Who wants to be miserable?

Are we having a ’70s revival?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Back in 1976 the book How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg was (relatively) popular.

It was intended to be a (mildly) sardonic rejoinder to the flood of 1970’s era self-help books and programs.

By any definition, the decade of the 1970s was very strange. The food, fashions and music of the ’70s will stand forever in the history of pop culture as a, ahem, unique and memorable time. From Disco to white polyester bell-bottom pants, what era could match the 1970s for its (sometimes deliberate) reach into the absurd and artificial.

Self-parody (and other reactions, like the Punk and Goth movements) were a logical, maybe even necessary, response to the inherent absurdities and excesses of the era.

Bob Dylan’s liner notes from his Desire album (also from 1976) describes Western culture as “civilization at a standstill”.

After the near constant upheaval of the ’60s, it’s reasonable that a “standstill” might be essential. But where we went from there would never had been expected.

Among other things, in the mid-70s we almost went metric.

Public schools taught the metric system at every level, speed limit and milage distance sign were in imperial and metric (miles and kilometers) and most, if not all new cars had dual markings on their speedometers.

Until the 1980s, that is. Those signs and programs disappeared and the USA abandoned the metric system.

The rest of the world (or at least their governments and major industries) embraced it. Fast forward to the 21st Century and we see three countries holding out against metric; Liberia, Myanmar and of course… the United States of America.

Change, especially on a national, if not global scale, is always difficult and awkward – and perhaps never complete.

On any given issue, there will be a small percentage of advocates – also known as evangelists – and an approximately equal number of opponents.

Some will be louder, some will be more articulate and some may be more convincing than others.

In most cases, only the passing of time will tell which side was “right”.

Some arguments sound preposterous in retrospect, and some are ridiculous almost as soon as they are spoken.

I mention these examples because, for some reason, some bad ideas seem to emerge and take new life and some times (but not always) a new shape.

I’ve been thinking about the book How to Make Yourself Miserable (which I read back in the 1970s).

Back then, it was meant as a parody – a comic and sarcastic rebuke to the obsessive pop culture phenomenon of self-help programs to make life, work and relationships ideal – or at least better than anyone else’s.

Thanks to social media, we are in very much the same situation, with everyone else’s vacations, perfect relationships and photogenic children on our daily screens, too many of us find ourselves retreating into the familiar or bingeing on the latest TV series or movie franchise, and incorporating the basic principles of making ourselves miserable.

This diagram of measurement systems show how confusing our history has been.
This diagram of measurement systems show how confusing our history has been.

In case you’d like to relive the most neurotic and obsessive self-destructive thought patterns of the 1970s, or if you just want to make yourself miserable, here are a few strategies.

1. Compare everything you do to the lives and accomplishments of other people.

Social media has made us crazy. Almost all of us have a terminal case of FOMO (fear of missing out) thanks to the photos or videos of parties and adventures that our friends have – but we don’t.

2. Take everything personally.

Whether it its the weather or the vagaries of fashion or politics. Whatever it is, if you think it is all about you, misery is guaranteed.

3. Spend most of your time in the past and/or the future.

How much time do you spend thinking about something that has happened? Or on something that might happen?

Unfair stuff has happened to all of us. And difficult- or even terrible things – might happen to us in the future, but if we miss or ignore what is actually currently happening in our lives, we miss opportunities we will probably never have again.

4. Focus on what you DON’T want or don’t have.

Appreciating what we do have, and focusing on what we do want will lead us into more positive territory when it comes to attitude, career and relationships.

Any missed opportunity is just that – missed. Practice paying attention and don’t miss the next one.

5. Refuse to try anything new.

Whether it is food, music or vacations, if you are not willing to try anything new, you are missing out on a whole new circle of experience.

6. Spend time with negative or critical people.

If you want to know everything that could possibly go wrong, or why nothing you do is good enough, you probably know where to look. But if you want to feel good about yourself, find some more upbeat people to hang out with.

7. Blame other people or situations for your own lack of success.

You can always blame people or events for your lack of progress in your life. But if you want to get anywhere, there is nothing more powerful than accepting responsibility and learning from your mistakes.

8. Look for magic solutions.

Winning the lottery (either a literal lottery or some other magic event) will not make you happy – but doing good work will.

Even those who win the lottery don’t always fare well.

The bankruptcy/divorce/suicide rate among lottery winners is a constant theme across the media.

9. You can worry about anything – things that might happen, should happen or should never have happened.

You have limited time and emotional energy. Spend it on what is actually happening – or maybe what is likely to happen.

Use you imagination to explore possibilities – not potential catastrophes.

In short, misery is optional.

As Carlos Castaneda put it “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”