Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 8 Most Common Ways People Make Themselves Miserable, According to a Philosopher

Jessica Stillman

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Scientists did an experiment not too long ago where they asked volunteers to solve tricky problems, like stabilizing a shaky Lego tower or figuring out geometric puzzles. Almost always, they observed, the study subjects tried to add something. This was true even when taking away bricks or shapes was objectively the faster, easier way to solve the problem.

The scientists called this phenomenon “subtraction bias” and declared it a shared feature of the human mind. People just tend to prefer to solve problems by addition rather than subtraction. And what holds true of engineering challenges and brainteasers also holds true of happiness (and intelligence).

For greater well-being, subtract misery

If you would like to be happier in your work and life, chances are excellent your first impulse will be to add something. Maybe you could exercise or meditate more? Perhaps a new career direction would solve your woes? Indeed, those are often good happiness moves, but as Harvard happiness researcher Arthur Brooks recently pointed out in The Atlantic, they are only half the happiness equation.

Yes, we can improve well-being by adding joy to our lives. But we can also achieve the same aim by subtracting misery. Brooks even links to a test that can tell you which approach is likely to be more successful for you. What practices or habits should be on the chopping block if you want to stop overlooking the subtractive approach to greater happiness? For inspiration, Brooks looks to the writings of the great philosopher and Nobel laureate in literature Bertrand Russell.

Russell, who has been coming up strangely often in my reading lately, believed “unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world,” and broke these common misery-inducing mistakes into eight categories.

1. Fashionable pessimism

In plenty of circles these days, being grumpy and cynical is taken as a sign of depth and intelligence. This is not a new phenomenon, Brooks points out. Melancholy was all the rage in Victorian times, too. Choosing moodiness to look cool was dumb then, continued to be dumb in Russell’s time, when he mocked…

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Jessica Stillman

Top Inc.com columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast. https://jessicastillman.com/