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Paradoxes of Happinesss: the sadness of a Happiness Project.

Posted Oct 27 2008 1:57pm

Spiderweb2 I think everyone could benefit from a happiness project.

But there’s also a sad side to a happiness project, which comes directly from the first and most important of my Twelve Commandments: “Be Gretchen.”

Many of the things that have brought me happiness since I started my Happiness Project came directly from my attempt to do a better job of “Being Gretchen.” This blog. My children’s literature book group. My Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island project.

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.

Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!--and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: "The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open." Which means -- at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not -- to acknowledge what I don't encompass.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.

Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible -- in fact quite easy -- to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.

People judge us; we judge ourselves.

And the Happiness Project makes me sad for another reason. Just as I must “Be Gretchen” and accept myself, strengths and weaknesses both, I must also accept everyone around me. This is most true of my immediate family.

It’s very hard not to project onto your children everything you wish they would be. “You should be more friendly,” “You would love to be able to play the piano, why don’t you practice?” “Don’t be scared.”

And it’s even harder to accept your spouse. A friend told me that her mantra for marriage was “I love Leo, just as he is.” I remind myself of this constantly. I wish the Big Man got a big kick out of decorating the apartment for the holidays and that he was more eager to pass out gold stars, and sometimes it makes me sad to realize that he won't ever be that way. I’m sure he wishes that I were eager to go camping and that I had a more peacable nature. But I love him just the way he is, and I’m a lot happier when I don’t expect him to change. The fact is, we can change no one but ourselves.

That’s another paradox of happiness: I want to “Be Gretchen,” yet I also want to change myself for the better.

Now, you might say again, "Why does all this make you sad? Rejoice in what you are; be authentic," etc., etc. But it does make me feel sad sometimes.

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Several thoughtful readers sent me the link to a very interesting article from The Atlantic: Paul Bloom's First Person Plural, about our "multiple selves."

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Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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