There are tons of books out there about how to improve yourself, how to be happier, how to be more productive, how to be less angry, etc. Often with these books, you’ll find advice on things you should add to your life in order to be happier. But sometimes, the best way to achieve a goal is to subtract from your life and stop doing the things that are making you miserable.
That’s the approach psychologist Dr. Randy Paterson took in his latest book, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Are Already Using. Today on the show, Dr. Paterson and I discuss the habits and thinking patterns he’s seen with his patients that make them miserable and what you can do to eliminate those from your own life.
We also discuss assertiveness. Randy wrote a great book entitled The Assertiveness Workbook that I referenced in an article about assertiveness a few years ago. If you have problems telling people “no” or asking for things without experiencing anxiety, you’ll find that part of the podcast useful.
- The counter-intuitive question Dr. Paterson asked his emotionally disturbed patients that provided helpful insights to them and to him [03:00]
- Why taking the short-view in life makes you more miserable [08:00]
- Why the search for a silver bullet to make you less depressed and anxious only leads to more depression and anxiety [12:00]
- Why sitting in front of a screen for hours each day makes you miserable [14:00]
- The difference between SMART and VAPID goals [20:00]
- What the opposite of miserable is [22:30]
- How not make a hell of other people (take that, Sartre!) [25:00]
- How to be more assertive in life [28:30]
- What keeps people from being assertive [31:00]
- Why you must practice the skill of assertiveness [34:30]
- How the pursuit of self-improvement can make your miserable [36:30]
- The question you need to ask yourself to get out of a rut [37:30]
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with the author of The Evolutionary Origins of Depression
- Our series on male depression
- How to Quit the Smartphone Habit
- Is There Any Reason to Keep Up With the News?
- How to set goals with Charles Duhigg
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Managing status anxiety
- How to Be Assertive
- Randy’s Assertiveness Workbook
- How to Say No (Without Being a Jerk)
If you struggle with depression, anger, or anxiety, or simply feel like your life’s in a rut, check out How to Be Miserable. It’s a quick read, packed with actionable steps to help you start improving your situation.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Carnivore Club. Get a box of artisanal meats sent directly to your door. Use discount code AOM at checkout for 10% off your first order.
Five Four Club. Take the hassle out of shopping for clothes and building a wardrobe. Use promo code “manliness” at checkout to get 50% off your first box of exclusive clothing.
Mott and Bow. If you’re an athletic guy with big thighs, be sure to check out the Mercer jean from Mott and Bow. Super comfy. For 20% off your purchase use discount code ArtOfMan at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. There are tons of books out there about how to improve yourself, how to be happier, how to be more productive, how to be less angry, etc. Often with these books, they offer prescriptive advice on things you should add to your life or things you need to do more in your life to get to the goal you want. Sometimes, the best way to achieve a goal is to subtract from your life and stop doing the things that are making you miserable.
That’s the approach my guest today took in his latest book, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Are Already Using. His name is Randy Paterson. He’s a psychologist. Today on the show, Randy and I discuss the things that he’s seen with his patients that the common lifestyle choices they make, thinking patterns that they take part in, that make them miserable and what you can do to eliminate those from your life. If you suffer from depression or you know someone who suffers from depression, you’ll get a lot of insight from the show. We also just tackle anger. We discuss how a focus on self-improvement can actually backfire and make your life more miserable.
We also discuss assertiveness. Randy wrote a great book that I referenced in an article about assertiveness a few years ago, so if you have problems telling people no or asking for things that you want without having a panic attack, you’ll find that part of the podcast useful, as well. Make sure to check out the show notes after you listen at aom.is/miserable, where you can find links to resources we mention throughout the show. Without further adieu, Randy Paterson and How to Be Miserable. Dr. Randy Paterson, welcome to the show.
Randy Paterson: Oh, I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: You’re a psychologist and you’ve got a new book out and it’s called How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies That You Are Probably Already Using. I love the title of the book because it’s inspired by a question that you asked in a discussion group for patients you were treating with mood disorders. Instead of asking them what they could do to be happier, which you think would be the normal question you’d ask people who were suffering depression or anxiety, you asked them what they could do to make themselves feel even worse. Why ask that question and what insights did your patients and you get from the subsequent discussion?
