Want To Be Happier? Avoid False Choices.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

I started thinking about false choices when I heard a friend describe a new job he was considering. “I don’t think I’ll take it,” he explained. “There are two ways to do that job. John Doe was the wise counselor to the boss, the old friend who had the boss’s respect and his ear. Joe Doe was the sycophant, the suck-up who told the boss what he wanted to hear and did all his dirty work. I can’t follow the first model, and I won’t follow the second model. So the job’s not for me.”

But that was a false choice. There are any number of ways to do a job; he didn’t have to limit himself to one of those two models.

I’ve noticed that in the area of happiness, people often offer false choices.

“I’d rather have three true friends, instead of tons of shallow friends.”
There aren’t just two options at the extreme. There are all kinds of friendship, along a wide spectrum of intimacy. You don’t have to choose between a “real” few and “superficial” many.

“I think it’s more important to worry about other people’s happiness, instead of thinking only about myself and my own happiness.”
Why do you have to choose? You can think about your happiness and other people’s happiness. In fact, as summed up in the Second Splendid Truth, thinking about your own happiness will help you make others happy. And vice versa!

“I believe it’s more important to be authentic and honest than it is to be positive and enthusiastic.”
Can you find a way to be authentically enthusiastic or honestly positive? In my experience, it’s often possible, though it can take a little extra work.

From Eleanor Roosevelt: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
Happiness is a goal and a by-product. Nietzche explained this well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

I think false choices are tempting for a couple of reasons. First, instead of facing a bewildering array of options, you limit yourself to a few simple possibilities. Also, the way you set up the options usually makes it obvious that one choice is the high-minded, reasonable, laudable choice, and one is not.

But although false choices can be comforting, they can leave you feeling trapped, and they can blind you to other choices you might make. “Either I can be financially secure, or I can have a job I enjoy.” “I have to decide whether to marry this person now or to accept the fact that I’m never going to have a family.”

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Sometimes, the falsity of a false choice comes from the fact that both choices are true. I have more time than I think and less time than I think. I can accept myself and expect more from myself.

Can you think of examples of when you, or someone you know, fell into the trap of a false choice?

* I’m fascinated by ice sculptures, jack-o-lanterns, and radishes cut to look like flowers, so I enjoyed this video showing how someone carving roses out of a watermelon.

* I posted a question on the Facebook Page: “What was the last book that kept you awake way past your bedtime, because you couldn’t stop reading?” The question generated a huge number of responses, and now I’ve added lots of books to my summer-reading list.

If you’re also looking for a good summer book, please consider The Happiness Project (can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

  • Gretchen,I love this post. I am often looking for inspirational quotes to post on the FB page for the site I am editing, and so many “inspirations” seem to be about selecting the “noble choice”. There is more than one or two choices, and there are many ways to frame a situation. False choices lead to false ultimatums and there’s no reason to be that hard on yourself.

  • amandahirsch

    I love turning “either/or” into “both/and”….it’s a concept at the core of improvisational comedy, which teaches you to “yes, and” your scene partner….ie to build on the information they offer instead of denying it, or ignoring it and just adding your own information to the mix. You do this not be “nice” but because it makes for a better, funnier scene. I’ve applied the concept of “yes, and” in a number of business meetings, where people are arguing over which idea is best — often, there’s a way to build on both ideas instead of deeming one best and one “worst.”

  • Very good. I’ve seen so many people define the choices in a manner that puts themselves in the worst possible light and exclude the choice that puts them in the most favorable light be use, well that one could never possibly be true! Trying to get my kids out of that mental frame.

  • Absolutely agree with the “yes, and” approach!
    Also call these false choices “paradoxes,” and wonder if it’s going too far to say that some of us are wired to view the world in terms of either – or. Culturally, for example, some nations score pretty high on the uncertainty avoidance dimension, meaning they are uncomfortable in limbo, avoid or mitigate risks wherever possible, and wish to make decisions to finalize things, know where they are. In terms of MBTI(r) personality type, that would probably relate to the J preference, or “judging,” again indicating individuals with this preference like things decided and finished.
    Great post!

  • LivewithFlair

    Very nice! When I teach logical fallacies in my classroom, we talk about the “false choice” or false dilemma all the time. You can be both a mother and have a career. http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/

    • Wow, this is the one area where I’ve felt gobsmacked by the false promise that we can have it all. Maybe, if the US got sane about work/life balance in general, and got creative about the specifics of performing work activities, this would become more true. I’m somebody who just about always thinks “I can find a way.” But law firms and motherhood really do not mix well. Maybe one can have a career and be a mother but I think that means a lot of creativity in carving out our own new forms of careers. I can get on board with that sentiment.

  • This reminds me of people who are always emphasizing quality over quantity. What about quality AND quantity? It’s similar to what you say above about a few real friends or a lot of superficial ones. On my blog, I often discuss how when it comes to friends, more is more. It’s about quality AND quantity– studies have proven that having more friends will help your health and your finances–and people are often really reluctant to hear it. It’s comforting to be ok with having only one or two close friends, because then once you’ve reached that quota, there’s no pressure for you to go out and keep building relationships. But, as you say, this is a false choice. I’ve danced around this idea in my head a lot, but not until reading this post did it become entirely clear for me. Thanks!

    • Hi Rachel, I agree with having more friends issue. Having more friends is great. I think that people mistaken that friends have to be people like women in Sex in the City, always meeting up every week, or doing something every day. I realized that some of my friends I see once a week, other times because they have a family to take care of, or are busy with their career we see each other once every two months. But I still value their opinion and what we have.

      I was reading a job hunting book, and they were saying, the people who you consider your closest friends may indeed never be able to help you find the job you’re searching. The ones who are not always in contact with you may be the ones that are able to help you out.

  • donnamae9

    I liked that this gave a name to what I was seeing and thinking all along. I see it as a kind of self-sabotoge when ever you limit yourself and think that something cannot improve “it is what it is” attitude.

  • yeahshestamps

    You hit the NAIL on the head here, for me. I have so often encountered jobs, sitautions, and mostly people that have made me feel forced to choose between exactly what you’re speaking of. TWO choices. Why can’t there be three or four? or MORE?

    I realize that what works for some people based on their own wants/needs forces them to become very narrow minded in terms of what they are willing to accept in terms of relationships, careerss, etc., but it sure is a great feeling to be liberated from feeling like you only have two choices. In or out. Job or no job, friend or no friend.

    Thanks for posting this-hopefully people will catch on to this freeing way of thinking instead of what we’re all used to. Definitely a ‘by product’ of happiness! Turning our demands/desires from “it can only be THIS or THAT” to “it can be ALL kinds of things” is certainly a GOOD thing!

  • JenDC

    This is a great topic for discussion. I think people give themselves “false choices” because they are often unhappy with what they chose. For example, if they have 3 very close friends and are secretly wishing they had more, they might tell, even convince themselves, “I would rather have 3 close friends than lots of superficial friendships.” This is a cop out or an excuse for not going after what it is they really want. I think we are all guilty of doing this from time to time so I love your idea of not limiting yourself to just two extreme choices.

  • Debra

    The false choices that make me cringe the most:

    I’m too old/fat/ugly to ____________(insert activity).

    What a way to limit yourself and not have any fun.

    I’m too fat to ______________(insert anything).

  • tarasophia

    So glad you are talking about this topic. Its amazing how tempted we are to create limiting either/or’s, to say, “it’s impossible. i can have x and give up y, or y and give up both. either way i lose.” I’ve made it a practice in my life and also recommend it all the time to coaching clients that the minute they catch themselves in this kind of thinking to say, “how can i have both?” asking “how can i have both” immediately sends your mind to work brainstorming creative possibilities. always a better question to ask than “can i have both” or “which one will i choose?”
    Tara, http://www.wiselivingblog.com

  • openfan

    I often hear women say that if you want a reliable partner, you have to let go some romanticisms. It is one of the false choices too. I think we don’t need to define our romance based on what’s shown in commercials and movies. I definitely think a partner can be reliable and romantic at the same time. My boyfriend is one of them.

