Happiness is an important life goal for a lot of people, so we should spend a lot of time thinking about how to be happy, right? Actually, no. Thinking a lot about happiness is a pretty surefire way to make yourself miserable, according to a host of experts.
"Research shows that chasing happiness may actually make you feel worse," psychotherapist Amy Morin explains in Forbes. Why? "Most people make incorrect assumptions about what will make them feel happy. These incorrect predictions lead people down the wrong trail as they expect happiness will be found right around the next corner."
This cycle of eagerly expecting happiness and then being disappointed traps many people on a treadmill of unhappiness. How can you escape it? Try this -- stop thinking about what will make you happy and ponder what will make you miserable instead.
This surprising suggestions comes from a long interview with psychologist Randy J. Paterson, author of the new book How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, on New York Magazine's Science of Us blog recently.
So, what makes you miserable?
Paterson stumbled on the unusual approach to better mental well-being while working with a group of severely depressed patients. Understandably pessimistic and downtrodden, the patients didn't believe any treatment would help them. Then Paterson hit on an idea -- instead of focusing on how they could be happier, he asked the patients what they would do if they wanted to feel worse. Suddenly, they had a whole host of suggestions that could easily be turned around into actionable steps to toward greater happiness.
Paterson insists this approach can work for everyone, not just those with serious mental illness. "The path upward and the path downward are usually part of the same mental terrain. So if you can isolate the things that you do that would make you feel worse--like continuing a behavior that doesn't help you--then you can similarly isolate the things that will make you feel better," he tells Science of Us.
"If you realize that if you want to feel worse, you could be completely inactive, get no exercise, eat non-nutritious food, or compare yourself negatively to others, you can then go, well, wait a minute, maybe I could do the opposite of that and that would be helpful," he offers as an example.
Recognizing that your everyday behaviors are contributing to your unhappiness is a great starting point for change as it's reality-based, not aspirational -- you're reflecting on what actually affects your well-being here in the real world (not getting enough sleep, say), not daydreaming about what might make you happy one day (Success! Fancy cars! Finding the perfect partner!). That's more likely to get at what actually affects your mood and less likely to send you off on a perpetually disappointing happiness goose chase.
"Another reason this method is effective is that people can recognize they're not as miserable as they could possibly be. That realization can be very powerful," Paterson adds. Practising gratitude and noticing the happiness you do have in this way has been proven to have serious mental health benefits by research.
If you're intrigued by the idea, there's a whole lot more detail in the complete interview, including a discussion of the ways our expectations of happiness are warped, the essential role exercise plays in maintaining mental health, and more suggestions for turning insight into action.
Can you think of a few things that make you miserable? How could you eliminate them from your life?