Randy Paterson: The patients in that group were just out of hospitalized care for depression and the average number of hospitalizations were 2, but it went up into the 30s for a couple of them. They’d been through a lot of treatment. They’d been through a lot of depression. The depression went for a long period of time and so they were understandably skeptical. They didn’t want to be sold on something. People even said, “Oh, this is the wonderful cure,” and then that didn’t work. Then somebody said, “Well, this is the wonderful cure.” Then that didn’t work and so they didn’t need somebody else doing that. The longer somebody’s been in mental health, the less susceptible they are to cheerleading and cheerleading for clients like that, where you’re saying, “Oh, look, here’s the research. I’ll show you this article that proves that cognitive behavior therapy works brilliantly, blah, blah, blah,” it tends not to work very well.
We had to find some way of getting around that skepticism and we wanted to do it right off the bat in session one. I knew that trying to indoctrinate them in the wonders of CBT wasn’t going to work, so I thought let’s try something a little bit different. I’ve always found that one way of enhancing clients’ receptivity and having people actually remember what you do between sessions is, in effect, to act strangely because people will then say, “You’d never believe what this weirdo I saw just did.”
Anyway, so I would, say, point to the middle of the table because we met around a large table and said, “I imagine most of you have noticed the $10 million sitting there,” which, of course, there wasn’t $10 million sitting there. “Imagine that you could win all of that money by making yourself feel even worse than you do right now. Maybe tomorrow, maybe between 11:00 and 11:30, for just half an hour, if you can make yourself feel worse than you do now, you get the money. How would you do that? What are the strategies that you would use to affect your mood, to change your mood, in a negative direction?” That people could buy into. They thought it was a bit weird, but they could at least do it.
I would go around the room because at that point, we were still in session one, so we wanted everybody to talk. You need to break the ice. Then I threw it open and people began talking over each other. They began coming up with different ideas and I was writing all of these on the board. The main stopper of this thing was that I couldn’t actually write these things down fast enough, listened to country music, heard new songs, all kinds of stuff people would come up with and they would begin to laugh, which was very strange because we don’t share a lot of laughter in a building that has 4 psychiatric wards in it.
They got into it, which was lovely and it probably would’ve been good enough just for that, enough that we got them to laugh, but there were 2 elements, in effect, really, that they got out of it. One is that they realized they did have at least a little bit of control over their mood. They could make it worse if they wanted to. That’s not usually useful, but if you do have that little bit of control, maybe you could get a little bit more, so it cracks open that possibility.
The second thing that people got out of it is they realized something. Wait a minute, I’m already doing some of the things on this list. I’m already binge eating ice cream. I’m already avoiding all exercise. I’m already isolating. I’m already closing the curtains and sitting in the dark. I’m already doing these things and so they began to recognize that possibly change wouldn’t involve taking on anything brand new that they’d never done before. Change might just mean stopping what they were already doing, at least in part.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was interesting because, like you said, that second part. A lot of the things that people were … The reason why they were miserable, they were already doing those things. You talk about in the book that it’s bizarre that not just individuals with severe mood problems, like severe depression or anxiety that requires them to be in a hospital, but just everyone, human beings are really good at making themselves feel miserable. Despite living in one of the safest, most affluent times in human history, why are we so good at making ourselves feel terrible and miserable?
Randy Paterson: Partly I think it’s the timeline that we look at. If we look at okay, I want to feel really good and I want to have a good life and I want to be doing well a year from now, I know what to do. I know what to eat. I know where to go. I know that I need to build up my social network. I know I need to clean out that garage. Exercising would be a good idea, that kind of thing.
If I’m particularly stressed out and I’m feeling overwhelmed by my life, my time horizon is yanked inward. I begin thinking things like oh, my gosh. I just need to get through today. The heck with tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will take that when it comes. Right now, I just need to get through today and if that means watching 3 hours of television, then I will do that. I do not have the energy to get myself out exercising or to plan this stuff for next week. I just want to do this. What often makes us happy in the short term or, at least, slightly less miserable in the short term, is what makes us more miserable in the long term. As our mood declines, our horizon tends to come in. We start making short-term decisions even more.
