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The Cure for Misery
What Causes Us to be Miserable and How to Stop It
I’m terrible at backing out of my family’s driveway. It’s steep and narrow and has just enough curve that you can’t just line it up and hit the gas. My 2008 Hyundai doesn’t have a fancy backup camera, so I have to look out the back window, and I lose sight of the ground as soon as I start up the hill. It’s easy to get a little crooked and run off the edge. The big, jagged stones lining the driveway make sure everyone in the car knows exactly when I do. My wife never fails to comment. It shouldn’t be that hard. I grew up in that house, got my license while I lived there, and still visit weekly. I’ve done it a thousand times. What can I say? Usually some variation of: I swear I can do it when you’re not around.
It’s true. I used to do it without thinking, but now that I’m worried about my wife’s teasing judgment, now that I’m trying not to hit the stones, I always do. Once you’ve reached a level of mastery with a skill, such that you can do it unconsciously, trying to be conscious about how to do it only makes you worse. It’s a common phenomenon in sports, where we often say an athlete is “getting in their own head” when they suddenly struggle to do something they’ve done countless times before. When you step up the free throw line in a big game, you want to follow your routine and shoot the free throw as you always have in practice. You don’t want to think about how big the game is or exactly how you need to move your hands or how hard you need to shoot to make sure you get it to the basket. It’s the same whether you are swinging a club or hitting a baseball or kicking a penalty kick. It’s the same, in fact, for nearly everything.
Let’s try a quick experiment. Unless you’re a boomer, you can probably type without looking down at the keyboard or picking out each letter individually. So open a browser or document or note and type this sentence: “I want to subscribe to this newsletter.” Easy, right? You don’t have to worry about where all the letters are on the keyboard. You don’t worry about letters at all, much less your fingers, or the muscles in your fingers, or the nerve signals you need to send to activate them. You just think about the words you want to type and they appear on the screen. Now type the same sentence (remember: “I want to subscribe to this newsletter.”), but try to visualize where each letter is on the keyboard and which finger you need to move to reach it as you type. Were you faster this time? Or slower?
There’s a time for conscious thought and effort. When you are learning, when you encounter something novel or unexpected, when you need to update your previous understanding or correct your errors, that’s when you need to slow down and think. That’s the entire purpose of consciousness. Humans, distinct from all the animals, can evaluate our actions before we perform them, can learn without having to make the mistake, can let our ideas fail so we don’t have to. That’s an incredibly powerful tool. It needs to be. Because, in so many other ways, consciousness is a catastrophe that only makes things worse.
Human consciousness brought unparalleled prosperity and advancement, but it also introduced suffering and evil into the world. Death always existed, but the fear of death—knowing you are going to die and being unable to stop it—was a product of consciousness. Animals can feel pain and try to avoid it, but only humans can feel anguish and despair of the pain ever stopping. As we can plan and hope in our future goals, we can dread and know disaster before it has struck us. It was a terrible day when humans realized all the things in the world that had the potential to hurt them, when they discovered exactly where it could happen and how it would feel, and in doing so unlocked the secret to hurting others where they knew it would hurt the most. In gaining the means to protect ourselves, we discovered how to destroy everyone else. In reaping the fruits of our knowledge, we sowed the seeds of our misery.
This is an old idea. Humans have been trying to deal with the problem of our self-consciousness since the beginning of history. It was our original tragedy and sin. What did Adam and Eve gain when they ate the forbidden fruit? Awareness. The knowledge of good and evil. They had known others, but now they saw themselves. Surely, without a doubt in their minds, they would die. They now knew they were naked, totally exposed to the dangers of the world and the judgment of God and men. They came to fear what they formerly loved, God and spouse and garden, because they knew they knew their own faults and how they could be exploited. They could anticipate the pain of childbirth and resent the labor of work. Before, they experienced a temporary, unconscious pain. Now, they would live in the full knowledge of their perpetual suffering. That was their curse. Ours, too.
