I don’t know how I missed it, but Cloe Madanes’s article about the art of misery is an instant classic.
The article is long, detailed and positively brilliant. I cannot summarize it adequately, but Madanes begins with the idea that some people might actually want to make themselves miserable. Or better, that some people have cultivated and mastered habits that are guaranteed to produce misery.
For my part, I cannot help but see that these habits coincide perfectly with Freudian psychoanalysis, at least, with the French and Argentinian versions of same.
We assume, Madanes says, that everyone is seeking happiness or at the least some form of contentment. But then, she continues, we discover that some people seem to be hard at work at making themselves miserable. Perhaps they do not think of it this way.
They might be so unconscious that they do not even know that they are following a set of rules. Nevertheless, their behavior is so perfectly comprised by Madanes’s rules, that the conclusion is inescapable.
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.
If everyone is pursing happiness and you are pursuing misery, you become distinctly and uniquely individual. You become one of a kind. You might be attracting the wrong kind of attention but you will be attracting attention.
Some people will hold you up as an example of what not to do, but they will be talking about you. They will be interested. They will be concerned. They might even want to help. Unless they become so fed up that they tune out.
Madanes excludes the more obvious ways of making yourself miserable: like drugs and crime. She is too sensitive to say it, but people who use drugs and who commit crimes are not working to make themselves miserable: they are seeking a semi-permanent state of bliss.
To perfect the art of misery you need to make it appear that you are not seeking it:
Subtler strategies, ones that won’t lead anyone to suspect that you’re acting deliberately, can be highly effective. But you need to pretend that you want to be happy, like everybody else, or people won’t take your misery seriously. The real art is to behave in ways that’ll bring on misery while allowing you to claim that you’re an innocent victim, ideally of the very people from whom you’re forcibly extracting compassion and pity.
Naturally, you will be sharing the pain. Misery loves company, so it begins by alienating those near and dear to you.
It’s inevitable that as you make yourself miserable, you’ll be making those around you miserable also, at least until they leave you—which will give you another reason to feel miserable. So it’s important to keep in mind the benefits you’re accruing in your misery.
She lists some of the advantages that accrue to those who make themselves miserable.
First, everyone around you will feel sorry for you. Better yet, some people might feel guilty about your condition, as though they were responsible. If they do, you will have helped make someone else miserable.
Second, if you never expect that anything good will happen to you, you will never be disappointed. A fair point, we all agree.
Third, and perhaps most importantly in some circles— I know them well— misery will make you feel morally and intellectually superior to those who are happy.
Madanes describes this character type accurately:
Being miserable can give the impression that you’re a wise and worldly person, especially if you’re miserable not just about your life, but about society in general. You can project an aura of someone burdened by a form of profound, tragic, existential knowledge that happy, shallow people can’t possibly appreciate.
I cannot, in the short space of a blog post, summarize all the habits that Madanes suggests, but here are a few.
Surely, fear of loss, especially fear of financial loss must top the list. If you are contented with what you have, you might feel good about yourself. So, go out and focus on what you can lose.
Or, as Janis Joplin once sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
It helps if you can perfect the art of wasting time, of feeling useless. Television and some social media are at the ready to help you out here. The less you accomplish the more miserable you will feel.
And then, give yourself a negative identity. Madanes explains how you can cultivate this habit:
If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder. Make your condition the focus of your life. Talk about it to everybody, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly. Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it’ll interfere with regular activities and relationships. Focus on how depressed you are and become weepy, if that’s your identity of choice. Refuse to go places or try new things because they make you too anxious. Work yourself into panic attacks in places it’ll cause the most commotion. It’s important to show that you don’t enjoy these states or behaviors, but that there’s nothing you can do to prevent them.
To advance your cause, you should learn how to mistreat other people. The more people you can alienate the more you will feel rejected.
So, you want to take every opportunity to fight and bicker. You want to criticize people mercilessly for their faults, real and imagined. And you must also think the worst of everyone by impugning their motives. And you want to perfect the art of whining and complaining. It also helps to be late for appointments, to fail to return messages and to be rude to those you come into contact with.
If you succeed, you can feel that you have good reason to be an ingrate and to care only about yourself.
If you should be involved in a romantic relationship, do not be satisfied with your lover as he or she is. Set out to change him or her.
Naturally, it helps to blame other people for everything that has ever gone wrong. Start by blaming your parents; surely, you had a miserably upbringing. Now, that makes you feel worse already.
It is also good to withdraw into your mind and introspect:
Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself. Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems. This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence. The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.
When you introspect, you must focus on the past. You can tell yourself that your past has been filled with insurmountable and crippling traumas. Or else, you can believe that it was so wonderful that you will never see its like. Either way, obsessing about the past is a good way to make yourself miserable.
If this list does not remind you of Freudian psychoanalysis, you have, as Lacan used to say, completely misread Freud.