I think there’s another fact and that is our society encourages us to make these choices. Our society encourages us to be very competitive. Our society plants fast food places all around us that serve very, very, very flavorful, but not very nutritious food. We have cars and parking lots everywhere. We have valet parking in front of any restaurant that you might want to go to. I’ve actually used valet parking, but it’s an example. All of these things enable us to get absolutely no exercise. We’re very much like a children’s movie that came out a few years ago, WALL-E, where all of the population was essentially in mobile daybeds that allowed them to avoid all exercise. This is actually not good for us. This is not how we developed as a species to be able to cope. We’re designed for movement, so a lot of the elements of the design of our culture encourage us into a lifestyle of passivity, bad food, isolation, and so on that just wind up making us more miserable.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that’s interesting point. Oftentimes, individuals who are in a funk or who are suffering severe depression, they know the thing they need to do to not be miserable, but instead, there’s that tendency, like you said, because the time frame collapses. They just want to do what makes them feel good now. They do the thing that keeps making them feel terrible.
Randy Paterson: Yeah, and very hard to resist. One of the things that people often think is okay, there are really only 2 paths here. There’s eat the rest of the chocolate chip cookies or start an exercise program where I’m doing it 6 times a week and eat properly and eat a nutritious meal 3 times a day and do this and do that and do that. They think I do not have the energy for this revolution in my life. Maybe I’ll have it someday, but I certainly don’t have it now, so I guess the only other path for me is to give in, almost. What we try to do in therapy is kill the revolution, in effect. My life goes get rid of that or forget that. We’re just going to work incrementally.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Is that the key of killing that revolution is just being incremental about it, not trying to get drastic changes extremely fast because I think that’s what people want. They want the magic bullet that will make them feel better right now.
Randy Paterson: Yeah. If you go to the self-help bookshelves, for example, it’s basically the shelves of magic bullets and the revolutions just can’t not work very well. What we need to do is say, “Okay, forget getting to the end of the trail. Let’s see what’s one step down the trail.” If you can work that way, you begin setting up a bit of a positive spiral. You exercise a little and it gives you gram more energy, just insignificant, not very much, but it enables you to do one more thing. Frankly, that if you can sleep just 10 minutes more, which is not very great, but that little bit more sleep gives you just a little bit more focus at work, almost undetectable, but that enables you to feel just a little bit more positive about your life. That may give you the energy to say, “Well, maybe I’ll go exercise one more time and maybe walk another block,” and so on. That spiral effect begins working in a positive direction rather than the negative direction.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the strategies that people use to make themselves miserable and some folks who are listening are probably using some of these strategies. The first section of your book discusses lifestyle habits. You mentioned a few already, poor eating, lack of exercise, but are there any other lifestyle habits that people use or have adopted that make themselves feel miserable?
Randy Paterson: Yeah, there are a number in the book and I suspect I haven’t exhausted the list. One of them is maximizing your screen time. There are reasonable surveys now about the number of hours that people spend planted in front of a television set or surfing the internet or playing video games. It’s a mammoth proportion of a person’s waking hours. I once did the math on this. If you’re a smoker, we all know the 90-year-old who’s been smoking since he was 10 and no negative effects, but on average, if you’re a smoker starting in your teen years, I think the figure is, on average, you can expect to lose about 7 years of your life.
If you look at the waking hours, the proportion of waking hours that people spend just sitting passively receiving entertainment or surfing randomly on the internet, we’re talking about a reduction of possibly 20 years of your lifespan. Not that you’ll die 20 years earlier, but 20 years of your life will be occupied doing that instead of the things that actually sustain you, the things you’ll be glad to have done once you wind up on your deathbed, look back, so maximizing screen time is definitely one of those strategies and minimizing social life, which frankly, those two go together. Those are two …
Brett McKay: Right. It seems like the screen time is double whammy. It hits a lot of other … Keeps you sedentary, keeps you isolated, but solitude in moderation is actually good for you, which you talk about in your book. Then also you talk about just you’re constantly looking for information. As you mention in your book, our brain is really keyed to negative information and so you probably spend a lot of your time surfing the web looking at horrible stories that might not really affect you personally. I don’t know. There’s nothing you can do with that information, but you’re keyed in on looking for that.
