Nine Paradoxes to Contemplate as You Consider Your Happiness Project.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 9 paradoxes of happiness to contemplate as you think about your happiness project.

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, I’ve been struck by the paradoxes I keep confronting. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “The opposite of a great truth is also true” – and I’ve certainly found that to be true in the area of happiness.
I try to embrace these contradictions:

1. Accept myself, but expect more of myself. This tension is at the core of any happiness project.

2. Take myself less seriously—and take myself more seriously.

3. Push myself to use my time efficiently, yet also make time to play, to wander, to read at whim, to fail.

4. Strive to be emotionally self-sufficient so I can connect better with other people. Only recently have I begun to understand the importance of this idea.

5. Keep an empty shelf, and keep a junk drawer.

6. Think about myself so I can forget myself.

7. Remember that control and mastery are key elements of happiness; and so are novelty and challenge.

8. Work can be play, and play can be work. As George Orwell observed, “But what is work and what is not work? Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to fell trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles? All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.”

9. The days are long, but the years are short. (Watch the video here.)

Often, the search for happiness means embracing both sides of the paradox.

Take, for example, #1 above. W. H. Auden articulates beautifully this tension: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

What are the accidental limitations, and what the necessary limitations? The first, and most important of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen, and this question is one of the most significant to consider.

* One of my very favorite resolutions is to Kiss more, hug more, touch more, and Benedict Carey wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times about the importance of touch: Evidence that little touches do mean so much.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 39,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Gretchen,
    This is just about my favorite post of yours ever.

  • Mary Anne

    This is not specific to this post, but I wanted to let you know that my husband made a PowerPoint presentation and showed it to me yesterday for my opinion. He used various quotes to illustrate his points, and one of them was, “The days are long, but the years are short”. I exclaimed, “that’s what ‘my Happiness-Project lady’ says”!! and he replied, “oh yes, I guess that’s where I heard it … from your telling me about the book.” I keep going on about your book an blog to everyone who will listen… So now your quote is ‘attributed’ in his PP. 🙂 I had the good fortune to see you at the Blue Willow in Houston and had you sign a book for my very best friend.I’ve read lots of articles about organization, life choices, life styles, etc but none of them have struck a chord with me like your book. Thank you. Sincerely, Mary Anne

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for coming to the event in Houston! I’m thrilled to hear that the
      book resonates with you. I love hearing that a line I wrote was included in
      a PowerPoint presentation!

  • dan

    I’m very interested in number four. have you written anything else about this? I’ve been working on becoming more emotionally self- sufficient, and am confused by the effects it’s having on my relationships. I think there’s kind of a learning curve, and I need to develop new ways to relate to people, as my old ways become redundant. Have you found something similar?

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve just started thinking about this question — which, I now believe, is
      one of the most important questions about happiness! not sure why I didn’t
      focus on this sooner! And it’s a very challenging balance to achieve. I hope
      to write more about it soon.

  • amy

    Great post Gretchen! As I enter month 3 of my happiness project, I’m really struggling with the paradox of exposing myself to new challenges but still being me and not doing something just because “it’s novel” but rather because it interests me.

  • jasonorne

    Absolutely great post. I’m struck by how these paradoxes remind me of zen koans. By allowing both sides to be true, we allow ourselves to intuitively grasp something a bit greater.

    (And I passed you along on facebook with a link to this post, would have done it without the little wednesday nudge anyways =p )

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for passing it along! That’s a great point about the koans, so right.

  • Hi Gretchen, I really liked reading tips 1 and 2. It’s hard to expect more from us when we can’t first accept ourselves. But we also shouldn’t expect too much from ourselves because I think we’ll be taking life too seriously, which leaves less room for our happiness.

  • qconklin

    Hi Gretchen I think this is one of the most interesting important lists I have ever read. Thier is so much packed in to each contradiction that is both important and for us to consider if we are to persue a corse of self-improvement.

