.”

“Is that it?” Tom asked.

“One more thing,” I said. “When you’re good and unhappy, look for salvation in the form of another person. Especially a partner. When you get involved with someone, you can tell yourself that at least you are good enough for him or her. No one else would have you. That way, you will put up with all kinds of disrespectful behavior on their part, including abuse. Better to be in a crappy relationship than to be alone, because being alone is just further proof of what a miserable jerk you are.”

“Whew!” said Tom, shaking his writing hand. “I’m getting a cramp.”

“And how do you feel about that?” I asked.

“It’s no big deal, certainly nothing-”

“Wrong!” I shouted, causing him to drop his pen. “It’s a very big deal! You’re in physical pain! You shouldn’t have to be in pain for even a moment! It’s horribly unfair, and further evidence the world is a terrible place. Somebody must be to blame! Who is it?”

Tom thought for a moment, and then tentatively said, “You?”

“Yes! It’s my fault for making you write all that stuff, which makes me a jerk. You should be very angry with me.”

“By golly, you’re right,” Tom said. He jumped up from the couch with an indignant expression. “In fact, as a result of your incompetence, I’m not going to pay for this session, and I’m never coming back!”

“Excellent!” I said, as Tom stormed out the door. Later, it occurred to me that not getting paid was likely to cause problems down the road, but I was still basking in the glow of a job well done.


Now, what’s the point of such a silly story? Obviously, no one comes to a therapist because they want to be unhappy. Quite the reverse. So, here’s the point: did you recognize any of the behaviors that I suggested to Tom? If you did, then I have good news for you: they are just behaviors, and they can be changed. (By the way, there are lots more, but it was time for the story to end.) Part of the job of a therapist is to help people make positive changes. Now, I’m not saying that all unhappiness comes from our behaviors, because truly bad things do happen in the world, but I believe it’s worthwhile to identify those factors that you actually have a chance of doing something about. A good therapist will help with the process.


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