Randy Paterson: Right. We spend an awful lot of time trying to find out about the latest disaster that happened a continent away and looking for the video of it and so on. If we really step back, we justify it by saying, “Well, I should be informed. If I’m going to donate money, I need to know what’s actually happened,” but do we really need to see that video the seventeenth time. There’s something in our brain that makes us want to do that and you can see it, of course, as you’re driving in any car accident. Virtually everybody slows down and we’re all very observant and we’re all very critical of those people. Oh, they slow down. They just want to see the gore and the accident. In fact, we’re wired for that. We’re wired to look at the bad stuff and the internet is a lovely source of it and 24-hour news channels, as well.
Brett McKay: Going back to that screen time, one interesting thing you mentioned in the book is that I always assumed that screen time is the same. People are surfing the internet more, so they’re replacing television with surfing time on the computer, but you show statistics that people are actually no, they’re still watching the same amount of TV as they were a few year ago, but they’re just adding on computer time to that.
Randy Paterson: Yes. That’s even when you consider the television that’s being transferred to the computer, so if you’re watching a streaming service, for example, some television show on a streaming service, and consider that, score that, if you like, as television, the additional time that you spend randomly surfing is actually eating away the rest of the time, so eating away mealtimes. It’s eating away social life and so on. It’s not eating away the television programming.
Brett McKay: I thought this was a really interesting section in your book. One of the ways you can make yourself miserable is setting what you call VAPID goals. I think people have heard of SMART goals. They’re specific, measurable, attainable, or achievable. I forget what the R means.
Randy Paterson: Realistic, usually.
Brett McKay: Realistic and have a time frame. How do VAPID goals differ from SMART goals?
Randy Paterson: I essentially just took the SMART goals and flipped them on their head. It sounds faintly ridiculous, but in fact, the VAPID goals are what we often set if we’re not thinking about it. V for vague, in other words, you have no idea how you’re going to do this. You set a goal of accomplishing something, but you’re not entirely sure how you’re going to do it, usually, especially if you’re not feeling that great. That’ll stop you.
Amorphous so that there’s no finish line. There’s no sense of achievement. One of the reasons that small goals are a good thing to set, small and achievable goals, is that you catch yourself passing finish lines. It’s like okay, the entire house is not clean, but that closet is now cleaned out. That’s done. That done feeling you never get if the goals are amorphous. Pie in the sky, so you want them to be too ambitious. I haven’t been exercising and following up. Maybe I’ve been sitting around watching a lot of television or surfing the internet and my goal is to go in the marathon next month. Guess what? That’s never going to happen. That’s a recipe for failure.
Irrelevant, so we’ll try things that are not really serving us in terms of our ultimate goals. We’ll try and find out everything that we can on some arcane topic rather than actually targeting things that are really going to serve us. For time defined, we switched it to delayed. In other words, I will do it later or, and especially the real killer, I’ll do it when I feel like it. Because I never feel like it, it ain’t never going to get done.
Brett McKay: Right. I could see how yeah, particularly if you’re in a funk, the temptation would be to set VAPID goals. People who set VAPID goals, they feel like they’re doing something, right, because I’m setting goals.
Randy Paterson: I am setting goals, get in shape, eat well, better, see more people. Never seems to work out, though.
Brett McKay: Right. Before we continue on, I think this is an important question to ask. What is the opposite of miserable because like you said, the self-help books, they sell this magic bullet mentality and that if you do these things, you’re going to be happy and just joyful all the time and feel, I don’t know, just glad to be alive and everything. What are we aiming for when we’re not trying to be miserable?