  • theacolleen

    One more paradox is that “Things take more time than you think they will” and “Things take a lot less time than you think they will.” Painting the living room? Plan for twice as much time. Sitting down to pay a bill? It only takes a minute! Faced with a pile of dishes to wash, I have a gut feeling that it will take forever, or at least all evening. It never takes that long. I don’t know why I think that way, but realizing that things take more/less time than my preconceived notions led me to another BIG REALIZATION. Giving myself permission to stop doing a task is the best way to get me started on one! If I don’t have to finish cleaning out a closet, I’m much more likely to begin the chore.

    • gretchenrubin

      Absolutely true on both points. Thanks for pointing out the time paradox,
      VERY helpful thing to remember. And just yesterday, I was talking about a
      time when someone said to me “You don’t have to do this,” I was able to do

  • ayirrell

    Great post i am trying to achieve some of these.

    Running along side my happiness project is another project i have been doing for the last year or so, 101 things in 1001 days.

    I have mentioned your book in my latest post and linked back here. is my blog.

  • colleen

    a tip
    Trust other people so they can trust you.

  • Abby

    Such a thought-provoking post, thank you! It shows me how intentionality and mindfulness are so necessary, every step of the way to happiness!

  • EvaEvolving

    Yes! Thank you for this reminder, Gretchen. I think about your paradoxes often. Such a challenging aspect of life.

    One inherent tension I face is this: I love the comfort of routine, but I crave the excitement of breaking that routine. I’m drawn to both novelty and familiarity. Finding the right balance between these two is difficult.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, another paradox! Great one.

  • raisaroo

    Interesting stuff. This is my first time visiting this site. I came across it because I was planning to start a blog and website called ‘The Happiness Project’ which would (1) blog my attempt at trying different happiness techniques and (2) links to different groups and resources. Today I finally decided to see if someone else had the website ‘Happiness Project’ and lo and behold: not only is the website up and running, it is pretty much exactly what I was planning to do. Kudos.
    I have to remind myself not to let this prevent me from doing my own blog and continue working on my personal happiness project. I have to have faith I will find something else to occupy myself with (I hope).

    P.S. : I have had a junk box or drawer for who knows how long where I can simply throw in random stuff in order to keep an ’empty shelf’ (more like some space on my desk)


    • gretchenrubin

      Wow! HAPPY minds think alike, I guess.

      Good luck with YOUR project!

      • raisaroo

        If only. I think I figured out a tentative title for the project ‘The Happiness Project – The Nervous Mind edition.’ I couldn’t help but notice that your advice is for people who don’t suffer from mental illness. I don’t see anywhere on your website a note for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, ocd, bi-polar, etc…. These people in order to find happiness must seek professional help. I don’t think seeking professional excludes following your happiness project but it is an extra hurdle that can not be ignored. I fear that a site like this undermines that people who suffer from a mental illness NEED to get help. I know that is not the intention. However by not mentioning this caveat, your site seems to imply that prescribed drugs, psycho-therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and other medical help is not necessary to happiness. It implicitly adds to the stigma associated with mental illness.
        I am not a happy person. I am in the midst of my fourth major depressive episode and I haven’t hit 30 yet! I have to constantly remind myself it is not my fault. Part of my brain doesn’t function ‘normally.’ I have to learn techniques and take medication in order to be so called ‘functional’ in society in the same manner a diabetic had to take his or her insulin shots and learn about proper nutrition.
        I hope my comment is constructive. In no way am I trying to say you are not helping people, obviously you are, as demonstrated by the positive feedback you have received. I just hope that those who suffer from mental illness are not naively following this program without adequate professional help.

        • gretchenrubin

          Great point. I believe that depression is a serious, urgent condition apart
          from ordinary happiness and unhappiness. A person who needs major,
          professional help should seek that out as soon as possible. You are
          absolutely right!

          In my book and blog, I write about what I’ve learned from my own experience
          and research, and I don’t try to provide a comprehensive view that would
          apply to everyone and every situation. I don’t have the training or
          education to talk about things like medication or forms of therapy, so I
          don’t focus on that.

