The Pursuit of Unhappiness

How good are you at being unhappy? Need a little help? In his book “The Situation Is Hopeless but Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness”, psychologist Paul Watzlawick gives you all the advice you need. You can even use it to become happier, if only by smiling at all the crazy little ways humans have to keep misery alive.

Our world, drowning as it is in a tidal wave of “how to” instructions for the attainment of happiness, must no longer be deprived of a lifesaver for those in the pursuit of unhappiness. No longer must the knowledge of misery-producing mechanisms and processes remain the jealously guarded secret of psychiatry and psychology.

The number of persons talented enough to create their own hell may seem relatively large. But many more are in need of help of and encouragement.

These words can be found in the introduction to a psychology classic, The Situation Is Hopeless but Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness by Austrian-born psychologist Paul Watzlawick of Mental Research Institute fame. A notable influence on solution-focused brief therapy, he probably also inspired some of the humour and lightheartedness that is so typical of the magicians of that type of therapy.

This humour isn’t just about being funny. It goes deeper; it is the humour of philosophers and of those who have intimate knowledge of the paradoxical and absurd side of the human experience, and of how healing it can be to meet adversity not only with deep thought but also with a loud guffaw of laughter.

Canadian photographer Ulli Steltzer (see Building an Igloo), who has spent some time with the Inuit, told me that once she was out in the great white nowhere with some of her Inuit friends when, just at the beginning of a blizzard, their snowmobile broke down. Her friends got off the snowmobile, surveyed the damage, and realized they didn’t have the wherewithal to fix it. In response, one of them got up, spread his arms, and started to laugh like crazy. “What are you doing,” Ulli said, “we might very well die out here, and you laugh?!”

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And the response? “When there’s nothing left to do, all you can do is laugh.”

Paul Watzlawick strikes me as one of those people who truly understand (“grok”, as Robert Heinlein says) this deep, life-accepting humour.

It is in this frame of mind that Watzlawick wrote this gentle satire that attacks our many tendencies to make our lives difficult. From using the past as a source of unhappiness (e.g. yearning for the good old days and indulging in regret) to avoiding reality checks and romanticizing unachievably high goals, this little book is an amusing and intelligent smorgasbord of human frailties.

For those of us a little slow in savouring the pleasures of unhappiness, Watzlawick even has a number of exercises, for example:

In your chair, close your eyes, and take your attention to your shoes. It should not be long until you notice how uncomfortable it is to be wearing them. Regardless of how well they seemed to fit until now, you will now notice areas of tightness and discomfort such as burning, chafing, curled toes, heat and cold, etc. Practice until the heretofore natural and unself-conscious wearing of shoes turns decidedly uncomfortable. Go out and buy new shoes and realize that, while they fit perfectly in the store, within a short time, they produce the same complaints.

Try it and see what fits better: the shoe of unhappiness or the shoe of happiness.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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