Paradoxes of Happinesss: the sadness of a Happiness Project.

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.

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.”

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.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • kim

    i can so relate to this blog, right now i am working hard to Be Kim.
    i’m not enjoying realizing the negative attributes that i have been ignoring for so many decades (ummm, like about 4 decades actually). and i don’t like that it’s hard to undo those things, they have become so ingrained in me, but i refuse to let them Be Kim anymore.
    i’m also sad to realize that i probably won’t be a supermodel traveling the world in luxury; madison avenue just doesn’t seem to find anything sexy about 40+-year-old stressed-out mothers of 2! oh well, their loss!
    and it’s pretty much seeming like George Clooney was serious about all that “never getting married” stuff.
    after so many years, maybe all of my years, living for other people it’s really hard to Be Kim, i’m so out of touch with her.
    But i’m also very excited about getting to know Kim, she’s far from perfect, she has character flaws (such as reading and writing on awesome blogs when she should be working) but she’s getting stronger every day. i might even want to be her friend!!
    PS: i work at a fly-fishing publishing company, so if you ever decide to go after your fly-fishing dream i can hook a girl up!! (bad pun not intended)

  • brandy

    Gretchen, I am just through March of your book and I just wanted to say thanks. I’m inspired at a time where I greatly need it. Thank you for being Gretchen and writing the book just as it is.

  • Wendy Craig

    Hi Gretchen I’m fortunate that a lovely friend of mine bought me your “Page a Day Calendar” and it has been an inspiration.
    I am learning to “Be Wendy” and I loooooove it. I’m begining to accept me as I am and also coming out of my comfort zone by taking one to one salsa lessons, which gives me a buzz.
    I’ve also refused to use the word “can’t” gets rid of the negative feelings, changed it to ‘not mastered that yet’
    Thank you for your inspiration

  • Lizzie

    Stumbled upon this page. So relevant to my life right now. Great writing. I’ll bet being Gretchen isn’t so bad after all 😉

  • Meg R

    Gretchen, it does seem sad at first glance, but when I think that it takes away all the pain of trying to be or like things that don’t just come easily/naturally, I think how much smaller and simpler life will be for me. I look around at purchases I’ve made and the ones I’m sorriest over are the ones that I saw as turning me into this sort of person, like my huge!! glass topped coffee table that is heavy and useless, in the way all the time. That’s a description of what I become when I am around it.

  • James Todd

    Here’s another take… Gretchen, you note toward the end of this now-famous (!) post, that paradoxically, you want also to Be Better as well as Be Gretchen….
    After pondering your take on most of the wisdom of happiness, I am concluding that for me, the better injunction is… Don’t Just Be James. I have years of experience trying to ‘be me’, and I am now learning that all the ego-involvement may make for a spicy character, but that there is more to me than just that…it’s my way of addressing the paradox of personal growth, and for me its away from the shallow me of personality toward the greater me of … presence.
    James Todd
    (and Canada loves you too!

  • Cass

    Hi. Thank you for all that you do. I run to my computer in the morning to grab up the Happiness Quote, so I have a point of reflection daily. But this sentence “….to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.” is the point I am at, and it took a long time to get here. It’s like a warm hug, and I am glad to hear that I am ok not being all those things that are not in my nature. Now the challenge is to find and excavate…what am I good at. Thank you

  • Patty

    Interesting post! My reaction is: you never know. People evolve. I agree with you — it’s important — and liberating — to recognize who you are and who you aren’t — right now. But that doesn’t mean you will never change. Maybe I’m just in denial about my limitations, but I just say — life takes you places you don’t always expect!

  • “The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it.”

    I feel this way often, especially living in NYC. Every day I hear of some new club, event, restaurant, etc and while I get excited to try these new places occasionally, I’ve accepted that I am a creature of habit. I have my favorite spots and I’m cool with that. I have always believed we need more people living out their truths and radically embracing themselves.