Misery is the fundamental reality of thinking about yourself. I know from experience. I’ve always been introverted and shy. I’m more comfortable writing in a secluded place than hanging out with a big crowd. Drop me into a party and I will happily (if somewhat awkwardly) sit by myself in the corner. I used to go to the movie theater alone. Most of my Friday nights in High School were passed in the basement. So I was used to dwelling among my own thoughts. As an author, it might have helped. I can’t say exactly when that general bearing crossed into anxiety. Maybe it always was.
By the time I left college, though, I had gone over the cliff. I can tell you the moment I hit the bottom. I was recently married, working at a software company just to pay the bills while my wife was in grad school. I had just gotten a promotion to a new position, working directly with clients, with enough money to actually pay for our very modest apartment and lifestyle without relying on extra student loans. I was completely miserable. I was having panic attacks in my cubicle, every time a new message came in. I cried on the commute home from work every day. I couldn’t do it. I could barely compose an email for fear of what the friendly HR person in their office halfway across the county might think, fear of what would happen if my boss found out how terrible I was, fear of going home to my wife a failure. I couldn’t get out of my own head, couldn’t stop thinking about how much I hated it, a constant refrain beating in my mind, saying “I want to quit.” The more I thought that, the more I dwelled on it, the more I sank into my own anxiety and unhappiness, the more miserable I became.
Constantly thinking about a problem is a sure way to make it worse. It doesn’t even have to be a problem. Constantly thinking about a good thing is likely to degrade it. You can find faults in anything if you think about it long enough. If you are always questioning whether your job is going well, it won’t be long before you decide it isn’t and think you could do better. If you are evaluating your marriage every day, even with the intent to improve it, sooner or later you will have uncovered all the ways it isn’t working for you and wonder if you deserve better. You can make yourself miserable just by thinking about all the ways you can and should be happy.
Yet so many parts of our lives are organized to do exactly this. You can track and analyze everything today. You can have a fitness tracker on your watch or wristband (I used to have one), and while it may help your fitness somewhat at first, I’m convinced the ultimate result will be to make you more anxious about your fitness levels, whether they are improving or not. And while it’s good to have a scale, obsessively tracking your weight to the nearest tenth of a pound will strip the joy out of your meals and turn your good intentions into an oppressive disorder. Sleep trackers are popular lately, too, and though they never seem to do much to improve sleep, they do a wonderful job of reminding you just how bad off you are each night and how little anything you do seems to help.
Social media might be the worst offender. What is Instagram or Twitter or Facebook if not the constant demand to evaluate yourself in comparison to others, to expose yourself in order to see how you measure up and what you are missing? That wasn’t the intent of those apps, any more than scales were intended to make you anxious about your weight, but it’s the practical effect of repeated use. Greater awareness is both a blessing and a curse. No wonder mental health and happiness is plummeting across the US, especially in teens. We are a profoundly miserable people, and it’s no coincidence that the decline coincides with the rise of the iPhone and iPad and i-Everything. All of modern life draws us into the death spiral within the black hole of our selves.
The only answer is to turn outward. Misery is thinking about yourself, which means it’s impossible to be miserable while you think about someone else. This is true even of thinking about a tragedy, a great injustice, a sick or dying family member. The sadness or pain or despair does not arise until you turn inward, until you reflect on what you have lost and how it will affect you in the future. That is appropriate and good at times, but it’s a horrible way to live. Instead, strive to consider everyone around you, near and far, with love and gratitude, over your own concerns. If you often lie in bed (or your cubicle or car or bath or wherever) thinking about the difficulties and problems in your own life, try something different: think about others, pray for them, and work to help them. Talk to a friend with the intention only of listening to them or learning about them. Read a book that isn’t on self-improvement. Step into a world that is not inside your own head.
I don’t claim this is easy. I know for a fact it is not. I’ve gone to therapy for it, taken drugs for it, and still it is a struggle every day. But whether you need the extra help or not, the goal remains the same: to break free from an obsessive self-consciousness, to escape the spiral self-evaluation, to undo, in part, the curse our deadly pride has wrought. We used to call it humility, the virtue of self-forgetfulness and other-centeredness, but you can call it the cure for misery.
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