          But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that because I don’t mention other kinds
          of approaches, I am showing a lack of endorsement.

          Thanks for making this clarification. A very important point.

  • jennyshain

    What is the purpose of the empty shelf? Do other people do this? Just wondering!
    Thanks! Love your postings!

    • gretchenrubin

      I can’t believe I’ve never written a whole post about this! I will do that
      as soon as possible!

      The empty shelf…It’s a luxury — something that gives you space to expand,
      a clear surface, a tangible sign that you’re not cramped and crowded and
      hemmed in.

      I have to defend my empty shelf against encroachment constantly, but I love

      • jennyshain

        Interesting… thx.
        So, it’s like a safe place for expansion. Maybe, knowing that you have to say no to some things to keep a safe place for better things that will come along.

  • jennyshain

    I believe Nikita Ivanovich Panin said, “…in old age
    the years are short and the days are long.”

  • gazeteoku


    Hi, thank you very much. good job.

    Magazin haberleri

  • Karen

    Another paradox: What’s good about you, is also what’s bad about you.

    Aren’t your best traits also the same traits that hurt you in life? Don’t you know people that are so nice, everybody loves them, but because they are so nice, they can be taken advantage of?

    Or people who are focused and tenacious, so they get far in life, but may rub some people the wrong way?

    What helps you, can hurt you.

    • Karen

      Your best trait can be your worst trait!

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE that paradox. Yes! I can’t believe I never thought about this — I
      wrote a biography of Winston Churchill, FORTY WAYS TO LOOK AT WINSTON
      CHURCHILL, and this was one of the main themes of the book.

      What lifted Churchill up were the very qualities that dragged him down.

      This is why self-knowledge is so important. In my case, I’ve started
      thinking a lot about the dark sides of my good qualities, so I can manage
      myself better. Eg, I love the fact that I never procrastinate, but I see how
      that makes me compulsive about working. Balance! Always balance.

      • Karen

        Talk about getting gold stars!!! You made my day. Thanks for responding so positively.

  • Anders

    Regarding paradox #1, which is indeed at the core of happiness, is that not pretty well resolved by the “Serenity prayer” do you think? The punch line of which is to to have the wisdom to know the differance between what you can change (and hence what you can improve on in yourself) and what you cannot change (where you need the serenity to accept – yourself in this case). Although this provides no definate answer in ALL life situations, I find that once I frame it this way, it is easier to act and the paradox fades.

  • Gretchen – Brilliant post. I think that most of us live in a world of contradiction. I know that as a blogger I find myself telling people to focus one day and chill out the next. I believe that life is about finding the middle path most of the time.

  • Rose Ann

    I’m getting older, I’m getting older, but I’m getting wiser.

  • Hi Gretchen
    It was amazing to meet you at the Manhattan JCC event – as excited and emotional as I was.
    I wrote about the Happiness Project (with a small picture of you) and the connection to my amazing experience on my blog:
    Thanks for being such an inspiration to me.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! It was wonderful to get the chance to meet you! Now I’m off to check
      you your post.

  • Diane

    I absolutely love, love, love everything about your project! To wake up and read from your posts is better than a great cup of coffee, although I really don’t do one without the other. I continue to tell all of my friends and family about you and the Happiness Challenge ever since I accidentally found your site through a FaceBook link.

    • gretchenrubin

      Awwww, thanks! You made my day! And I so appreciate you helping to spread
      the word!

  • Hi Gretchen,
    I’ve been reading your happiness project for a few months now. The joy and humanness in your writing brings light. Thank you. I’ve also been exploring the truth of small steps as the common denominator of moving forward in life and your post today stimulated me to write about its paradox. (small steps are where progress is made and don’t sweat the small stuff). I shared a Tossly perspective about paradoxes (linked to your article) and started with a quote from Niels Bohr (Danish Physicist) “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” Thanks again for your thoughtful energy. Have Fun, Jim

  • I have to admit this post nailed a few things that I’ve deep down felt but hadn’t consciously been able to identify. I’m glad you brought these to light because I had been feeling a certain conflict between the way I am and the way I felt I should be feeling in regards to being authentic in my project. (Ah living in expectation means I’m not living in the now. Go figure)

    I like the question about the accidental vs necessary limitations. Interesting perspective I don’t believe I’ve considered in regards to my project.

