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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tabulating Comments to “7 Ways to Maximize Misery”

In June 2017 CGP Grey, a YouTube star known for excellent explanatory videos, released a 7-minute video based on my book How to be Miserable.

This week it has reached 3 million views, with 148,000 likes and 12,829 comments. I have been monitoring the comments and decided to mark the 3m mark by tabulating and categorizing a sample of these – an exercise that seems quite revealing.

First, though, here’s the link to the video in case you haven’t seen it.

Grey doesn’t cover everything in the book. As the title suggests, he selects seven strategies: avoid going outside or exercising, randomize your sleep schedule, maximize your screen time, focus on the negative, set VAPID goals, make 100% happiness your aim, and follow your (often-faulty) instincts.

As you might expect, the comments range all over the map. People are free to say anything they like, and they aren’t given a suggestion along the lines of “Which of the following statements best describes your reaction…” which would make it easy to do a numerical tabulation.

Instead, I’ve had to create categories of replies based on a subsample, then make judgment calls about which category a particular reply seems to fit. Another rater might create different categories and wind up with somewhat different results. It’s also possible that I have misinterpreted the intent or meaning of some comments, placing them in the wrong category. But here we go anyway.

First I clicked on “Sort by” and selected “Newest First” to get a sequence of comments not biased by popularity, as might be the case with the default “Top Comments” listing. Then I examined all comments in sequence, starting from the newest (as of October 28 2017), until I felt I had enough to constitute a good sample. My goal was 200, but it turns out I had gone overboard: there were 472 sequential comments in the sample.

What got me going on this little project was noticing that many of the comments were of the “This describes my life” variety, suggesting that many viewers see themselves in the lifestyle Grey outlines. This is, perhaps, not surprising: people who spend a great deal of time indoors and online are most likely over-represented in viewers of YouTube videos.

So what actually turns out to be the #1 category?

Well, I was right.

1. “I do these / live this life / do 5 of the 7 / and so on.” 257 replies, 54.4% of the comments. This category involves a fair bit of interpretation on my part, and could easily be subdivided or argued about. Some replies are obvious: “I’m doing all of these.” “My life.” “This describes my life perfectly step-by-step.” But I also included here many comments that strongly suggest recognition, and some may think I’m being overinclusive. The equivalent of “Well, poop” (in all its many forms) I took to be a form of recognition. Others: “Me.” “Why is this so relatable?” “No wonder I’m a pile of sadness.” “This hit hard.” “This is literally all I do, I really gotta change.” “Well crap. I haven’t left my house in 3 days.” “I’ve just watched a 7 minute description of my life.” “I’m putting tape over my laptop cam right now.”

No other category managed to account for over 10% of replies. In order, here are the others:

2. “This helps me / thank you for this.” 8.1%, 38 replies. Most of my inclusions here are pretty straightforward. “Honestly, this helped me more than tips on how to be happy. Like, knowing what NOT to do helps more than knowing what to do.” “Thanks for the tips.” “Hopefully if I figure out how to not do these things, maybe things will change.” “You made me realize why I’m feeling so miserable lately … Cheers man, I hope you keep this up.” “I’m inspired to clean the house today.” “This video was a massive wakeup call.” “I accidentally come across the most helpful video I’ve ever seen … scary how most of this applies to me and I really need to improve my life right now.” “I saw this video late August. I’ve been lifting 6 days a week since, started college, and I’ve lost 20 pounds. Reverse psychology is some powerful stuff.”

3. “I like this.” 6.4%, 30 replies. “Best sarcastic movie ever.” “Finally! A video for me.” “This may be the best video ever made.” “Awesome video.” “I love this so much.” “God I hate/love this video.”

4. An incomprehensible reply. 6.1%, 29 replies. Vague references to other material, abbreviations that I can’t make out even with google searches, “uhhh,” and so on. Some people more plugged into online culture might be able to make some of these out. “This (insert error) was this video for?”

