x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Tired of self-help drivel? Seven simple steps to misery

You don't need an Oprah to achieve lasting unhappiness. Step this way.

Popular psychology has spawned a whole industry devoted to the pseudoscientific directives of self-professed soul doctors. The self-help industry, as it's become known, churns out best-seller after best-seller with whimsical titles such as Everywhere I go there I am and Love you - love me more.

The industry has grown to become the precocious plaything of daytime TV, with impresarios like Oprah Winfrey leveraging the promise of a "better life" to boost ratings. There are undoubtedly some pearls of wisdom among all the pulp therapy, but with so much dross it's hard to divine any real value. So, as a counterweight to the burgeoning self-help industry, I've decided to start a self-hindrance movement. This is a genre dedicated to advising people on how to achieve enduring sorrow, anxiety and existential dissatisfaction.

Just like the self-help racket, the new genre favours the reassuringly simplistic step-by-step format.

One: Upward social comparisons To achieve lasting unhappiness, you should only ever compare yourself to people who appear more fortunate, people possessing more of the qualities or material things you desire.

For example, if you start feeling a little gleeful about recent weight loss, you should immediately compare yourself to a thinner friend, or an airbrushed Aphrodite from a glossy magazine.

Two: Amplification through overgeneralisation When something upsets you, overgeneralisation can help you prolong and intensify those negative feelings. For example, if a colleague fails to say hi, don't simply think: "He or she dislikes me." Overgeneralise this thought to something like: "Nobody likes me, nor is anybody ever likely to."

Overgeneralisation leads to mood amplification, and can really help you make bad situations worse, or at least help make them last a little longer.

Three: External attributions for positive events Whenever anything good happens, you should always attribute the positive experience to some quality, or deficiency, in another person. For example, if you get an A-plus on an exam, don't think: "I'm so smart."

Try to think about how the examiner has probably made a mistake grading the paper, or intentionally made the exam easy based on his or her estimate of your intelligence.

Similarly, if somebody compliments you on your appearance, you should train your mind to think: "This person has bad taste, an ulterior motive or is legally blind."

Four: Internal attributions for negative events When bad things happen, never play the blame game. There's only one person ever at fault for the negative events in your life, and that's you. If your relationship breaks up, it's because of how you are; your partner is faultless and probably much better off without you. If an acquaintance fails to return your calls it's not because they're busy, or their battery died. It's because you're such a poor conversationalist.

Five: Catastrophise When it looks like bad things might happen, or even if there's just a remote chance things could go wrong, always try to visualise the worst possible outcome and consequences. People who master this technique are able to live in a near-perpetual state of dread.

Six: Experiential avoidance Your motto should always be: "If I might enjoy it, I should avoid it." Even if there's only a remote chance you might enjoy or benefit from an experience, you should always avoid it. For example, if running a marathon might make you feel like you've accomplished something, steer clear. Social withdrawal, inactivity and the avoidance of pleasurable experiences are all keys to lasting unhappiness.

Seven: Ruminate, don't problem solve The easiest way to prolong and intensify any negative mood is to ruminate. This involves relentlessly reminding yourself just how bad you feel, how you're not the person you used to be, and how nothing ever seems to go right for you. Be careful that your rumination doesn't turn into problem-solving. Don't try to analyse the situation for solutions, or to see what you might learn from negative experience.

These are the seven simple steps of self-hindrance for a truly miserable life. Follow them closely. Failure to inculcate these habits-of-mind is likely to result in enduring happiness, optimism and resilience. In some cases, it may even lead to a serious psychological wellness.


Justin Thomas is professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi