11 Happiness Paradoxes to Contemplate As You Think About Your Happiness Project.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day.
This Wednesday: 11 paradoxes to contemplate as you think about your own happiness project.

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, I’ve been struck by the paradoxes I keep confronting. As physicist Niels Bohr said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “The opposite of a great truth is also true” – and 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. 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.)

10. Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy.

11. Flawed can be more perfect than perfection. In Japanese, there is a beautiful term, wabi-sabi, which describes the special beauty of the imperfect, the incomplete, and the transient. Superficially similar, but actually different in meaning (as I understand it), is the phrase from software development, Worse is better.

12. Spend out, to become rich.

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.

What paradoxes of happiness have you discovered?

* My fried Mike Errico is an amazing musician, and he just released this video of his new song “Count to Ten.” I love it. I have to say, it seems almost like magic when someone I know sings and plays music beautifully. Or paints a picture right in front of me.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and each weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email in-box. Sign up here or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com (don’t forget the “1”). More than 25,000 people have signed up in just a few months.

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  • Great post! I have another one:

    I want to be happy with what I have but I also want to improve what I have!

    This one makes me wonder all the time.


    • gretchenrubin

      This is a GREAT one.

  • queenann

    Here’s a paradox: By giving ourselves limits, we give ourselves more freedom.

    You quitting drinking is a great example of this: you limit your drinking and therefore free yourself from the negative consequences or the possibility of addiction.

    • gretchenrubin

      another excellent paradox.

  • I love this list because I think about these supposed contradictions often. I’ve noticed when I try to think aloud my husband will often “call me out” for saying two opposing things–but I feel like they are both true!

    Number 4 on this list really speaks to me at the moment as I blogged about the very same thing today. Specifically, that spending time alone better equips us to socially connect with other people. The Boston Globe just published an interesting article about this very paradox:

  • Debi

    Re: #2 – This really struck me when I thought it as “take my weaknesses less seriously and take my strengths more seriously.” I’m going be mulling that over for a while!

  • Gretchen,

    This is a deep and thought-provoking list. I find #6 interesting: “Think about myself so I can forget myself.” When you contemplate deeply, you find there is no permanently existing, independent, singular self. The “self” is just a label that we’ve created for a flow of change. So it is indeed a paradox to contemplate the self in order to recognize its dream-like nature.

  • Donna

    Once paradox of happiness I have been attempting to emulate is: “Maintaining balance. Learning to fall gracefully.” Reminds me of changing the filter of perspective and understanding that sometimes lessons learned from mistakes are those best taught. Also connotes that progress occurs in phases, not all same time. Relinquishing control is a concept which I hear frequently, yet is still foreign in my happiness language. ..

  • LivewithFlair

    Give your life away, and you will find it: http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2011/03/give-your-life-away.html

  • Argentina Golea (shoganad)

    Accidental limitations are just in our mind, caused by the distrust in ourselves..Natural limitations are just the human nature, anatomical speaking
    a paradox about people : the beauty can be ugly and the ugliness can be beautiful

  • Happyphase

    You are so wise for your years. Thanks.
    By the way, Mike’s song is gorgeous. Thanks so much for the link.

  • That first one is the one I am always struggling to achieve balance with.

  • My ongoing paradox is that I am this body, I am not this body. I have MS and my body sometimes has a mind of it’s own. I go back and forth between dissociating from it and being a “floating head” (spending all my time up in my brain) and trying to be more present in my body. It’s not good for me to be all thought, all the time, but at the same time I’m not “supposed” to dwell on my physical limitations. It may not be an all or nothing proposition, but it frequently feels like one.

    • gretchenrubin

      That paradox certainly resonates with me — and you have a really
      challenging situation. It must be hard to live with this tension.

  • I have learned more about true happiness through grief, I think, than through anything else.

    • gretchenrubin

      One of the truest and saddest paradoxes of happiness.

      I’ve been searching to find something I remember reading in college, from a
      Greek play, when a character observed something like “there is a kind of
      wisdom that can’t without [what word???] be prayed for.” Meaning, the wisdom
      that comes through grief. Does anyone know what passage I might be

  • Monica

    Hello from Norway!
    I just finished reading The Happiness Project and want to say THANK YOU!
    Thank you for being brave and sharing so much of your personal life-. This was a truly inspiring book for me and i will use it in my daily life going forwards.
    Additionally I am astonished in how often I thought – “this is just like me”. Incredible how similar we seem to be, living in so different countries and miles away. The values are the same. I find that so interesting!

    Anyways, I will follow your blog from now on!
    Thanks again,

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so HAPPY to hear that my work resonates with you — all the way in
      Norway. I so appreciate you taking the time to let me know.

  • Meashelford

    You have some dynamite posts, but this is your best one ever! I am going to spend one day per paradox contemplating how each one affects my life and happiness. Thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much!

  • socksandstocks

    Great post, I love that Auden quote, I was actually thinking about a personal limitation yesterday and since I’m nearing 40 that is a perfect perspective.

  • Arina Nikitina

    Another paradox: In our quiet moments that’s when we hear our loudest cries. It’s mostly when we’re along that we truly hear our inner self, the one that has core desires and pure wisdom. We might think we’re happy when with others or when others make provide us reasons to be happy. But it’s really in our solitude that we discover what really makes us happy. Because most of the time, the forces surrounding us meddle with our definitions of happiness.

  • Eichy12

    Of all the things you wrote in your book, this might be what stuck with me the most. I feel that figuring out this balance is what will help me find that happiness we all search for. I am stuck with trying my hardest for perfection – b/c really shouldn’t we try to do what is best for us, our family, our world, etc- without trying to be perfect. Does that make sense? I think I want the best of both worlds and finding that happy medium is where it lies. I want to change the worst of me while being true to who I really am.

  • I like #1 and #6 of your paradoxes, definitely good things to keep in mind for me. #1 is especially true for me, I’m trying to accept myself and at the same time accept that it’s ok to push myself.

  • Ruth

    As my children became older and my responsibility to drive them to more and more places shifted from after school hours to evening ones, many people joked that I’d surely be glad when they were old enough to drive and I no longer had to be on the road late at nights.

    How far off the mark those predictions were! As each child got their driver’s license I deeply missed the intimate late night drives. It had always been a joy for me to sit and hear them tell me the details of their day. There’s something especially nice about being with just one child, alone in a dark car…they open up in way not experienced any other way.

    Now those years are over; all my kids are in college. What I wouldn’t give to be the one to pick them up, late at night, once again.

  • Joy2b

    Planning ahead may give you far more freedom than it takes away.

  • Kirk Stid

    Of all the things you wrote in your book, this might be what stuck with
    me the most. I feel that figuring out this balance is what will help me
    find that happiness we all search for. I am stuck with trying my hardest
    for perfection – b/c really shouldn’t we try to do what is best for
    us, our family, our world, etc- without trying to be perfect. Does that
    make sense? I think I want the best of both worlds and finding that
    happy medium is where it lies. I want to change the worst of me while
    being true to who I really am.

  • Sarah

    I love this!!! It kind of opens your eyes to the fact that there is more than one way to look at different situations. I’ve just started blogging in the last couple of months and would love for you to check out my blog at http://sarahsdailydoseofsmiles.blogspot.com/.

  • Great to discover your blog. One of the paradoxes that I continuously confront (as a 47+ year old guy in India) is this. Learning never stops. But then they say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!