5. “I do much of this but still feel okay.” 4.7%, 22 replies. An ongoing theme has been recognition of the lifestyle followed by saying that their mood remains fine – i.e., this is not really the road to misery. “Somehow this seems like my road to happiness.” “Dude I’m all of these and yet I’d consider myself reasonably happy.” “Uh, I am already doing all of these and still haven’t felt as miserable as I was in high school. You’re a fraud.” Some of these comments seemed to have a defensive quality, but I may be reading that in based on my own biases.

6. Sarcasm of some sort toward Grey or the video itself. 4.4%, 21 replies. Many of the “Instructions unclear, did X” type of meme – essentially an Internet version of a knock-knock joke. “Instructions unclear, built a boat.” “Implies Grey plays football. Lmao.” “Would be funnier if the voice wasn’t so sarcastic.”

7. Helpfully stating the point of the video in case anyone missed it. 3.2%, 15 replies. “Reverse psychology at its finest.”

8. Criticism of the ideas in the video. 2.3%, 11 replies. “Go to school to be sad forever.” “Some of these could be in a video called ‘how to get rich.’” “Judging by the rest of the comments [this video] only makes people feel miserable … I would say these 7 ways are invalid, and there is only 1 way, which would be to watch this video, which shames people …”

9/10 (tie). “This video makes people sad.” 2.1%, 10 replies. These comments are from people who didn’t spot the irony or reverse message, believing instead that the intent really is to promote misery. “It encourages being sad. It giving a very wrong message.” “Why would you encourage this? I expected better from you.”

9/10 (tie). A note regarding a small bit of the content. 2.1%, 10 replies. “Don’t do overtime if it affects your sleep.” “Save the whales by saddest saddo.”

11. Additional ways to be miserable not covered in the video. 1.9%, 9 replies. “He forgot to mention alcohol – what a loser!” “Step 1: get meth.”

12. “Watching this is part of how to be miserable.” 1.3%, 6 replies. “I’m actually doing it now.” “So be a youtuber?”

Plus 8 more categories, each with 3 replies (0.6%) or less.

What can we conclude from all this? 
  1. Grey seems to have done a good job of appealing to people and creating an enjoyable video (148k likes, 3k dislikes).
  2. Most people could see the irony in the approach and seemed to appreciate the humour. 
  3. A surprising number of people seem to live the life described and can see that this might be having a negative impact on their mood – though many find changing old habits extremely difficult. 
  4. A small number see themselves in the description but report that they are content living this way – indeed, that to be more engaged in the outside non-digital world would be worse rather than better.
  5. The longest replies tended to be the critical ones. Authors wanted to point out exceptions, argue (correctly) that people sometimes adopt the lifestyle depicted due to earlier factors, state that pointing out areas of personal influence over mood was shame-inducing for depressed individuals, suggest that this lifestyle is an inevitable consequence of an unforgiving society out of control of the individual, or fault Grey (and, by extension, me) for not having any understanding of mood problems. 
One of my strongest clinical interests in recent years has been the difficulty many young people have in making the transition from adolescence to adult independence. Around the world, clinicians are noticing a surprising number of young people who seem “stuck” at the cusp of adulthood, living restrictive and isolated lives and connecting with the outside world mainly via the Internet.

In Japan, individuals with this difficulty have been called Hikikomori; in Britain they are NEETs (Not in Education Employment or Training). These terms appear with some frequency in the comments to Grey’s video, and in a way that suggests that the authors believe they will be widely understood.

Through the worldwide communication medium of the Internet (the primary community with whom these individuals interact), we may be seeing an increasing knowledge of the issues involved. As this occurs, it will be interesting to note whether we also witness an increased awareness of the depressogenic and anxiogenic nature of a disengaged, unstructured, and physically isolated life.

We can hope.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

How to be Miserable - On YouTube

A quick update to let you know that the inimitable CGP Grey has posted a video on YouTube based on excerpts from my book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. Seven minutes of entertainment - what could you lose?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Why is North Carolina Making Sexual Assault Easier? The Mystery of the Bathroom Bill

An alternative: The Toronto approach.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard about North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and his government’s House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. This bill states that people can only use public restrooms and changing rooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.

