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Tuesday 30 April 2013

What if you wanted to be UNhappy? The $10Million Question

What if you could earn money by feeling worse?

Sometimes when you are trying to find your way, it’s useful to look at where you DON’T want to go and use that as your guide.

Throughout our lives, much of our behaviour is designed with the ultimate goal of creating a positive emotional state. In effect, I want the better job, the cream cheese bagel, the Hawaiian holiday, and even a sense of meaning and purpose BECAUSE I believe that if I get those things I will be happy. Or content. Or joyful. Or at least not depressed.

We spend our lives oriented in this one direction, and often seem to miss the target: we don't feel all that happy. Daniel Gilbert has written an excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness, showing that human beings are fairly poor at guessing what will make them happy in the future. As a result, a good part of our lives is spent pursuing goals that will not give us what we imagine.

In our depression groups, people would often try to figure out what might help them feel better, and they felt blocked or stumped in this quest. So we turned the question around and asked what they might do if they wanted to feel worse instead. Suddenly the barriers evaporated and people came up with all kinds of ideas. Listen to country music, call up a critical relative, sit naked in front of a mirror – the main challenge was stopping the exercise once it got rolling.

The secret, of course, is that most roads downward run both ways. Behind each technique for producing misery lies an alternative that may lead to an alleviation of misery, or even to a positive emotional state. As well, once we come up with a list of strategies to make ourselves unhappy we can sometimes realize with a shock that we are already doing many of these things – as though we really did want to feel worse, not better.

I find that this is almost always a helpful exercise for people’s personal growth or therapy. What would you do if your agenda was to feel unhappy, stuck, bored, depressed, burned out, or otherwise dissatisfied with your life? What has led you in that direction in the past? What strategies, yet untried, do you think would lead you there if you put them into practice?

The exercise looks like it’s headed the wrong way. But I believe we have greater clarity when we look for things that make us feel worse than when we try to imagine what will make us feel better. In effect, by generating the list and using it as guidance to find the opposite, we may produce greater improvement than by chasing unsatisfying rainbows. 

For the purpose of this posting, let’s try a challenge.

Imagine that 10 days from now you could win a large sum of money (in my groups, we make it $10 million - what the heck, it's imaginary) if you could make yourself more unhappy on that day than you are now. I’m giving you 10 days because maybe some of your strategies won’t work right away and require some time to have their undesired effect. 

The fine print: You can only do or change THREE things (maximum) in your mind or life. And you can't list anything that's not in your own power to do (no alien invasions, no global economic meltdowns).

So: I dare you. If you wanted to feel worse, you would …

1. ___________________________________

2. ___________________________________

3. ___________________________________

Reply and suggest your three options. Let’s see what you come up with. If I get enough replies I'll tabulate them and comment in a future post.

Online Course

The $10 Million Question is a central part of our new online course, a cognitive behavioral guide to self-care for depression. Though not a substitute for professional face-to-face care, UnDoing Depression may be a useful adjunct to your efforts.  The preview is below. For 50% off the regular fee of $140 USD, use coupon code “changeways70” when you visit our host site, here.

We also have courses for professionals and for the public entitled What Is Depression, What Causes Depression, Diagnosing Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Group Treatment of Depression, How to Buy Happiness, and Breathing Made Easy. For the full list with previews and substantial discounts, visit us at the Courses page of the Changeways Clinic website.


  1. If I wanted to deliberately cultivate unhappiness, I would:
    1. Never sleep more than 6 hours per night.
    2. Try to be loved and understood by people with whom I feel uneasy.
    3. Work hard to look younger with each passing year.

    1. 1. Fall in love with someone that threat me like sh*t
      2. Wake up every hour of the night because I fell in love with the wrong person
      3. Only talk to people that I am attracted to.

  2. 1. Go shopping,
    2. Get drunk,
    2. Watch television.

  3. Eat a lot of junk food.
    Sleep until 15:00.
    Replay thoughts about unhappy past experiences.

  4. 1. Think about everything bad that has ever happened to me.
    2. Think about everything bad that could ever happen to me (although winning the $10 will negate this).
    3. Imagine everyone is criticizing me in their thoughts.

  5. 1. Get less than six hours sleep.
    2. Be continually frustrated when trying to achieve goals at work.
    3. Not be able to talk openly with my partner.

  6. 1 Sit at a CPU with poor, head forward, posture for 7 hours a day, most days per week.
    2 Avoid doing the strength training activities designed to help my face, neck, and back feel better.
    3 Avoid doing the relaxation activities too.

    What, only three? Really?!

  7. 1. cheat on my boyfriend
    2. spend my life savings
    3. crash my car

  8. 1. Get less than 8 hours sleep
    2. Drink alcohol every day
    3. Waste time, thoughts and energy on things that aren't worth it.

  9. I just discovered your blog, and I can feel my depression lifting already! What can I do to make myself more depressed? 1)sleep all day every day 2)neglect my 4-year-old son 3)continue to over-eat and consume alcohol regularly despite my serious weight gain