Randy Paterson: I think what we’re aiming for is a diverse appreciation of all aspects of human experience, which is not as satisfying a sounding thing as saying that what we’re after is happiness 24 hours a day. One of the points that I make in the book is that we are equipped with all kinds of emotions. We’re equipped with sadness, with anxiety, with happiness, with joy, with love, with disappointment, fear, all of these emotions. They’re essentially a behavioral guidance system. They’re all there for a purpose and so this idea that, to some extent, psychology is on the hook for, that we’ve been promoting this idea that yeah, you should be happy 24 hours a day. Partly what that’s doing is that’s setting the bar so high, unrealistically high, that if you’re not doing that, you feel like you failed, so to some extent try and be happy all the time is serving the goal of being more miserable because you feel like you’re a complete failure.
We’ve also been saying that if you’re not pretty much unrelentingly happy there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you have a disorder of some kind and you should be swallowing a pill of some kind. I think what we’re after instead is yes, being anxious, yes, being fearful at times, yes, feeling sad and able to tolerate a sad morning and say, “Yeah, but I’m still going to go do the thing that I planned anyway. I don’t feel that enthusiastic at the moment,” that kind of thing, to be able to keep going. I think the more accepting we are of negative emotional states, the less severe they are the more the positive emotional states come in.
Brett McKay: Sartre, the existential novelist-philosopher, he famously said, “Hell is other people.” What do miserable people do differently from not miserable people when it comes to dealing with other people out there, so other people aren’t hell for them?
Randy Paterson: Yeah. If you’re feeling lousy, the lousier you feel, the more likely you are to have a motivational shift away from hey, wouldn’t it be fun to go out with those friends tonight toward a tendency to isolate. Some people go the other way, but generally speaking, it’s a tendency to isolate. The more you isolate, the more you begin to become a little bit suspicious about what are they thinking about me? Do they think that I’m an interesting person? Maybe not. Maybe I should isolate. Maybe I’m actually doing them a favor by isolating, that kind of thing. They tend to move inward. I keep saying they. I would say we. I’m trying to divide this away from the clinically depressed people. As we get more miserable, we’re more likely to have a tendency to isolate.
What about when we’re around other people? One of the things that we might do is downward comparisons, which are very subtle, but they’re amazing and most of us do it to at least some degree. The example that I give in the book is you go to a party and you look around and you find the one person who’s really brilliantly dressed. You haven’t talked to them. You don’t know anything about them. They’re really great dressers, let’s say. Then you look down at what you put on, very proudly at your own place, and you realize oh, yeah, okay. I’m not as well-dressed as they are. What you’re doing is you’re comparing yourself to that one outlier. Then you listen to this one person talking about this amazing achievement they had and then you look at yourself and you think oh, I haven’t done that. You ignore the fact that B, there’s anybody else at the party.
You go through the party. You’re looking for people who are outliers, the extremes, on the positive end, and we compare ourselves downward against those people ignoring all of the others. Then we switch to another person who’s an outlier on another characteristic and so what we wind up doing is feeling uglier, dowdier, stupider, less socially fluent. We can find ourselves feeling negative about every possible social characteristic, so downward comparisons are a really interesting thing that we tend to do. I suspect that there’s probably the odd person who doesn’t do them. I just have never met them.
Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about in the book that makes people miserable is not setting boundaries. Your previous book that I’m a big fan of, and we actually referenced in an article I wrote a few years ago, is The Assertiveness Workbook. It explores this whole idea of boundary setting. I think this is a big problem for a lot of people. I think we often think of assertiveness as, I don’t know, I remember the trope from the ’80s and ’90s where businesswomen would take assertiveness training so they could make it in the man’s world of business, whatever. I imagine it’s a problem for men, as well. Before we delve into how to set boundaries and be more assertive, can you describe what is the difference between assertiveness and being aggressive?
Randy Paterson: In that book, I use a stage metaphor. If you’re being aggressive, it’s like you’re allowed to be on the stage and your mission is essentially to push everybody else off and everybody else has to, in effect, be your audience. Another way of putting it is my way or the highway. A lot of people imagine that’s what assertiveness is all about. Assertiveness is about getting your own way. Actually, that’s more the aggressive posture and it works. If you’re really pushy, you can pretty much get your own way once, but then people don’t show up for the follow up. They’ll show up more than once, they start drifting away to the exits. Assertiveness is more about an equality between you and other people. You count, so do they. The metaphor is that everybody is allowed up on stage.
