Written by Loren Logsdon
Wednesday, 14 August 2013 00:00
One of my favorite books in the 21st century is The 7 Habits of Highly Miserable People by Dr. Mark Borup, M.D. I have found this book valuable because it opens my eyes in a thought-provoking and fascinating way. Dr. Borup writes about happiness from a perspective which I suspect not many people have ever considered.
Happiness itself is such a complicated and often fragile matter that we do well to heed the wisdom of Sophocles at the conclusion of Oedipus Rex, when the chorus tells us, in essence, let no man count himself happy until the last moment of his life.
Before I get to specific points, I need to acknowledge that the advice about happiness in Dr. Borup’s book is based on the idea that people have some autonomy to make choices. Sometimes happiness can be severely limited by a tragedy such as being seriously injured or losing loved ones in an encounter with a drunk driver. Some people are afflicted by a crippling disease or a lingering illness. Some people have a traumatic experience that leaves a deep, invisible emotional scar, making happiness seem like a cruel chimera. Then, sometimes autonomy can be destroyed by drug addiction, turning people into real life versions of TV’s walking dead.
Fortunately, most of us are able to make intelligent choices throughout our life. We can take measures to help ourselves. With that understood, Borup writes with wit and humor to alert us to some truth about human beings. Self-help books abound in our world, but Borup’s approach is unique and, I think, helpful.
Why are so many people today unhappy or even downright miserable? We can blame the times in which we live. We can say that the times are bad, and there is certainly plenty of evidence to support that conclusion. But these are the only times we have. We have to live in the midst of events and human actions that do not speak in favor of human beings. We read in the newspapers about incomprehensible cruelty in the world. Since we do not have a time machine to transport us to a better world, we must do our best to find a home for ourselves and our children in this time and this place. Again, to repeat the obvious: These are the only times we have.
To provide some historical perspective, Borup cites Henry David Thoreau’s famous observation in his day that “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau’s remark is still true today except for the quiet part. Ours is an age of noise, constant noise, the louder the better. “Noise today, Miracle Ear tomorrow” seems to be the chief mantra of present-day American culture. But even if we do “let it all hang out at the top of our voice,” like John McEnroe objecting to what he thinks is a bad call against him on the tennis court, people are still unhappy. Why? Human beings don’t start out to be unhappy, so what happens? Why do we fail to find happiness?
Borup has found a unique way to answer this question. He discovered the theosophist philosopher Krishnamurti, who suggests that indirect approach to wisdom is the best way to become wise. For example, one’s quest for wisdom should begin by focusing on one’s ignorance, on what one doesn’t know. According to Krishnamurti, “wisdom is elusive if attacked straight on or by direct assault, but best gained by dealing with its polar opposite.”
Thus, Borup seeks to understand happiness by focusing on its opposite—misery. He finds seven habits which are guaranteed to make people miserable. These are valuable to know in detail, but I will list them with a minimum of explanation. I hope to tempt people to read Borup’s book to appreciate fully his imagination, wit, and specific examples.
Here are the seven habits of highly miserable people:
First: Make yourself the center of the universe. “What we’re after here is total self-centeredness, total self-absorption, total narcissism.” We see this phenomenon in movie stars, wealthy rock musicians, professional athletes, some political leaders, and other celebrities. In fact, Christopher Lasch, as early as 1978, claimed in his book The Culture of Narcissism that the pathological narcissist is the dominant personality type in American culture.
Second: “Concentrate on things you cannot control.” Make a list of things you can control—your attitude, your thoughts, your treatment of other people, and the words you say to others. Then list all those things you cannot control. Then avoid the things you can control because if you fail in those you are the only one to blame. Instead, focus on those things you cannot control. That way you can blame other people for what is wrong in the world and not have to deal with your own failures.
Third: “Accumulate and covet material possessions.” Define happiness exclusively in terms of the latest and finest gadgets. Advertising will tell us what we need to be happy by promising us new and improved miracle products to solve any problem, as well as free gifts and fun-filled, all-expense-paid vacations to “faraway places with strange sounding names, faraway over the sea.”
Fourth: “Be paranoid about everything.” Become preoccupied with what you fear. This habit will make us really miserable because there are so many things to fear. Be paranoid about natural disasters, political corruption, religious fanaticism, AIDS, Mad Cow disease, SARS, Legionnaire’s disease, bird flu, space alien abductions, West Nile disease, global warming, government spying on private citizens, tyranny of the IRS, and many others. It doesn’t matter if these fears are validated by reality; we can conjure them up in our minds to be as dangerous as we want them to be.
Fifth: “Discover the Inner Victim in You.” Actually there are several potential inner victims in each of us, and they defy any stereotypical model. Cultivate all of them to the extreme.
Sixth: “Take personally the unfairness of the world and resent it mightily. Dwell on it and make the offenders pay.” In fact, we can turn our own failures into financial profit by following the example of the woman who sued McDonalds when she spilled the hot coffee on herself, a clear testimony that common sense went out with Tom Paine.
Seventh: “Live in the past and the future as much as possible and, above all, avoid the present.” The past and the future are things we cannot control, so this habit connects nicely with Habit # 2. More importantly, though, is that only in the present can we experience happiness because, as Thoreau points out, “The past is memory and the future is dreaming.”
For those who doubt the truth of Borup’s book, I suggest watching the Court Channel on television for about two weeks, if you can stand it that long. There the lives of highly miserable people are documented for all to see. Like Oedipus Rex, Reality TV can be a cautionary tale.
Conversely, several years ago I watched a TV program on marriage. One segment featured an elderly couple who had been married almost 60 years. They both confessed that they were happy and still deeply in love. When asked to reveal the secret of such a happy and enduring marriage, the wife explained that they were married during the Great Depression. Times were bad. They didn’t have much in the way of worldly goods and they didn’t expect much, but they did have each other. So they tried to live by the Golden Rule and work together. They were pleasantly surprised. They found themselves rewarded with happiness they never expected when they began married life
Thus, if we seek to be happy we can follow Borup’s advice and avoid the 7 Habits of Highly Miserable People. Then perhaps we can experience a measure of happiness. Perhaps we can even say of our life, “This is good. I can’t think of anything better than this.” Such is the wisdom of Mark Borup, who writes about a complicated subject with clarity, insight, humor, and wisdom. Further, this remarkable book offers some good and much-needed common sense, and that is something rare in this loud, confusing, and violent world we live in.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 August 2013 14:08