    Good “thinking” post. Thank you!

  • This is also not to this specific post but I just wanted to share a fantastic solution to a Resolutions Chart that I found today! I had been mulling over what format to product my chart in and going in circles when it hit me – in previous years, my flatmate and I had purchased a ‘Family Calendar’ which provides numerous columns for up to 6 members of the family for each day of the month. Perfect!!! Produced from a great brand, very stylish and best of all already made! Anyway in case anyone is reading this, you can get them online at
    They post international too! Problem solved 🙂

  • Hi, Gretchen!
    I love your posts on paradox, especially since it’s one of my biggest passions and I’ve even written a book about it called “Honor Yourself: The Inner Art of Giving and Receiving” with the cover tagline “Embracing the power of paradox in your life” (you can see it at I’ve found that learning to master BOTH sides of the paradox really is the key, and finding balance the biggest challenge. So here’s one of the many paradoxes I take up in my book that I thought you’d find interesting (and that I am, of course, working on myself!). The belief many of us grow up with is that “constant support, togetherness, and unanimity create the best relationships,” when the truth (the liberating paradox) is: “My relationships are stronger when I pursue my own interests and nurture my individual strengths.” Haven’t you found that good relationships need balance too–an artful swing between dependence and independence, togetherness and solitude? No matter what kind of relationship we are in, I think it’s essential that we celebrate and develop our own unique talents and gifts. I talk more about this in my book and on my recent post on “Creating Spaces in Your Togetherness”:
    Hope we can trade more paradoxes again soon, and many congrats to you on your great new book!

  • Jeri

    I’ve copied the 9 paradoxes and 12 commandments and posted them where I can see them every day. These are great reminders of what is most important.

  • Nice post! Definitely thinkers. Play can be work, 🙂

  • dbsingh

    I stumbled on your article one day and I was so happy to read it-and really impressed.Since then I read/store your articles(to waken me from my mental lethargy) The recent 27 points that you sent out were SUPERB.I aim to keep track of your monthly mail and keep myself ALIVE and increase my contribution towards SELFGROWTH and towards SOCIETY.Keep up the good work -sending you all best wishes. Dee Bee.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for your kind words! I’m thrilled to hear that my work
      resonates with you. Good luck with YOUR happiness project!

      • dbsingh

        Dear getchenrubin,
        Your words inspire and encourage hope I have a suggestion to make. If you and Dr.Wayne W dyer and Elizabeth Lesser and Dr.deepak Chopra could get together—-you could bring about a healthy change all over the world. As of now the POLITICIANS of the world have only succeeded in advancing their ‘EGO-RIDDEN’ agenda-hence the present MESS around the WORLD.
        Wishing you the very best in your endeavour-and more success.
        Sincerely,D B Singh.

  • Catherine

    This is an excellent post Gretchen. It resonates with one of my favourite quotes at the moment, from Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids: ‘…often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.’ What I like about your paradoxes is that they keep adding possibilities: this can be true and this, one is not driven into limiting either / or choices. Another paradox of happiness that intrigues me, is that those people who seem most honestly and truthfully engaged in the process of happiness, like yourself, are also those who engage most honestly and truthfully with their whole spectrum of feelings and experiences, especially those we think of as negative.

  • bigdipperursa

    I’m afraid that talking about happiness is like talking about an ice cream cone. The quotes tell you what you already know; if you think preaching causes happiness, think again. I begin to think one is born with a finite amount of happiness, like zebra stripes. You are what you is. If you are cluttered, you won’t get free of clutter by a list. If you are sarcastic, will life suddenly become irony-free with a few tips? I love this site, but it’s like an attitudinal strip club. Still, if anyone changes or is redeemed by acquired knowledge, I say, “You go!”