The point of the bill is to prevent transgender people from using the restroom associated with their gender identity. The rationale is that this protects women and children from the risk of sexual assault in public restrooms.

But it doesn’t. HB2 (and related bills proposed in other states) makes sexual assault easier. Much easier. And it does so in such an obvious way that, no matter how thick-headed, every legislator proposing or voting in favour of it knew what they were doing.

Back up. Is this really a problem?

Well, there are two possible avenues.

  1. A male to female (MTF) transgender individual commits an assault in a women’s facility.
  2. A non-transgender male pretends to be a trans woman in order to gain access to a women’s facility and commits an assault.

Every so often, someone panics over a crime that you have never heard of. Sometimes, it’s a crime that has never actually happened. In discussions of the issue in North Carolina, no one could point to a single case in which a trans woman, or anyone pretending to be one, has assaulted a person in a women’s restroom.

No matter. It was a crisis as far as Pat McCrory was concerned, and he was not about to let its mythological nature deter him from protecting the women of North Carolina. (Next year, they may outlaw the riding of unicorns on state highways.)

Let’s try to imagine scenario #2 for just a moment.

A male sexual offender wannabe decides to assault a woman, and chooses the one location where he will be most conspicuously out of place: a women’s washroom. In order to gain access to said facility, he dresses as though he was MTF trans. Hair. Clothing. Close shave. Makeup. Shoes.

He’s probably not very good at it – and in fact the bill presumes he isn’t. If he “passes” as female, no one will be the wiser and the law won’t make any difference. If he’s not very good at it, he’ll be conspicuous. People will notice him in the area, and remember which way he went.

But now he can’t do that.

Right. He doesn’t need to disguise himself as a trans woman. No need for the dress, the hair, the shave, the makeup, the shoes.

He can disguise himself as a trans man instead.

Under the new law, he can sport a full beard, ripped t-shirt, and blue jeans, and walk straight into a women’s restroom. If he’s challenged, Pat McCrory has given him his story.

“This is the washroom for my birth gender. The governor says I have to use this one.”

Then he can carry out his mission, exit, and walk away. He’ll only be conspicuous for the moments when he is actually going in or out the restroom door.

So much easier. It’s as though the Sexual Assault Association of North Carolina (SAANC) was a lobby group. “Hey, governor, could you make it easier to get into women’s washrooms? These shoes are really a pain.”

Let’s be clear: Trans men are no more of a risk than trans women are. It’s the imposters that could conceivably be a problem – though they haven’t been so far. And they’ve just made the imposter job easier.

How did they miss that?

They didn’t.

There are MTF transgender people, and FTM – as everyone knows. Even if you are a North Carolina legislator. Ban trans women from women’s washrooms, and you force trans men to use them. It’s obvious and unmissable. So it wasn’t missed.

The bill has nothing to do with preventing sexual assault. The bill is a straightforward expression of disapproval aimed at transgender citizens, voters, and taxpayers.

Governor McCrory and his associates passed a bill out of nothing but transphobia, justifying it by saying that they were protecting women while knowing that, if anything, they were making women less safe.

But this wasn’t a problem. The protection of women was never the point. It was just lip service. Again.

*   *   *

My book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use is on sale now at bookstores and online booksellers.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Forget the Inner Child. What about the Inner Adult?

Sometimes steering is important.
In the book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, we acknowledge the grinding tedium of the quest for a better life, and provide tips to adopt a more miserable one instead. Those recalcitrants unwilling to relinquish the upward path can always do the opposite…

One sunny spring day in the early 1990s I was walking the hospital grounds with a colleague on one of his periodic cigarette breaks between clients. We were talking about the then-fashionable concept of the inner child, based on the idea that many adult problems are the product, at least in part, of trauma and shame from childhood. It is a reasonable and useful concept.  
"I don’t know,” he said. “More of the people I see need to find their inner adult, not their inner child.”

It sounds as though he was slagging his clients, making one of those remarks that sometimes flow from the mouths of clinicians on the edge of burnout.

