Some people get frustrated and even angry at the suggestion that misery and depression are a personal choice, yet evidence gently pushes toward this conclusion. “Why would I choose to be this unhappy?” a miserable person might ask. Good question.
A study* recently published in the journal Psychological Science indicates that “even when depressed people have the opportunity to decrease their sadness, they don’t necessarily try to do so.”
Logic pushes us in the opposite direction, that being when people are unhappy they would naturally make decisions that would lead them back to happiness. The study, though, reveals that people sometimes choose to behave in a manner that increases their sadness, rather than decreasing it.
The chief author of the study, Dr. Yail Millgram of Hebrew University, wrote that the study “is important because it suggests that depressed individuals may sometimes be unsuccessful in decreasing their sadness in daily life because, in some sense, they hold on to it.”
Participants in the study were first screened for symptoms of depression and then asked to complete an image selection task from among pictures categorized as happy, neutral, or sad. The depressed participants chose to view the sad images more often than the undepressed participants. A second study based on selecting music clips confirmed the first study. Sixty-two percent of the depressed participants chose the sad music over the neutral or happy music. Not surprisingly, researchers discovered that the more participants chose the sad pictures the more their sadness increased.
“The most urgent task for us,” Millgram concluded, “is to try to understand why depressed people regulate their emotions in a manner that increases rather than decreases sadness.”
I think we all agree with Dr. Millgram’s concluding statement. Fortunately, when it comes to the urgent task he describes, choice theory is ready to help.
Choice theory explains that all behavior is purposeful, including the misery we feel. We behave in a certain way because that behavior meets a need. When a circumstance isn’t as we want it to be, usually because we want another person to act differently, we choose a behavior that we hope will bring this change about. We can choose from behaviors known as caring habits (these behaviors maintain our relationship with others since they don’t seek to manipulate or coerce), or we can choose from behaviors known as deadly habits (these behaviors harm relationships since they try to force or manipulate the other person into the behavior of our liking). Choosing unhappiness or misery in response to someone else’s behavior is an example of a deadly habit. Misery is often a form of withdrawal and therefore a kind of punishment.
Remember we are not talking about a little unhappiness when something doesn’t go our way. That’s natural and a common part of life. Instead we are talking about a deeper, more strategic sadness that is meant to convey a message and ultimately to control a situation. People can stay strategically sad for a long time.
What are some reasons (since Dr. Millgram asked) that people choose unhappiness and misery? Here’s three reasons that come to mind –
When we choose to miserable (Glasser liked turning words like this into verbs, which emphasized our actively choosing it rather than passively being infected by it.) we get something out of it. It’s possible that other people bow to our manipulation, which makes the behavior seem even more need-satisfying, but even if others don’t respond as we want them to, at least we get a feeling of control out of it.
Maybe this is just a personal admission for me, but when I really think about my own use of a deadly habit, like withdrawing for instance, it is pride that I let keep me from choosing a better behavior. I could choose to behave in the very way I want to be treated, but pride can derail such thoughts.
Let’s admit it, misery can feel pretty good. When we feel wronged we figure we deserve to be upset and we look for details that will affirm our disgust and anger. We can be like a gifted sculptor as we craft our interpretation of the story. Like a child tightly clutching a favorite toy we hug our misery ever closer, not wanting anyone else to mess with it.
A little misery is to be expected. Life is difficult. We negotiate it as best we can, but things don’t always go our way. Rather than choosing to stay miserable, though, we can choose a happier path, even if only small steps toward optimism and gratefulness. It might feel “right” to be miserable, but staying in that emotional state is a bit like playing with fire. Glasser used to say that it is impossible to be unhappy and miserable for more than six weeks without manifesting symptoms, either psychologically or physically. Our misery starts out as small choices, but it can morph into something that feels much bigger.
* I was alerted to this study in an article posted on psychcentral.com. You can access that article here.
Learn more about Glasser’s beliefs regarding unhappiness and misery in his biography, Champion of Choice.