How to Use Modern Psychology to Live a Miserable Life

"When I was happier, it was because I knew I was on my way back to misery. I've never been convinced that happiness is the object of the game. I'm wary of happiness." - Hugh Laurie[1]

Critics of "positive psychology" warn that happiness is overrated, even dangerous.[2] The world needs miserable people. Without misery, we would have no Alexander, no Mozart, no Tolstoy, no van Gogh. Some people truly need to feel down, angry, and miserable in order to do their best work, whether art, literature, love songs, or revolutions. The problem is that they too often resort to self-destructive methods, such as alcohol and drugs, to get to their desired state. If you thrive on "negative effect", the following steps will help you be unhappy, but via safer, clinically-proven methods.[3] And should you ever need a break from misery, you can try this too: Use Modern Psychology to Live a Happy Life. Everything, even misery, is best in moderation.


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    Accept that you might be one of the people built to be miserable. Blame the cortical lottery.[4] About half of all humans are born in the negative half of the "affective style" spectrum. In a nutshell, some people are just born pessimists.
    • Thanks to your genes, you are predisposed to focus on threats, and lack confidence to deal with them. You develop coping styles that rely heavily on avoidance and other defense mechanisms. You work harder to manage your pain than to fix the problems. You tend to think that the world is unjust and uncontrollable, and that things turn out for the worst.[5]
    • Knowing this can help you stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, so to speak. With all the emphasis on happiness, your life might be more functional knowing that you're miserable by default, and that nothing is unusual or dysfunctional about that.
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    Know how to move the needle. In order to be functional, it's good to become familiar with ways to move around on the spectrum of misery and happiness. There are three clinically-proven methods to move negative affective predispositions toward the positive end of the spectrum; either avoid these methods completely or use just enough of them so that your productive misery doesn't kill you:
    • Meditation,[6]
    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,[7]
    • Medication (mainly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).[8]

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    Get on the "hedonic treadmill". Work as hard as you want, accumulate all stuff that you want, and get fabulously famous. This will raise your expectations, you will keep wanting more, and be no better off than you were before.[9]
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    Buy happiness. Those who think that money can't buy happiness just don't know where to shop.[10] Buy things that make you happy. Preferably, ostentatiously expensive things, like a Gucci Soft Stirrup Crocodile Shoulder Bag, Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck (if you can't afford that, Cristal works too), Nike Air Force 1 sneakers or, if you are a revolutionary, the Nike Ajax surface-to-air-missile. Unlike spending on unforgettable experiences with family and friends, spending on "stuff" won't keep you happy for too long. This is the "adaptation principle" at work.[11]
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    Immerse yourself in noise. Humans never fully adapt to noise, especially if it is variable or intermittent.[12] It is guaranteed to increase your stress. Move to a busy intersection, if you can.
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    Commute long distances. People don't fully adapt to long commutes, particularly if these involve driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those who deal with heavy traffic arrive at work and home with higher levels of stress hormones.[13] Bonus points if you have long traffic-ridden commutes because you bought a big house in an expensive neighborhood far away from work. Although people don't adapt to traffic, they quickly adapt to having more space.[14]
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    Have no control. A sense of control is one of the most effective ways to increase your sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.[15] You may need to assert some control to produce your painting, novel, music, or revolution, but try not to assert more control than is absolutely necessary.
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    Shun the "self-esteem" hawkers. Misguided attempts by schools, self-help gurus, and the popular press to raise self-esteem in children have fostered narcissism, and other dark sides of high self-esteem.[16] The popular obsession with "Beauty" has led to disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. But although attractive people are not generally happier than unattractive ones, some improvements in a person's appearance do lead to lasting increases in happiness.[17] So if you don't think highly of yourself, or of how you look, you're exactly where you need to be.
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    Choose your friends wisely. This is the big one.[18] The strength and number of your relationships trump all other factors in your pursuit of misery.[19] Bad relationships make people miserable, and miserable people attract bad relationships[20] (misery does, in fact, love company). People never adapt to personal conflict.[21] You can count on that bullying patron, editor, lead vocalist, grim-and-determined comrade, or spouse to constantly add to your misery, even when they are not physically present (just ruminate on the conflict).


  • Never try to be miserable if you're undergoing depression, or are under a lot of stress.
  • While misery in moderation can help you, don't be miserable for too long.

Sources and Citations

  1. Interview with Hugh Laurie, Guinness record holder for most watched leading man on television, and among the highest paid actors in the world ($400k+/episode)
  2. Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
  3. Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
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Categories: Emotional Health | Psychology Studies