He wasn’t. He was one of the most compassionate – and effective – clinicians I have had the pleasure of working with.  He was making a valid point.

Sometimes we run into emotional trouble when we lose track of our childhood selves, our true desires and interests, the sources of energy and drive in our lives. We base our behavior entirely on the demands of the moment, the expectations of others, or the norms of our society. As we do so, the life leaks out of our lives like helium from a balloon. We have become, to use a half-joking psychodynamic expression, disconnected from our ids. Therapy consists of an effort to become id-connected once more.

But often a disconnection with our childhood self is not the problem – or not the main one. Instead, our lives have gone astray because we have handed control over to our emotions and impulses, allowing them to determine our course and actions. The therapeutic mission is to get our hands on the tiller and steer.

Everyone’s life wobbles.

We fantasize about finding the key to existence, the one true path, the inner sense of direction that will allow us to relax and coast without constantly having to adjust our course.

This is a lost cause. Just as the direction of a sailboat needs constant adjustment if one is to reach one’s destination, our lives require conscious attention as we notice ourselves slipping to one side or the other.  My colleague was not speaking only of his clients. He was acknowledging a general principle of existence.

I can detect it in my own life. Sometimes my mood begins to go astray because I have been too relentlessly focused on the demands of my life. I have been managing the clinic, ensuring the taxes and recordkeeping are up to date, mowing the lawn, and behaving like an overly responsible adult - doing nothing for the sheer fun of it. It is at times like these that I need to go on an Easter egg hunt for the inner child.

Just as often, however, the problem lies in the other direction. I have been putting off responsibilities, allowing needed repairs to go unattended, and allowing chores and paperwork to build up until they are overwhelming. The problem of these times is not to access the inner child, but to develop a stronger relationship with an equally important aspect of the personality: my inner adult.

The inner adult is the part of all of us that enables us to override our immediate impulses. To say "Why yes, I would like another beer. But no, I don’t think it’s a good idea so I’ll pass.” To take the car in for an oil change when we would rather sit and surf the Internet. To get ourselves to exercise when we would prefer to do almost anything else.

We need both: the inner child AND the inner adult. For the past 40 years in psychotherapy we have tended to emphasize the former, and to treat the latter as more of a barrier to be overcome. The inner adult is regarded as the inner schoolmarm, or the inner party pooper: a conservative, anal, soulless advocate of conformity and boredom.

Perhaps it is this demonizing of the inner adult that accounts for the frequency with which its absence sabotages people’s lives. After all, if you have been told for decades that if it feels good, you should do it, this can become one of your guiding and unquestioned life principles.

If the id or the inner child is the source of energy, drive, and selfish pleasure, then how can downshifting its balancing force be a road to misery? Take a look at the difficulties for which people seek out therapy.

  • The overindulgence in mind altering substances. 
  • The inability to control impulsive anger. 
  • The tendency to put one’s life in the control of fears that one knows to be irrational. 
  • Difficulties getting to work on genuinely held but often difficult life projects. 

These are the mission specialties of the inner adult. It is the inner adult who leaves the marshmallow on the plate until the experimenter returns with the second one. It is the inner adult who opens the calculus textbook when The Simpsons is on. It is the inner adult who strives to understand your partner’s point of view instead of simply lashing out.

It is even the inner adult who does the hard work of therapy, facing fears and difficult truths, building gradual change, and excavating past the settlement of life’s demands in search of its balancing force, the inner child.

So to be miserable, view adulthood as the enemy. Ignore the importance of fortitude, reliability, courage, and dedication. If it doesn’t feel good every moment, don’t do it. View the child and adult as implacable enemies rather than as partners in the creation of a fulfilling life.

In sailing, port and starboard are both essential principles. Ignore port and indulge only starboard, and your journey will be in circles.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

The $10 Million Question: What if you could win lots of money by making yourself feel worse?

Even seasoned clinicians often find the first session of group therapy daunting. The participants are new to the room, new to the approach being taken, and new to each other. They sit eyeing one another with deep reserve.