The third major style is the passive style where you appoint yourself audience to the world and everybody else gets to call the shots and you don’t. The passive and aggressive style is doing about the behavior that’s engaged and the passivity is really avoidance, particularly of conflict. Aggression is really about a kind of fight, usually a verbal fight or a verbal trying to establish dominance over someone else. If you think about those words, fight and flight, they’re both related to the stress response, so both of them are associated with an activation of the stress response.
Assertiveness is, generally speaking, a little bit more calm. You’re more relaxed. You’re more open. It’s about you and the other person coming to some mutual goal. Sometimes, if you’re the boss or if you really need something, you might push the quiet, but it’s not necessarily the bulldozing your way through the crowd, which people often imagine is what assertiveness is all about.
Brett McKay: What are the biggest barriers that keep people from taking a more assertive approach? I guess I think some men might have a problem with the aggressive approach, but I think there’s a lot of people who are maybe either used to taking more passive approach. What keeps them from meeting people on equal footing and trying to work something out instead of just going along with what everyone else wants?
Randy Paterson: Part of it is it depends on which style you’re more prone to using. If you’re more on the passive side, often one of the big barriers for you is a fear of conflict. If I try and push my point, if I say, “Actually, I disagree with what the committee is doing right now,” or whatever, I’m going to get attacked and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to handle the attack. I’d be able to say it once, but if somebody comes back at me and argues against my position, I’m just going to completely lose it. Either I’ll be horribly humiliated or I just won’t be able to justify my position.
If you’re more aggressive, the theory is okay, if I tone down the aggression and then I stop all these dominance postures with these people, I’m not going to get my way and everything’s going to go astray. There’s not enough strength in my argument. There’s not enough strength in my point to actually carry the day. The only way I’m going to do this is by forcing people. Also, I’m a boss. It might be the only way I get things done around here is by lighting a fire under people. Those people often are not looking at their turnover rates, I’d expect. That’s one thing is a fear that assertiveness simply will not work one way or another.
Another is your own history. People are used to you. They’re used to you being a certain way. When you change, they’re often thinking what’s going on? Why are you like that? If you’ve always been the person to say, “Oh, no, any restaurant is absolutely fine with me, whatever you would like,” and one day, you suddenly say, “Well, actually, I’d like to go to a Greek restaurant,” people will be thinking oh, my gosh. You must be furious, like what must it have taken for this person, whose role in life is to go along, to actually start standing up? Maybe he or she is feeling hugely resentful and they make a big deal out of it. You also may not pay attention because they’re just used to you going along. Okay. You said a Greek restaurant. Big deal, right. I know I can get my own way, so I’ll just bulldoze over you and ignore the fact that you even said a Greek restaurant. That’s part of it. That’s the history problem.
Gender is another one. Women genuinely do have more difficulty with this. Take a political battle, such as a presidential primary race. A male who says something in a certain tone might be regarded as strong, decisive, or firm. A woman who used exactly the same tone will be dismissed as shrill. Women often find it much more difficult and that the amount of skill required is greater. It shouldn’t be, but often, it is, so that’s one.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The way you describe it in The Assertiveness Workbook, it sounds like assertiveness is a skill. It’s not a mindset. It’s more of a skill that you practice and develop. Is that correct?
Randy Paterson: Yeah. I found that there’s people who are saying, “Oh, yeah, I’m just not the assertive type.” I point out that it’s a little bit like saying you’re not the driving type. Sure, maybe you don’t want to be Formula One driver, but you could probably still learn to drive. It is a set of skills. It’s not a personality.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s interesting, too. I remember I interviewed another guest. He talked about he had a friend who’s this champion boxer, big, bulking guy, just demolish people, but this guy was afraid of confronting his gardener, who was overcharging him. You think wow, you pummel people in the ring, but you can’t just say, “Hey, I think you’re overcharging me.” It sounds like he needed to practice in that area of being assertive. You might be assertive in … I think it’s even possible to be assertive in some aspects of your life, but not in others, correct?
