“Imagine that you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work,” psychologist Randy J. Paterson proposed to a group of people suffering deep, intractable depression. “… All you would have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now…How would you do it?”

The conceit of How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use is to take everything we know about being happy and turn it on its head. It’s a guide to unhappy living. Paterson’s advice starts basic — we are
encouraged to be sedentary and eat poorly, to overspend — but quickly digs deeper into happiness research to provide step-by-step cognition instructions for unhappiness.

For example, he suggests that you imagine requiring a dozen random people to live life exactly as you have been living it: same eating, sleep and exercise patterns, same social connections, same job, family and finances… and then imagine checking back in with them in a month to see how they’ve been feeling. Chances are, if you’re an unhappy person, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine those who have taken on your unhappiness-enhancing habits living a similarly miserable life.

Lesson 10 suggests setting VAPID goals: Vague, Amorphous, Pie in the sky, Irrelevant and Delayed. And Lesson 20 advises you to “Work Endlessly on Your Self-Esteem”:

“… people with good self-esteem are not constantly evaluating themselves. It’s the ones without it who do this. Our culture tells us that having self-esteem is an active process of building ourselves up. It isn’t. Cats, three-year-olds, and adults with good self-esteem aren’t doing much of anything—they’re focused on the task at hand.”

He prescribes placing fashion over style, since fashion is dictated to you and style is self-expression. And he suggests becoming a “Toxic Optimist” so that your optimism will blind you to reality with “Probability inflation” (assuming something will happen because you want it), “Selective attention” (seeing only what supports your goal), and “Elevated expectations” that cause you to live according to the assumption that your goal will be met — which means that when they are, it will be no big deal, and when they aren’t, it’s an unexpected and therefore crushing blow.

Vancouver-based Paterson, whose previous books include Assertiveness Workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships, writes with a friendly tone and easygoing Canadian humor. Short chapters are densely packed and Paterson does have a somewhat academic writing style, so although the book is short and light in tone, it’s not exactly breezy.

How to Be Miserable is a bathroom or nightstand book in the way Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is: the kind of book you leave around to flip open from time to time and see what strikes a chord. We’re all guilty of some (most?) of the things in the book sometimes, and Paterson successfully explains the cognitive tricks we play on ourselves, then provides step-by-step instructions for tapping maximum misery from each one.

How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use
New Harbinger Publications, May 1, 2016
Paperback, 232 pages

Book Reviewed by Sophia Dembling