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The Serenity Prayer begins “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

This goes to the heart of self-induced misery by providing distinctions that it’s easy to miss when you are unhappy. You don’t have to have a god you believe in, to see that.

The risk in using phrases like ‘self-induced’, as Randy Paterson points out (in a recent article in Psychology Today entitled How To Be Miserable), is that some people might jump to the conclusion that he is saying they alone are responsible for their misery.

They are not, and that is not what he is saying. He adds that misery tends to skew a person’s thinking, making it more likely that they’ll take offence by misreading what’s being said (I have framed this as the Logic of Depression in my posts). So one has to tread carefully in these matters.

But, equally, neither should we pussy-foot around the subject. If someone’s style of thinking is contributing to their misery, should we not it help them understand that? That is certainly a therapist’s job, though some are more blunt about it than others. (Different styles of therapy have different views on this, the common point is that all therapy should offer hope for a less miserable future.)

Paterson has neatly split the common causes of misery into two categories, which he calls “Column A and Column B”.

The first column contains the causes of misery that can’t change because they are beyond our immediate control. Things like the state of the economy, bereavement, social upheaval, famine and our childhood experiences belong in this group. Focussing on this stuff not only brings you down, it increases your sense of helplessness and angst.

By contrast, Column B lists the things we CAN do something about:

  • The amount of exercise we get
  • The food we eat
  • The way we choose to think about things (our thinking style)
  • The amount of time screen-time we allow ourselves
  • The interpretations we give to people’s criticisms of us
  • The expectations we hold of others
  • The priority we give to living out our values
  • The avoidance of discomfort.

Paterson points out that though he is emphasising Column B, he doesn’t deny the very real and potent influences of Column A. There’s also a list of unhelpful conclusions and judgements (cognitive distortions) that miserable people can make about themselves and their experiences.

There may be no quick route out of misery, because it is sneaky and pernicious. But you can break the self-perpetuating pattern if you will allow yourself the wisdom to separate Column A and Column B.

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