It is the job of the group leader to stitch this collection of strangers together into a functioning group. But in those first moments there is scant sign that such a transformation is possible. If the participants are clinically depressed, the oppressively flat energy in the room can add to the challenge. And if they are just out of hospital, well … it can seem all but hopeless.

That’s the scenario that faced us when the Changeways Program staff began offering our post–hospitalization depression groups. Most of the clients had been in therapy before, and virtually all had tried a variety of medication-based approaches. They were understandably skeptical that anything that might happen in our little group would have much of an effect on their lives. We could try cheerleading them, extolling the wonders of cognitive behavior therapy, but this was unlikely to get them charged up.

Instead, we tried to going in the opposite direction.

“Did you happen to see the $10 million sitting there in the middle of our table?”  I would ask.

The clients would glance quickly down at the empty conference table and narrow their eyes at me suspiciously.

“Imagine that you could win all of that money tomorrow morning. All you would have to do is make yourself more depressed than you are now. More depressed than you have been all this week. How would you do it?”

A few clients would reject the idea. Still not worth it.

One client observed, wryly, “So far, I have been doing this for free. $10 million? Fine.”

We would go around the room and get one idea from each person. Then we’d throw the floor open and ask for more. The answers would come haltingly at first, then would spill out in a rapidly developing flood. The leaders, writing the ideas on the board, would be straining to keep up. And despite the contrary nature of the exercise, the emotional tone in the room would lighten.

What was the point of this foolish question?

First, most of our clients felt that they had no control over their emotions. The exercise proved to them that this was false: they could make themselves feel even worse if for some reason they wanted to do so.

Second, they invariably noticed something. They were already doing many of the things on the list. Staying in bed. Isolating. Eating junk food, or eating not at all. Focusing on the negative. Ignoring the positive. Anticipating future disasters. Rehearsing past losses. If these truly were paths toward lower mood, perhaps their depressed state was somewhat less mysterious.

But wait. If they were choosing to do these things, did this mean that they wanted to be depressed? Almost certainly not. Depression affects not only our mood, or our thoughts. It changes our motivations as well. Normally we might look forward to the family barbecue this evening. When our mood is low, its appeal will vanish and the quiet solitude of our bedroom may sing its siren song to us instead.

This seems to be a standard principle not only of depression but of low mood in general. As our emotional tone darkens, we become motivated to do precisely that which will make us feel even worse. If we follow our temptations, we will skip inadvertently downhill. Arresting the decline may first involve stopping what we are doing, then turning around and doing the opposite.

Today, the $10 Million Question has become a standard part of my repertoire, whether I am seeing someone suffering from clinical depression, or a person just feeling vaguely blah about life, the energy slipping out of them like helium from a balloon. The path upward often seems obscure and unknowable.  The path downward, however, is easy to find. And, given that it is a two-way street, the two routes are one and the same.

A Game Anyone Can Play

Try it yourself. Sit down with pen and paper and ask what you would do if it was your agenda to feel worse, to lose direction in life, to deflate your enthusiasm. How would you think? What would you do?

Some of the answers you arrive at may be unique to you. Most will not be. Modern culture trains us in a wide variety of methods of cultivating unhappiness. We engage in them unintentionally and share them with others.

Come up with 10 strategies. Then sit a little longer and come up with 10 more. Give yourself at least 20 minutes. Then carry around pen and paper for three days. Having asked the question, answers will pop into your head long after you thought you were done.

And Then What?

Each of the strategies that you come up with is a choice point. Having found the road, you can turn right or left.  Upward or downward. It may not be easy to choose the unfamiliar path. But the first step is simply to recognize the choice.

In weeks and months ahead we will examine some of the most effective strategies for becoming more miserable. Some of these will be individual. Some may be in relationships. Some may be cultural. A few will involve paying too much attention to mental health “experts” like me.

You may think that we are doing nothing but creating a map of life’s potholes. You would be right. So if you want to find pothole, you’ll know where to come.

But if you want to avoid them, you’ll have to know where they are.

What are your strategies?

