When we were children and our parents forbid us something, immediately that became more palatable before our eyes. It was enough that something was forbidden so that our mind could start up inventing a thousand possible ways to transgress that rule, preferably without being caught red-handed.
Reverse Psychology follows, in a certain way, this logic. It is a set of apparently contradictory techniques that give us positive results. In fact, they can be easily applied to our daily lives.
Cure depression by trying to feel worse?
About 20 years ago, clinical psychologist Randy J. Paterson realized he was not making much progress with his group of patients. It was a group composed of people who had been admitted due to severe depression. Its mission was to alleviate the symptoms and keep them safe, avoiding the appearance of suicidal ideas.
The problem was obvious: Paterson could not eliminate the pessimism of the group. Many of those people had already undergone therapy before and had not made much progress, why would it be different this time?
In fact, these patients, like many who come to visit a psychologist, were skeptical. They did not think they could be happy or feel better or that the therapy would work. Then Paterson came up with a brilliant idea: What if he asked them to feel worse? The response of the patients was immediate. Interestingly, they became involved in the treatment and managed to move forward.
From that moment on, Reverse Psychology became an alternative to Positive Psychology and the obsession with happiness that seems to have taken over our culture. Its message is simple: if you want to be happier, focus on the bad.
The pressure to be happy makes us unhappy
According to Paterson, seeking happiness can be exhausting for many people. Furthermore, in certain circumstances, such as when we are going through a difficult period of our life, it is simply something unnatural. It is also difficult for people to whom the mere prospect of change terrifies them so much that it prevents them from moving forward.
In fact, different studies conducted later support his idea. An experiment carried out at the University of Denver, for example, found that the more people valued happiness, the less happy they perceived themselves. These psychologists consider that this apparent paradox has a logical explanation: valuing happiness excessively can make us feel particularly disappointed when we are not happy.
Another experiment conducted at the University of New South Wales revealed that the obsessive pursuit of happiness, coupled with social pressure to be happy and avoiding negative feelings, actually generates maladaptive behaviors and leads us to experience more negative emotions.
An additional study conducted at the University of Toronto revealed that when we propose ourselves to be happy at all costs, we have the perception that time flies, which increases the chances of feeling overwhelmed. The obsessive pursuit of happiness upsets our perception of time.
In short, obsessing with happiness can make us more unhappy. According to Reverse Psychology, we could achieve to be happier if we go the opposite way; that is, we focus on our bad habits and the things that make us feel bad, a counterintuitive strategy that can give good results in the long term.
How can you be happy focusing on what makes you most miserable?
Reverse Psychology frees us from the pressure generated by seeking happiness. That makes us lower the mental barriers and we can see more clearly all those habits and things that make us feel worse. That is to say, we manage to remove the blindfold and stop self-deception.
In fact, one of the main barriers to grow is precisely that we do not realize the beliefs, attitudes, thoughts and behavior patterns that make us most unhappy. We are simply falling into them, as if we were slipping little by little through a tunnel. Trying to amplify these signals will allow us to take note of our inner dialogue.
In fact, if we realize that if we want to feel bad, we should just throw ourselves in bed without doing anything, we can also think that to feel better we should do just the opposite: go out. It is a change of natural perspective, not forced, that gives us a choice of alternative behavior.
Reverse Psychology helps us to realize that we are not really as unhappy and/or unlucky as we thought. Realizing this can generate a feeling of empowerment and can even give us hope that tomorrow everything will be better.
Of course, Reverse Psychology is not for everyone – it has its contraindications – but it works very well when we feel paralyzed and burdened as it serves to unlock our inner resources by removing the barriers that we ourselves have raised. This change of perspective takes away tension, helping us to rediscover the lost balance.
McGuirk, L. et. Al. (2018) Does a culture of happiness increase rumination over failure? Emotion; 18(5): 755-764.
Kim, A. & Maglio, S. J. (2018) Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review; 25(4): 1337–1342.
Mauss, I. et. Al. (2011) Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness. Emotion; 11(4): 807–815.