Forget the vision boards and the happiness meditations. A new book outlines exactly what you need to do to feel happier and it probably goes against everything you've ever heard. Want to feel happier? Think about the things that make you the most miserable.
This approach to happiness was inadvertently developed about 20 years ago by a group of severely depressed patients who were understandably pessimistic about their treatment options. They were all enrolled in an eight-week group therapy session at Changeways Clinic in Vancouver, Canada.
The sessions, led by clinical psychologist Randy J. Paterson, were not going well when Paterson had a sudden insight. Rather than asking his patients what they could do to feel better, he asked them what they could do to feel worse.
As Paterson describes in this interview for the Science of Us, "Suddenly the floodgates opened. People came up with all kinds of answers to that question,” and the therapy sessions became much more beneficial.
Paterson says the idea of focusing on what makes us miserable actually works to make us happier in two ways. First, it helps us create a reality-based road map toward happiness. Often, when people try to focus on what they think they need to do to achieve happiness, their goals are abstract or difficult to achieve, such as making more money or finding a life partner. But when we think about what we could do to be more miserable, we think about things like getting less sleep or eating less nutritious foods. It's not long before the lightbulb moment hits: "If getting less sleep makes me miserable, maybe I should try getting more sleep if I want to be happier."
"The path upward and the path downward are usually part of the same mental terrain," said Paterson. "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."
Another way Paterson's trick works is that it helps people see how much worse things could really be. It's sort of the flip side of practicing gratitude or visualizing happiness. When you realize that things could be much worse, you tend to find happiness in the life you already have.
Want to learn more about "misery as the new happiness?" Check out Paterson's book, "How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use."