    At the same time, do you find that knowing what you like/don’t like stops you from trying new things or challenging yourself? On the one hand, I understand the idea of fully accepting myself. On the other hand, I do push myself based on how much effort is required. For example, a new restaurant after work is low risk so I am likely to do it. A trip to another country is bigger risk which makes me less likely to do it (I am AMAZED at folks who just get on a plane and go!). Part of this is rooted in my desire to find a balance between embracing who I am while still being open to what the world has to offer.

  • bonha

    1. First: Never forget that money can’t buy happiness. There is no need for you to become a president of the country. Then will you be happy? No president is happy, because happiness has nothing to do with your post, with your money, with your power. It has something to do with your inner change. Happiness is not a result. It is a way of life.
    2. Why is man unhappy? No animal is so unhappy, no bird is so unhappy, no fish is so unhappy as man. Why is man so unhappy? Because man desires happiness, and the birds are happy right now; the trees are happy right now. Man desires happiness; he is never happy here and now. He always desires happiness and goes on missing it. Happiness is here. It is happening all around you.
    3. So the paradox is: as long as you desire happiness, you will never be. The more you ask for happiness, the more you will be in suffering. The suffering is a shadow. The greater the desire for happiness, the greater will be the shadow. Ask for happiness and you will never get it. You will only suffer frustration. Why? Because there is only one way to be happy, and that is to be happy here, now. Happiness is not the end result of desire. It is an attitude, not a desire. You can be happy here and now if you know how to be, but you will never be happy if you don’t know how to be and you go on desiring it. Happiness is an art. It is a way of life. Happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.
    4. Don’t choose. Accept life as it is in its totality. You must look at the total: life and death together, love and hate together, happiness/unhappiness together, agony/ecstasy together. If you look at them together, then what is there to choose? If you see they are one, then from where can choice enter? If you see agony is nothing but ecstasy, ecstasy nothing but agony; if you can see happiness is nothing but unhappiness; love is nothing but hate, hate is nothing but love — then where to choose? how to choose? Then choice drops.
    5. Look at the whole thing. You never think why you are miserable — you are simply miserable. Whenever you are happy you start looking, “Why am I happy?” Misery seems to be natural; happiness seems to be something unnatural happening sometimes. Misery is your state and happiness is your hankering. An enlightened person is simply happy, just as you are simply miserable. Simply happy! and is never miserable. Even sometimes when the shoe pinches, he simply puts it right. It is not misery, it is simply physical pain — a discomfort, but not misery. He simply puts the feet right; he changes the shoes, or he walks without the shoe. Discomfort can happen to an enlightened man, but never misery — because how can misery happen? When there is no cause for his blissfulness misery is impossible. you caused, you cannot destroy it. Uncaused, how can you take it away? Uncaused, there is no opposite to it.
    6. Remember this. This is the difference between happiness and bliss. Your happiness is caused. Sometimes a friend has come and you are happy. How long are you going to be happy with the friend? A few moments — and then you will be happy when he leaves. What type of happiness is this? It is caused, and the cause disappears. Sooner or later you become fed up and it disappears. Bliss is a happiness uncaused. Simply as you are, you are happy. There is nothing to say about why you are happy.
    7. The real is beyond happiness and unhappiness. It is neither tense nor relaxed, it is neither dark nor light; it is beyond. When all duality has ceased then you are blissful. Hindus have called that ananda — it means ‘beyond the two’. You cannot say a sage is happy. He is not happy because happiness has to be followed by unhappiness. You cannot say a sage is unhappy. A sage is blissful, he has passed the duality. Now there are no hills and no valleys; he moves on the ground, he moves on one level. There are no ups and downs because ‘up’ and ‘down’ exist as a duality.

