‘Misery is a choice’ is one of those splendid positive thinking memes doing the rounds at the moment, and while it’s mostly true, it’s offered in a way that suggests all the wrong things. Misery is a choice so you should choose not to be miserable, and anyone who is miserable has no one to blame but themselves, is the impression it creates. So, let’s be very clear. If your brain chemistry is awry you may have no choice over being miserable. Further, there are a lot of times in life when misery is the best, healthiest and most honourable choice you can make.
You can only be hurt in so far as you care. The easiest way to avoid misery, is therefore to go through this life not caring about anything. The things you love, value, and invest in have the power to hurt you and let you down, but the person who doesn’t care is spared from this. It seems to me a very drab, joyless way to live. I would rather love fiercely and accept the inevitability of heartbreak.
Grief is a process. We can all expect to be bereaved as we go through life. We will lose jobs, friends, homes, we will move from one life stage to another, and not everything will go as we wanted. The process of grieving is the way in which our bodies and minds deal with profound and life altering loss. This process is important, but you can choose to repress it. Sooner or later, that repression will fail to hold up, and you get to move from choosing not to be miserable, to serious mental breakdown where you probably won’t have much control over your mental state at all. Feeling misery is a part of having a healthy mind, shut that down and you store up trouble.
Pain is part of the learning process. We all mess up. We all do things that it is reasonable to regret or wish we had done differently. Feeling misery over this helps us learn to do differently. If we have to be happy about all our choices, actions and all the outcomes we get, we do not allow ourselves to learn or change. Hone this skill long enough and it becomes a condition called covert narcissism, which will then poison every relationship you have. But you never have to feel miserable.
Cognitive dissonance is the mind bending process of having to think things that do not add up. If you have an abusive partner but are practicing the art of not being miserable, you may stay, choosing to see the best in everything, and not dealing with the damage you are taking. If you can’t acknowledge misery, you won’t leave the stifling job, or necessarily take on any other discomfort in your life. The more time you spend choosing to be happy and tuning out the things that really should be recognised as problems, the more trouble you get into and you can entirely break your mind this way.
The worst thing you have endured is the basis for your ability to empathise with other people who are struggling and suffering. The person intent on avoiding pain, is less likely to be able to develop compassion or understanding for others. In some very privileged lives, avoiding misery is just about recognising that what you have is pretty good. If your misery is your inability to feel gratitude, that’s something to work on, but it does not follow that everyone else who is miserable is also incapable of feeling gratitude. Their partner may be dying, their child may be sick, their job and home may be on the line. There are plenty of real things out there to be afraid of, and in working to understand our own misery, rather than ignoring it, we can build empathy for others and do more to support each other.
Mourning the planet will make you miserable. Thinking about climate change, extinction, hunger, and deprivation in the world should make you bloody miserable. Yes, you can choose to ignore all of this and carry on in your own sweet way, but frankly if you do you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Our misery in the face of human destructiveness is the thing that could yet save us.
If you use the recognition that misery is a choice to help you get out of miserable situations and to make real change in the world – that’s a good choice to be making. If you chose to switch off that capacity within yourself, you may feel more comfortable in the short term, but you are likely to become toxic to those round you, and deeply dysfunctional within yourself such that your future choices may be sorely compromised. It is better, surely, to choose to be real, than to make sweeping judgements that reject parts of your life experience.