This column will change your life: the secret of true misery

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a splendid little book entitled The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious, by the late psychiatrist Paul Watzlawick. It was written to fill a gap in the market: we're drowning in advice on how to be happy, but where's the advice on being unhappy? "Don't be ridiculous!" you reply. "Nobody wants to be unhappy!" But that's nonsense. Consider your friend who's always getting involved with unavailable men, or that colleague who goes hunting for things to get annoyed by; consider the way you're always taking on more tasks than you'll get done in the time available.

In our different ways, we all resemble the elderly woman in a joke Watzlawick mentions, who complains to the police that some youths are bathing naked in the river outside her house. The constable moves them upstream. But the angry pensioner isn't satisfied: "If I go up to the roof with a pair of field glasses, I can still see them!" We spend much of life making ourselves miserable. Mightn't we benefit from some expert guidance on doing it well?

The best contexts for what Watzlawick calls "sadness training" are romantic and family relationships. Take dating. To be maximally unhappy, second-guess yourself. If someone likes you, there are two options: if your self-esteem is low, reflect on how anyone who'd condescend to be with you can't be worth your time; if your self-esteem's high, speculate instead on all the more attractive or wittier people you might meet. Ideally, find someone whose problems you think you can fix, or who you believe can fix yours. That way, heartbreak's guaranteed: either the fixing will fail, curdling the relationship, or it will succeed, in which case "the relationship will fall apart because it has lost its meaning".

Once you're coupled up, it's time to learn how to communicate in misery-inducing ways. As Watzlawick explains, there are two layers to every communication, the "object" level and the "relationship" level, and it's crucial deliberately to confuse the two. One example is the question, "Would you like to take me to the airport at 6am tomorrow?" The answer is simultaneously "no" on the object level (it's an unappealing chore) and "yes" at the relationship level (it's a sacrifice you're happy to make); so, however you respond, resentment or suspicion should follow. A more advanced tactic is the double bind, in which you demand that your beloved do something, but only because he or she wants to. Or simply offer two mutually exclusive options, then act disappointed about whichever one's not chosen, a trick Watzlawick illustrates by quoting Dan Greenburg's 1964 book How To Be A Jewish Mother: "Give your son Marvin two sports shirts as a present. The first time he wears one of them, look at him sadly and say in your Basic Tone of Voice, 'The other one you didn't like?' "

All these techniques should be complemented by a broader life philosophy conducive to unhappiness. One good mantra is, "To thine own self be true", not least because it'll paralyse you with self-questioning about what the "real you" wants. Alternatively, why not embrace puritanism, with its unspoken message that you're free to do what you want, so long as you don't enjoy it? Watzlawick explores many others. His tongue's in his cheek, of course. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take him seriously.

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