Why does misery love company?

I feel better when I read about other people's problems. Why is that?

By Cary Tennis
Published January 2, 2007 11:48AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My life is hard right now. My marriage is on the rocks, I screwed up, my wife screwed up ... it's a very long story. We're separated now and we're both seeking therapy for our individual issues. I'm not sure where it will end up, but I'm doing the personal work and I'm assuming she is.

Which brings me to my question. Why is it that when I read some of the letters you receive about the crises in other people's lives I tend to feel better?

More simply put, why does misery love company?

Thanks,
In the Company of Misery

Dear In the Company of Misery,

The cause of our misery is often loss of company. Our misery craves company because loss of company caused our misery. You have lost someone and that is why you are miserable. Your misery is a hunger that must be fed. Your have been cut off from society by that loss. What you need is not so much to fix this one relationship as to get back into human society. You were accustomed to being with someone and now you are alone. It is being alone that is causing the pain. So you connect somewhat with people in reading about their troubles and that is why it seems to help. Of course it does. It helps. But it does not help to read about their successes; why read about people who are happy when we are miserable? It hurts, as it hurts to look in the window of a happy feasting crowd when we are outside, starving and cold. It magnifies our sense of our own suffering and loss. Whereas when we read of others' troubles, our own seem to diminish in comparison -- which is nice. So we prefer to be with others who are also cold and hungry; then we can perhaps find some measure of pleasure for ourselves. In the snow.

This being the first column of the new year, let me say this: From the start I have tried to write only from my own experience, and I have tried to speak directly to the person writing the letter, without undue consideration of how it might be perceived by others. From these practices I deviate at my peril. I drift. So let me speak more directly to you:

You are miserable because you have lost your wife and you feel you have screwed up. So take action to end your isolation. And you have not been listened to enough, have you? Where can you go to be listened to? Where can you go to listen to others? Are there any kinds of structured settings where people who have also recently lost husbands and wives can go to talk and be heard and hear others? That is a very useful thing to do: It seems to help even if your own participation is minimal. What is best is if you can join some kind of group and be of use to the people there. If tasks are performed regularly, such as the pouring of coffee or the cleaning up, you could do that.

Oh, damn. There went my mind again. You see, the whole time I have been writing this I have been meditating and taking notes on my state of mind. Usually of course such a practice would not find its way into the final text. But this is a new year and I am of an experimental bent and so it is finding its way in anyway. It is interesting, is it not, to track intimately the peregrinations of a mind, an ordinary mind, as it wends its way along? It is a fine way to gain some control of the mind and the spirit, to track it as it bumps along. You might try this, too, as a way of mitigating your misery: Try writing as a way of tracking and controlling the mind's going. You don't think of things to say. You just write down what the mind is doing. You may come up with ideas. Or you may simply be an observer of your own self. But it helps. It helps to quiet the mind, and gain some distance. Things may occur to you that have not occurred before. You say you screwed up. But perhaps you just failed to follow some rules. We all fail to follow some rules. There are too many rules anyway. Sit in a chair and breathe for an hour and let your mind go.

Stay in your chair. Stay in your chair for an hour, breathing. Then go out and be with people who also have lost people and are miserable like you and be miserable together. You don't have to know why. It will usually help. That's all you need to know right now.

That brings us to the conclusion of the experiment.

Happy New Year!

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