    Btw, when you mentioned that you husband was not gonna get better about getting back to you through emails. I had the same problem with my boyfriend. I am very detail-oriented email person, whereas he has no problem not checking his email for days. So, we created our own ritual. He would call me everyday at 1pm after his lunch break and how long the conversation lasts depend on how our mornings went and I would always remind him to read his emails during the conversation if I sent him something important. Sometimes I sent your post in the email for him to read, so we can improve our relationships. I guess we just need to use positive reinforcement when we want to shape behaviors, not just with children.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a great way to handle the email problem! I’m going to try that.

      Absolutely, adults and children alike respond to reinforcement.

  • timderoche

    I am loving your book, gretchen….It’s surprised me a bit how compelling it is and how inspiring.

    I’m a sucker for stories of people striving to change their habits/tendencies for the better…probably because I’ve put a lot of effort into changing my own!

    Tim D
    what do you feel grateful for today?

  • jenny_o

    It usually takes more time and more effort to achieve the “yes, and” outcomes, and people have a limited amount of both.

    Chances are, we will end up having to make “either/or” choices in some areas of our lives. For example, if we have a job, and a spouse, and children – we may not be able to have both a few close friends and many less close friends: there is just not enough time in the day to work, nurture your family relationships, and maintain all of your friends/acquaintances.

    Then I think it becomes a matter of choosing in which areas of our lives we want to have much, and in which areas we must set limits.

    Is that an either/or choice in itself, I wonder?

  • Oh! This is a nasty trap, that is so easy to fall into. Though my problem tends to be more a matter of not being able to choose… given a list of options, my choice is pretty much always “all of the above!”

    I also tend to prefer to view options as being on a continuum, rather than extreme opposites… true, those extreme opposites do exist, and it may not be reasonable to try for both. But there are so many options in between which contain some elements of both.

    Granted, the in-between options tend to take a bit more effort to see, and the balance can be a little trickier to maintain; but the opportunity to find a solution that actually satisfies, as opposed to being “the lesser of two evils”, makes it more than worth it!

  • Steph

    Interesting. I think this is partly a function of how the human brain works. People have difficulty distinguishing between alternatives if there are too many options in the choice set. More specifically though, I think the examples you present are a version of negative “all or nothing” thinking. Perfectionists tend to do this. (As a recovering perfectionist, I can relate. :)).

  • catherine

    I’ve spent $95 a week for the past year on a therapist who has repeatedly made this point to me! I should have just read your blog. I’m getting better at recalling her phrase for this: the third option.

    The third option is not compromise, which is choosing something that doesn’t satisfy either need. The third option recognises that you’re looking at the problem too narrowly. The classic example is, should I be passive or aggressive? The compromise is passive-aggressive; the third option says you can go after what you want in a way that doesn’t trample over others.

    Three-legged stools are so much more stable than two legged ones (and don’t wobble like four legged ones) – the third option is always balance.

  • I often find myself going to extremes, especially when it comes to work. Either I can make good money or Have a job I love… really, if you just stop going to work expecting to be miserable you can make money, have a positive work experience and end up with more energy to do the things you love. My blog is my own personal Happiness Project & The Happiness Project sounds like a great book… I just wrote about some of my fave summer reads at Manic in The City – check it out!

  • Lady K

    interesting. I think I have a false choice to give you: I can either be selfless and considerate of other people’s time or I can consider my own time and be selfish with my time.
    I’m not expressing it well, But I think I get it. I love being there for others so it’s ok to to still do that and still be there for myself…. how do I do this– i have no idea! lol

