It Sounds Easy, So Why Is This Particular Element of Happiness So Hard?

I love the novels of J.P. Marquand, and over the weekend, I re-read The Late George Apley. (I love to re-read.) I thought I remembered that it touched on the issue of happiness, and it does. The novel is terrific — funny, poignant, and very thought-provoking.

The first, and most important, of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen. Why is it so hard to know myself? and to act in accordance with my own nature, my interests, my values? It would seem that nothing would be easier and more obvious — and yet it’s very, very challenging.

The novel describes the life of the late George Apley — a man who does not manage to “Be George,” and instead allows himself to be pushed by his parents and others away from the choices he wants to make, and who in turn tries to push his children into choices they don’t want to make. With very clear happiness consequences.

One point made very clearly by the novel: just because people truly love you, and are very well-intentioned, doesn’t mean that you should follow their direction. In the end, though people can be helpful, only you can know what’s right for you.

I was reminded of Christopher Alexander’s observation: “It is hard, so terribly hard, to please yourself. Far from being the easy thing that it sounds like, it is almost the hardest thing in the world, because we are not always comfortable with that true self that lies deep within us.”

My description might make the book sound like a long lecture, when in fact, it’s very enjoyable. And a good reminder of the importance of self-knowledge.

* I can spend waaaay too much time cruising around The 99 Percent.

* Want a copy of my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration? Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. Just write “chart” in the subject line.

  • Peninith1

    Being yourself is such an interesting process–it seems that early on we are busy trying to find labels to stick on ourselves, or find ways to live with the labels that others stick on us–I can think back to high school and being ruled by my parents and realize that I accepted some definitions others put on me “brain” “impractical” “dreamy” “lie-on-the-sofa-and-read” and then there were definitions of self that I accepted and affirmed for a long time, like ‘unadventurous’. I am lucky to have lived long enough to move on from that self defined by others and then chosen defensively to an entirely different kind of self knowledge–that is we are both MORE and LESS malleable than we believe when we are in our 20s. I have learned to be a good financial manager for myself, who ‘hated money.’ I have learned to enjoy and orderly household who ‘hated to  do housework.’ I have learned that I love adventurous travel, who never liked to leave home. This was not about discovering a self i secretly desired to be. In many cases it was about learning skills and strenghts I was afraid to try and didn’t want to own. I just HAD to learn things because I could not depend on the help of others. I had to develop a career because I could not be a stay-home Mom. And I learned to love these aspects of self that I had to acquire almost against my will.  Intellect, art, and some personal qualities have stuck.  But I do not feel stuck with or permitted to harbor character defects because ‘thats just me.’ I have not ‘followed my bliss,’ I have earned my life as it has come to be. And that has been a blessing.

    • Labels are important. Labels, by definition, are nouns, and if a person were not a label, the person would not exist by anything except maybe called an “It”.

      I have a lot of labels for myself as that is what I am and labels are simply the name of what I do or am as a human being (“human being” is a label too). I love labels and as long as I am satisfied with it and it’s about living up to what I call myself and not living up to what others want to call me, I’m fine.

  • I have a different spin on being myself. I look at myself as a project, of sorts, a roughedged sculpture in the process of being made into something great and wonderful and amazing.

    “Being myself” can be an excuse to settle for whatever level of faith and compassion and kindness and selfishness and greed and pride I happen to have at the moment. I don’t want to “be me” in that sense. I want to challenge myself to reach higher, to be better, to grow and become something more than I am now. I’m always looking to grow. That’s more important to me than being who I am. I am more interested in becoming a better me.

    I hope all people work toward that goal. I think the world would be a better place. And I think people, in the long run, if they reach and stretch and grow eith the right attitude of patience with our own weeknesses, will ultimately be happier too.

