Why do people find misery entertaining

Most of us claim we want to be happy—to have meaningful lives, enjoy ourselves, experience fulfillment, and share love and friendship with other people and maybe other species, like dogs, cats, birds, and whatnot.

Strangely enough, however, some people act as if they just want to be miserable, and they succeed remarkably at inviting misery into their lives, even though they get little apparent benefit from it, since being miserable doesn’t help them find lovers and friends, get better jobs, make more money, or go on more interesting vacations.

Why do they do this? After perusing the output of some of the finest brains in the therapy profession, I’ve come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, and the satisfaction people seem to find in it reflects the creative effort required to cultivate it.

In other words, when your living conditions are stable, peaceful, and prosperous—no civil wars raging in your streets, no mass hunger, no epidemic disease, no vexation from poverty—making yourself miserable is a craft all its own, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity. It can even give life a distinctive meaning.

[Source: Cloe Madanes, writing for Psychotherapy Networker at alternet.org]

Madanes makes a compelling and original point. The proof that some people want to be miserable is the creative ingenuity, intelligence and mental effort required to forestall happiness. It takes work to be miserable, especially in objectively good circumstances.

Why would anyone do this, when it’s so obviously irrational? Madanes provides a clue, but not the answer. The clue she gives us is that misery “can even give life a distinctive meaning.”

I equate the term meaning with purpose. All human beings need a sense of productive purpose. The most basic of these is survival. Beyond survival, we have other needs such as personal and romantic fulfillment, intellectual fulfillment and purposeful career activity. All of this meaning and purpose centers on self-preservation and self-fulfillment.

Why would somebody opt for misery over happiness? Many answers are possible. All the psychological explanations boil down to one: Sense of life.

Sense of life refers to one’s implicit philosophical perspective. It’s an emotional sum, or a psychological whole, implying one’s core beliefs about the nature of reality, the human mind, and (by implication) what constitutes proper human behavior. (I borrow the term from novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand.)

We all have a philosophy, whether we make it explicit, or not. Most people dismiss philosophy as irrelevant or, at best, a luxury item. But our subconscious minds permit no such error. Emotionally, we all hold certain premises about the nature of reality, the human mind, and how human beings should act.

One premise might be, “Man’s mind is efficacious, and life is a potentially wonderful place, full of things to explore, understand and discover.” Helen Keller expressed sense of life when she said, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Another premise might be, “The human mind is impotent to really know anything, and life is a vale of tears and helplessness.”

One premise will lead to one type of psychological state, and the other premise to an entirely different one. Some people hold exclusively one type of premise or the other; the great majority hold a mixed bag of premises, which explains why they have conflicting and contradictory emotions throughout their lives, and lack inner serenity.

People also hold premises about ethics. Some think, and feel, that their only worth is through service or sacrifice to others. They don’t feel that self-preservation or self-fulfillment are virtues. In fact, they might even view these things as vices.

Consequently, one’s view of ethics declares war on what one’s life actually requires. Life requires self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and self-preservation. From a rational perspective, these are not only necessary things, but virtuous ones.

However, this rational perspective clashes with the emotionally held beliefs that, “My life is not an end in itself. My life is only worthwhile if I serve or sacrifice for others.” “Others” can refer to anyone from your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your boss to society as a whole. The range will vary, but the attitude is the same: “I must sacrifice and give up what I want; otherwise, I’m not a good person.”

In my years of working with people in therapy, one finding stands out overwhelmingly. People’s sense of life with respect to their erroneous view of ethics clashes dramatically with what their psychological health requires. On the one hand, they’re taught to believe that they’re self-responsible and should pursue happiness in life. Some even think (mistakenly) that they’re entitled to happiness, as if someone else should provide it for them.

On the other hand, they’re told that they must “give back,” that no amount of success, personal gain or satisfaction is ever justified, deserved or moral. Pride, even in one’s earned accomplishments? That’s one of the seven deadly sins, according to old-fashioned morality. According to modern and “progressive” attitudes, pride is selfish and a sin against society, if not a crime against humanity. The greater the achievement and ability, the worse pride is thought to be.

This is a massive contradiction. It’s a recipe for a continuing psychological calamity. Sadly, that’s what many people’s lives turn out to be, given their failure to identity or resolve this contradiction.

This contradiction between “I should be happy” and “I owe my life to others” is the very thing that creates the futile struggle to attain misery that Madanes astutely describes. It all follows from the premise.

If it’s wrong to be happy, yet you’re obliged to pursue happiness, the contradiction becomes exhausting, to many. In a perverse but (on its own terms) very logical way, if life is only about service and sacrifice, then one should be miserable.

Many people are simply trying to be virtuous. They internalize the (false) belief that virtue consists of sacrifice. Sacrifice, by definition, can only lead to misery and unhappiness. If you’re to be virtuous, then you must be miserable.

This undoubtedly explains why some cling so tenaciously to the “achievement” of misery that Madanes describes.