‘Misery Loves Company’ is a very misunderstood expression. I think most people use it to mean that miserable people want other people around to cheer them up, to commiserate.
For instance, wiktionary says:
- Misery is easier to bear when one is not the only one miserable. quotations ▼
The Cambridge Dictionary implies similarly:
misery loves company
In my view, the misery is a contagion, and so miserable people make other people unhappy. It is the misery itself which ‘loves’ company, not the unhappy person seeking to be less unhappy. This is alluded to on the wikipedia page with an obscure link to “emotional contagion“.
This more cynical view is consistent with the the origin of the expression. which is apparently Marlowe in Dr. Faustus. Positively Parkinson’s writes:
A curious phrase, “misery loves company”. It originated from Dr. Faustus, a play from the 16th century about a man who was prepared to give up all hope by signing a pact with the devil in exchange for 24 years of living with his desires being fulfilled. The quote is from the lips of Mephistophilis, the devil’s agent, in answer to the question about why Satan seeks to enlarge his kingdom. The phrase appears to mean that those who are unhappy seek to make others unhappy too. Is that true? It does seem that the older we get the more we seek to share our maladies, aches and pains; the pills we are taking, the operations undergone, the alternative medicine remedies we have tried. Are we commiserating? Are we truly seeking to drag others into a miserable hell like the clever demon attempted with Dr. Faustus?
For the full text of Faustus, see Note: 2 on this page. The expression is not in English in the original, and I think the translation is metaphorical rather than literal.
The aphorism has been extended in a number of ways that exhibit this misunderstanding.
I know descriptivists will say the expression means what the people say it means. But as a retrograde prescriptivist standing upon the Dictionary and yelling “Stop!”, I say enough is enough; miserable people don’t really want company, and if you choose to accompany them, you asked for it.