Randy Paterson: Yeah. As a matter of fact, that’s a great thing to do in therapy. If I can find an area of a person’s life where they’re actually already mastering and using certain skills like assertiveness and try and get them to, in effect, channel themselves in this other area of their life, in your marriage, with your son, that kind of thing … Sometimes, it doesn’t transfer very well. If you’re a cop and bringing home your cop style to your family, it’s not necessarily always the greatest idea. If you’ve got the skill in one area of your life, often, you can figure out how can I access that part of myself in another.
Brett McKay: Right. The end of your book, your latest book, How to Be Miserable, we talked about this a bit, that pursuing happiness and self-improvement can actually backfire and make us miserable. If that’s the case, what approach do we take with our lives? We want to improve. We want to get better, but how do we do that without it hamstringing us to actually reaching the goal we want?
Randy Paterson: I guess I would go to something that I often go to that feels vaguely unsatisfying, which is the middle path, the mushy middle, that fine, it’s okay for us to be doing a little bit of work on ourselves. I, for example, my avocational period, I’m growing peaches. Okay, so I’m not very good at it, frankly. Okay, I can read books and try and get better at that. If you’re just spending your entire life trying to improve yourself, in effect making up for a deep perception of inner faultiness, then you’re never actually getting to the point of living your life.
I see a lot of people that the only thing they ever read is self-help. The only thing that they watch is inspirational video and that kind of thing with the idea that I’m going to better myself. I often ask a person like that what would you do if you’re already good enough? Let’s accept, for the moment, just for the sake of argument, this idea that you have deeply, deeply felt that you are not good enough. Fair enough.
What if you were? What would you be doing then? What would you read? What would you be doing? Where would you go if it wasn’t about curing yourself or something? At that point, I can say, “What if we were to leapfrog the problem and say what if you were just to pretend you were good enough. Let’s not even argue the point. Let’s just try and pretend you’re good enough and read Dickens, put away the self-help or read the murder mysteries that you like at least some of the time, even though you’re not good enough. What would happen, possibly, if that perception of being good enough would begin to seep in?” It’s not that we would give up on self-improvement. It’s that we would begin to actually live our lives. That’s what it’s for. That’s what the self-improvement is for.
Brett McKay: Right. I love that approach because I think the weird thing is is that by doing the things you would’ve done if you were good enough, you’re probably naturally going to do things that are going to improve your lot in life, so you can do those things that you enjoy or you would do if you were good enough.
Randy Paterson: Yeah. I think that there’s a part of our brain that’s planted in there and doesn’t really know what’s going on. It’s almost like there’s a martian in our head going, “I don’t know who this person is or how I got here, but let’s try and figure things out.” It watches what we’re doing and if all that we’re doing is improving ourselves and going to this therapy and that therapy and I’m reading these self-help books and I’m trying to make up for all of my flaws and errors and things like that, the martian inside is going, “Hmm, this guy’s spending an awful lot of time doing this. He must be terrible.” We begin reinforcing that sense of faultiness by trying to overcome our sense of faultiness. To some degree, spending at least some of our time pretending that we’re good enough and saying, “Right, what would you do then,” in effect leapfrogging the problem, can actually help you.
Brett McKay: Randy, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about How to Be Miserable and your other work?
Randy Paterson: The book is discussed at Goodreads and is available online, but I’ve also got a lot of other stuff at my website, which is randypaterson, all one word, dot com. Paterson, annoyingly, for my entire life, is spelled with one T and eventually we’ll find it. There I have online courses, information about my books, my talks, that kind of thing.
Brett McKay: Great. Randy Paterson, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Randy Paterson: Very much a pleasure talking with you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Randy Paterson. He’s the author of the book How to Be Miserable. You can find that on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about Randy’s work at randypaterson.com.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show and have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. Help spread the word about the show. As always, I appreciate your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: February 22, 2018