  • Me

    What if none if this is possible and you are in a situation with no choices or not many, and you CAN’T do these things? I would love the chance to have those questions and the ability to try them, work, drive, have a friend, get out, etc. The truth for the alternate population as many of us are in don’t even bring those questions, or choices into play. Sometimes the choice is am I going to keep on trying while living like this or end it and other days you just take the day for what it is, and the things you can’t do, you can’t do. Thinking TOO MUCH about what many of us are not able to do, is enough to keep you in a situation where you cry, or are forlorn, or almost give up. I think about my garden, no one else cares about it so no one takes care of it, I can’t drive anymore and no one is there to drive me plus I have no where to go at this point. One thing I have learned? Is that I think people don’t appreciate the SIMPLE things like being alive, getting through a minute or a day at a time, not letting what you can’t do overwhelm you, and you loose your coping techniques by the very simple fact that you can’t do them anymore. Having a meal made for me WOW that is cool, knowing that when DH retired we won’t be able to afford me is hard not to be anxious about. Ending what few relationships that I had left that were toxic, was good for me and that’s so funny how you worded it because I was thinking of the coping technique that I learned when I was in my 20s and my son had PI, I know it’s helped others too, positive negatives.
    When crisis or illness, whatever are the constant, look at that or them, as NORMAL for you, then when you have a day when it is not like that or there is something good that happened, go with it and say WOW What a surprise and gift, knowing that the negative or difficulties will be back soon enough, and that is ALL I can come up with, and believe me I’ve tried everything to the point the Doctors and counselors call me a fighter, a stoic, tell me I have a good attitude, that most people would have cracked by now but you know what? That means nothing to me because it does NOT feel good and I do what I can when I can. When I tried support groups for health problems, looked for rides when I am not old enough for medicate and I don’t get disability, and even the social worker 2 doctors ordered in dumped me via the Social and visiting nurses association, I got one note and told I did not call soon enough and they blew me off. I pretty much went inside of myself and I am truly alone even when someone is here, self protection and I gave myself permission not to follow the regiment I had alway set for myself that was supposed to be a good thing, like not making the bed for a day LOL
    Sometimes having a toxic person or no person, is not a false choice because the toxic people hurt and took away from what I DO have. And I do have me. what I can do, and alot more than other people do but wow, sometimes it seems like some people have too much time on their hands or think too much! I like the song Let It Be, and there is quote that says somehing about if you are crying it is not because you are sad, it’s because you miss the good you did have and it’s a good kind of crying I’ll have to look that up.
    Basically no one knows what is going on in each home, or in each person’s mind or life, no one but the people themselves.
    And I got through today, that is a good thing and last night? I got some SLEEP after no sleep for 48 hours.
    One day I did not take any of my meds etc just to feel good and it did although I suffered for it, I had that ONE DAY! I sure would like to be able to get out and find out how to meet people, anyone, people like me, not necessarily, just to be able to do it! I was a very social person and overnight things can change that quickly so be happy right NOW! THAT FEELS GOOD. Peace and Blessings

  • I think the true friends addage is very true. Although you may have alot of friends, it is important to focus on the one’s that will be there during the good and bad times.

  • Rachel

    As you often say, Gretchen, the opposite of a great truth is also true. Sometimes there are other choices; sometimes there are not. Sometimes false choices are false, but sometimes they are true. Too many options overwhelm the human brain. Often it’s easier–and ultimately makes us happier–if we do make a choice between two options instead of focusing on all the alternatives. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • EscapeVelocity

    I hope “I can either be myself or be in a relationship” is a false choice, although at this point there’s a certain amount of evidence in support. Then there’s “job satisfaction, money, reasonable hours–choose any one.”

    • gretchenrubin

      Along the same lines, I used to hear, “great job, great relationship, great
      apartment — you can get 2 out of 3, but not all 3.”

  • Soooo love this! I was a huge PITA in law school because I’d often simply refuse to accept the hypotheticals that were supposed to be instructive but really were about forcing false choices. “There are 8 of you and there is a raft with room for only 7. Who do you leave behind?” Um — nobody. Why can’t we squeeze in? What if we carried one on our shoulders? etc. etc. Yes I could get very annoying!!

  • Jim

    Hi Gretchen,
    Love the discussion, thank you. It somehow pulled on my serious cap…
    Seems to me that over and over again happiness is a perspective of appreciating what you have. In the moment, in your movement, in your choices… You can be happy about your ability to choose.