    • ssh

      very thoughtfull…

  • vicki

    My daughter loves to go “garaging” and find GREAT DEALS!!! Yesterday, during one of her excursions to find a new $2500 couch for $250 she found “The Happiness Project” book in a pile. First of all, she couldn’t believe somebody would sell such a treasure. Then, and this is what is most fantastic, she literally stopped her shopping venture to get home so she could give me this new gift – your book!!!! I love her and am sooo excuted to start this Project on myself and my life !! I used to be a “butterfly” personality – always happily flitting through life, loving my kids, my friends, spontaneous get togethers, late night pizza and wine moments, on and on and on.. . However, over the past – let’s say 10 years – I’ve become absolutely exhausted .. . the thought of a “spontaneous get together” makes me cringe – I have to schedule time with my kids (which makes me cringe even more because I love them more than anything in life!!!!) – and I truly have to wonder if I have friends any more . . . people will only be stood up so many times – again, makes me cringe!!!! Clearly, I truly have a PROJECT in front of me but am honestly very excited to engage in this new venture!!!!! I think I still own a positive outlook somewhere in this exhausted being and am starting the search today. Thank you much!!!

  • I love this one – so true.

  • molly

    I totally get it! Great post!

  • outtahere78

    Thank you for posting this.

    Recently, I had noticed how many things I want to try and get good at…Anything from the violin to Muay Thai to Crossfit to you name it. But I simply can’t. There isn’t enough time and I don’t have the money, either. Realizing those limitations made me sad.

    As with so many things, acceptance is the answer to my problems today.

  • Maylette Cabriga

    Hi, I stumbled upon your book in a mini bookstore in an airport when I was waiting for my plane to board last Monday. To be honest, I didn’t know about your book. When I saw the book sitting in the shelf, this might sound cheesy, but I felt like it talked to me. So I decided to buy the book. I have started reading it. I haven’t finished it though. But I can say it made me want to start a happiness project of my own. I can relate to what you were feeling. Kudos to you for writing this book!

  • Jeanne

    I have found that certain catchphrases, mantras or affirmations work best in certain situations. My favorite one for staying in compassion and out of harsh judgment as I observe the behavior of others is one that my pastor taught me many years ago, and it’s “What’s my version of that?” You often hear people say things like, “I would never do that. Can you believe people do that? Who does that?” These are the wrong questions for one who is seeking inner peace to ask. The correct question is always, “What’s my version of that?” I may never have killed anyone, but I have sometimes felt like it. We can find our own version (usually much more subtle) of just about every behavior we see around us. By looking for it, we can tone down our condemnation and open our heart to compassion. We are all so abundantly human! Also, I can’t change the behavior of anyone else, but I have complete control of my own. If I condemn someone for being stingy or selfish, I know it’s time for me to be more caring and generous. Next time you start to condemn and judge, ask yourself, “What’s my version of that?” and take an honest look inward instead of out and see what happens.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great discipline. Thanks for posting.

  • Wolfie

    Hi Gretchen, thank you for starting your Happiness Project and sharing with the rest of us what we have been feeling, yet not realizing. It’s possible to be ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ at the time time.

  • Maggie

    Gretchen, Gretchen, Gretchen, how bad could it be to be Gretchen? My father wanted to name me Gretchen, but alas I am Margaret and so that is who I must be. But I long to be Gretchen. Beautiful, exotic, mysterious Gretchen. You inspire me.

    • Agnes

      Gretchen is a nickname for Margaret!

  • gopika

    I see the resolution chart but how can I edit it like how do I check mark it

  • Kelly

    A brilliant therapist said something to me when I was complaining about a boyfriend I had in college who wasn’t living up to some expectation that I had. She said, “Why are you trying to get French food in a Chinese restaurant?” You have to be self-aware and realistic to have a degree of happiness.

  • Will Spurgeon

    Out of the few articles I’ve read of yours so far, this is my favorite :^) It immediately made me happy. It’s strangely comforting to hear a “happiness guru” talk frankly about sadness. It’s like when you are helping your kid pull out a splinter, and they say they are afraid this process will hurt, and you reply honestly “Yes, it may hurt a little – that is the nature of pulling splinters. But you will be happier without the splinter.”