Why Misery Loves Company
Sometime in the 16th century, an Italian historian by the name of Dominici de Gravina articulated a deceptively simple human experience: Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris. This roughly translates to “It is a comfort to the unfortunate to have had companions in woe.”
de Rebus’s words were echoed in Christopher Marlow’s Dr. Faustus too, when the devil Mephistopheles says it to the doctor who sold his soul for immortality.
Faustus: Stay, Mephistopheles, and tell me, what good will my soul do thy lord?
Mephistopheles: Enlarge his kingdom.
Faustus: Is that the reason he tempts us thus?
Mephistopheles: Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris. (It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery)
This is an elegant sentiment that continues to echo through time and space. For people who are unhappy, it is indeed a source of comfort to share their sorrow with people in similar situations. Their misery loves the company of others who may understand the sorrow and grief like no one else. It’s as if miserable people hold court with each other, where one’s misery is discussed like poetry and lofty ideas. There’s no supreme leader or jester, just a circle of empathy and shared unhappiness.
“Misery loves company” is an adage that lived before de Gravina and will outlive all of us. Over time, it has come to have a bad rep with the most common understanding being that those who are unhappy make others unhappy too, or bask in the sorrow of others. It’s almost as if a miserable person is a force to be reckoned with, who will bring about doom and gloom. Perhaps, they are “emotional vampires,” who feed off the pity of others.
But these readings obscure a cardinal theory: an “in-betweenness” between expectations and reality, telling a story of how people resist the alienation embedded in misery. Upon a closer look, the adage can tell us about people, community, and the negotiations we make with hardships.
There is a behaviorial reason why misery is linked to sociability. A 2011 research looked at this link, arguing that sadness ended up increasing people’s desire for social connectedness. The hypothesis was that sadness, especially when triggered by feelings of isolation and social loss, served almost an adaptive function, motivating people to reach out to others. Arguably, this may not be true for all forms of misery — disappointment, jealousy, discouragement, and hardships — for people cope in different ways.
But the desire for social connectedness speaks to a critical ecosystem for emotional and mental well-being. Social support systems have been increasingly linked to a positive effect on different forms of wellness; on the other hand, those who are denied this support have a higher chance of feeling depression and loneliness, so much so that studies have illustrated how this absence alters one’s brain function.
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Another reason could be the shared understanding misery presents. “I suspect it is not that the miserable person enjoys the company of other miserable people, but rather that the abstract state of misery enjoys the company of its own kind — more misery. Hence, like attracts like,” a blog post noted. This squares with the idea of “familiarity bias,” where people are more attracted to what is familiar.
The thing about sorrow is it makes people uncomfortable; no one quite knows what to say and the assumption is a miserable person wants to necessarily be placated. But in the chosen company of other miserable people is the likelihood that they won’t pull you out of the misery; perhaps they wallow in it together or do a mutual self-deprecation bonding session. The possibilities are endless. There is comfort in knowing that instead of sympathy or pity, the ruling emotions are empathy and compassion. Misery loves company, and it is possible for company to reciprocate the abstract grief one may feel, allowing an emotional bubble to form that is comforting and validating, at least for a hot minute.
And people who discuss their misery with others aren’t always looking for answers; it is almost as if emotions are kept on a conveyor belt, making the rounds between one person to the other, where they surveil and suspect and for a minute aren’t individually responsible for the real and imagined baggage in their lives.
And arguably, misery does not always find verbal expression, and can live within our heads too. Company can present itself as other forms of misery — say, when nothing seems to be going in one’s favor. You wake up late; miss the train; screw up at work; fight with your friends. This is misery too, just one never quite articulated. This can be ascribed to the “negativity bias” to a degree, where even the most trivial things are amplified because people are primed to focus on negative events more than positive ones. Evidence shows that the brain is wired in such a way that neural processing is greater in response to any form of negative stimuli.
“There’s evidence to suggest that the brain may be hardwired to choose discontentment over and over; dissatisfaction is where we start and, perhaps, where we end too,” The Swaddle wrote earlier.
Misery is oft misunderstood. “Emotional contagion doesn’t last for weeks; it is more fleeting and transient,” says Chris Segrin, a professor of psychology and communications at the University of Arizona at Tucson. People believe otherwise because “the idea that you ‘catch’ emotions like you catch the flu is seductively simple and parsimonious.” Miserable people are anxious people, lonely people, but also happy people every now and then. The veil of sadness they appear to carry is not the entirety of their identities, unlike the colloquial perception of the phrase suggests.
There’s something almost subversive about unhappy people finding the emotional agency to hold circles of collective grief. It is suggestive of a resistance, of people making the choice to navigate their emotions instead of being alienated into their circumstances.
Misery loves company, and company loves it back too. Together they spy on something elusive, something that demands courage. We look back at Shakespeare, who wrote in Measure for Measure: “The miserable have no other medicine / But only hope.”