    Either/Or is good for prioritizing. Yet Either/Or thinking leaves out many options filling a continuum from one truth to another. Isn’t it more a question of what’s the right choice, than avoiding a false choice, and acknowledging there are many possibilities?

    I’m happy about that.
    Have Fun,

  • I’m a personal trainer. One “false choice” I’ve heard a lot is, “I can’t diet. I love food too much!”

    Well, so do I. You can love food, love to eat and STILL be fit. There are many great, delicious, satisfying foods out there.

    Another false choice I’ve heard: “I’d love to lose 20 pounds, but I don’t have time to exercise.”

    We ALL have time. It’s a matter of priorities. Do you have time to develop chronic disease?

  • Ahhh the infamous either/or fallacy… I’m not sure where I read this, “You can do everything. You just can’t do everything at once.” I believe the key is prioritizing according to your value system. Another good piece of advice that goes along with that is “Plan as if you were going to live forever!” That creates limitless thinking. P.S. I just finished your book and found it helpful. I just started a newborn blog that I’m tinkering with about self improvement or a “Happiness Project” for those like me who are clinically depressed. It’s http://survivinglimbo.blogspot.com.

  • from a personal point of view, I think simplicity is a wonderful thing. Having choices boiled down to a select view saves time and effort. I think the problem is mainly the exclusion of one or the other. Like you said, one should be able to have both or everything all at once if you so choose. But I also like that it doesn’t suddenly become a hundred little things that you can have at once because that is just too much.

    But then there are things that you have too choose both as well and the choice seems silly (like being financially secure and having a job you enjoy).

  • Ana

    This is fascinating. We kind of take these “false choices” for truths, but in reality they are a cop out. a way of making ourselves feel better about our limits or allowing ourselves to be lazy and not go after what we truly want in life. I agree that the notion of “having it all” does create a lot of needless stress…but maybe we just need to redefine what the “all” really is for ourselves. You can eat healthy and still enjoy food if “enjoying food” doesn’t involve french fries and alfredo sauce three times a week!
    I see a lot of these “false choices” in parenting talk—you are either a “helicopter” parent, or you are against any parental intervention and in favor of “letting the kids run free”. Also with their appearance, people sometimes get sloppy and frumpy because they say they don’t want to “try to hard”—ummm, what about “trying” a little! There is a medium between plastic surgery-stiletto heels-tons of make up and sweatpants-uncombed hair-dirty skin.

    • One of the rules since I’ve read Gretchen’s book for myself is “Keep It Simple.” Sometimes there are aspects in life that do complicate things that aren’t necessary. I don’t drink alcohol unless it’s for a very special occasion , but that doesn’t mean I’m not the type of guy who can’t enjoy a good party once in a while.

      But the Zen of keeping things simple is the hard part.

  • Lward

    I mean this in a positive way, “How do you come up with these thoughts?” I find it mind boggling. You give us so many things to think about, some days I just glance over to come back to another day, as I did this one. I think many times it depends how our day is going on how we react or the choices we make. Later we realize our mistakes and hopefully our success at our choices.

  • jesusfchrist

    WSJ December 20, 2007 COMMENTARY The Happiness Myth By STEVE SALERNO

    Here’s something else Dad told me: “Life isn’t built around ‘fun.’ It’s built around peace of mind.” Maybe Dad sensed the paradox of happiness: Those most desperate for it run a high risk of being the last to find it. That’s because they make foolish decisions. They live disorderly lives, always chasing the high of the moment.
    Perhaps happiness is best viewed as an ongoing marathon rather than a succession of disconnected sprints. It’s a long-term commitment that sometimes calls for sacrifice and self-denial, compromise and conciliation. Above all, happiness may mean knowing when to quit — to settle for “just OK.” That is a very unpopular message in these empowered times.
    My father didn’t have it all, but I believe he was at peace with himself and the life he led. Shouldn’t that be enough for any of us?