Write to let me know what brings you down, and to ask questions you think might relate to the topic of this blog. I can’t give clinical advice relating to a specific problem you face – this isn’t an Agony Aunt column, after all, and I haven’t met you and don’t know all the details of your life. But I’d like the dialogue to be two-way if possible.

I can be reached at Please understand that time and professional constraints mean that I cannot reply personally, but a selection of comments and questions will appear in the blog from time to time.

The $10 Million Question is central to the ideas behind my new book, How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use (New Harbinger) - now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indigo, and booksellers everywhere.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

And in America, Gunshot. Again, and again, and again. A repost.

Recent tragic events have reminded me of something.

In the late 1980s I briefly worked part time on a spinal cord injury rehabilitation unit. The majority of patients were young males – which, I understand, is common for these units. I worked with patients on adjustment to their injuries and the requirements of their altered lives.

The head of our service had worked there for a number of years. I asked him to tell me the most common accidents that would bring people to the unit. He said something that stuck in my mind.
Then I heard someone else, at another facility, say exactly the same thing. I began listening for the list, and heard it over and over again.

“Motor vehicle accident, work-related injury, sporting accident.  And in America, gunshot.”

And in America, gunshot. Those four words, repeated virtually verbatim, again and again.

I saw people injured in motor vehicle accidents. This was, far and away, the most common route of entry to our unit. I saw people who had been injured on the job. I saw two who had athletic injuries (one hockey, one diving). But I never saw anyone who had received the injury via gunshot.

An Ontario study of the epidemiology of spinal cord injury (Pickett et al, 2006) seems to bear out the Canadian impression.  Of patients aged under 65, 43% received their injury in motor vehicle accidents, 24% from falls of various sorts, 12% from accidents involving other vehicles (bicycles, ATVs, and so on), and 9% in sports-related incidents. Only 5% were injured as a result of violence of any kind; it was not mentioned how many of these were gunshot-related.

A review of US data (DeVivo, 2012) confirms a much higher incidence of violence-related spinal cord injury, though this appears to have been declining in recent years (12% since 2000, but 21% in the 1990s). Given that military personnel (at risk for violence-related spinal cord injury on the battlefield) are typically seen in their own hospitals, the actual figure may be somewhat higher. And the reduction in the percentage may not translate into a reduction in actual numbers, given that the overall incidence of spinal cord injury is increasing.

It sticks in the mind, that phrase.  And in America, gunshot.

Particularly when grown adults continue to stand on their hind legs and argue that arming high school staff will prevent school shootings.

Apparently not always. Columbine High School had an armed guard. And of course, most mass shootings don’t happen within schools. Restricting ourselves just to the ample list from the past few weeks in the USA, we’d have to arm cinema staff, retail clerks, and all homeowners as well.

Odd that despite the fact there are so many more armed guards and armed private citizens in the US, it continues to suffer so many incidents like these. We are not immune to them in other countries. Canada had an incident in Montreal in 1989, and there have been others. Even placid Norway has had a horrific example. But the rate does seem lower in developed nations other than the US.

A moment of opportunity seems to have arisen after the most recent school shooting. The NRA’s spokesman made his fatuous point and was widely and rightly ridiculed for it.

America may be ready to shake off its traditional explanation for these events: “We are simply worse people. More prone to violence, less able to solve matters like adults, less caring of one another’s welfare.”

Maybe it’s not true. Maybe it was never true. Maybe it was the guns after all.


DeVivo, MJ (2012). Epidemiology of traumatic spinal cord injury: Trends and future implications. Spinal Cord, 50, 365-372.

Pickett, GE, Campos-Benitez, M, Keller, JL, & Duggal, N (2006). Epidemiology of traumatic spinal cord injury in Canada, Spine, 31, 799-805.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Art of Manliness: Interview

The Art of Manliness is a website and podcast designed to help users explore and navigate the ins and outs of being male in the 21st century. They invite speakers from diverse perspectives to share their views on a wide variety of issues - not all of them directly related to gender.

I spoke with interviewer Brett McKay about my new book How To Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. Here's a link to the resulting podcast:

How to be Miserable is available for pre-order from and other online booksellers now.