  • I think we get in our own way a lot of the time worried that we’ve got it wrong so we look to others for direction and accept their ideas instead because of insecurity that maybe we’re wrong. Whether we do this consciously or not, I think a lot of people do it. I also think sometimes who we want to be and who we need to be can be akin to finding the right mate in life. Who we think we want and who we really need can often be so very different and it takes time to come to those conclusions. It never looks quite like we thought it ought. But life is a fluid moving thing and it’s okay to become who you are a little more each day, slowly, in unanticipated, sometimes un-noticed changes.

  • Great post Gretchen! As parents we also think that our children should follow and like whatever we want them to do or what we think is good for them.

  • It think the good intentions and love is what makes it so difficult. It is hard enough to run away from a tyrannical father; how hard would it be to run away from a loving father? 

    • gretchenrubin

      This is exactly the issue that the novel raises!

  • Marnie

    I read The Late George Apley about 30 years ago and just gave away the book last month in a fit of cleaning out – room by room – loved the book – makes me want to go to the library for a reread.  I think I would have a very different reaction to the book today, especially after your comments.  BYW, loved the Infinity blog.  

  • Patti

    Also reminds me of George, from Seinfeld, who is brow-beaten by his parents.  Never growing up and being his own man.

    Took me a while to learn this also – liberating when you take charge of your own happiness!!

  • Mirakel Mayoral

    I think this is a great post, and your message is very true, Gretchen. I posted in my happiness quotes in my toolbox the words from Queen Latifah from her book, about what happiness is to her, and I think it resonates with the message of your post:

    “My greatest happiness has come from giving myself the permission to do me, on my own terms…”

    Sometimes we worry so much about pleasing others and doing what others want us to do that we forget that at the end of the day we need to answer to ourselves and look ourselves in the mirror. Though the best of intentions come from those that love us, ultimately we have to love ourselves enough to say “I have to do me.”

  • Nadine

    Every once in a while I am brooding over an issue and I log on to your blog and boom there it is, my little issue.  I just had a moment with my mother who asked me to do something she wrapped as no big deal but which actually was going against all my principals and which placed the feelings and needs of a person who has hurt me very deeply ahead of mine.  She is fully aware of the history and I won’t discuss it with her so  I let it slide until she repeated her request and so I just answered no Mom I’m not going to do that, I need to do what works for me and that doesn’t.  The thing is that even though I stood my ground and spoke quietly and clearly I was angry with her for making the request.  It threw me right back to childhood…grrr. but you know reading this post makes me see that it is such a common thing for parents to try to impose their desires on their kids.  I guess they forget to stop at wipe your face!  Well live and learn.  I try to make sure to not force my son to go against his heart and if I see my husband doing it I raise the red flag but I like most parents likely stumble too. 

    • Val

      Yes, all parents stumble around.

      It’s just the nature of it.  Some are better listeners than others, but we all goof it up at times.

      The thing is we will probably spend more of our lives relating to our children as other adults than we did raising them, and I find there’s not a lot written about being the parent of other adults.

      Those relationships between adult parents and children and even grandparents too, are often amazingly rewarding.  We keep on growing together.  I didn’t know this until I was there.

      And yet we struggle too.  We don’t want to let anyone down.  Everyone wants to feel heard and feel valued.

      It’s a topic worth caring about.  I’m glad you told your mom where you stood–for a whole lot of reasons.    At the very least, honesty between you is vital.

      Thanks for your comment.  I appreciate it.   love, Val

  • bev

    I want to know how you manage to read a whole book in weekend. That would be my ideal weekend but normally i end up running from A to B and back again and i dont even have small children any more. Maybe i will call a strike and take the weekend off.

    • gretchenrubin

      I had time on a plane!

      • Bev

        That’s cheating 🙂

    • I’m so like you Bev.

      I find it’s very common hearing people say, “Oh, I read that book in two days”, or “I read the entire book in one day”. How do these people do it? They must be speed readers or have nothing else to do for 24-48 hours, which I am neither of those.

      But yes, Gretchen, a plane is where I could finish a book in a weekend.

    • Stella

      I do it and I have a 17 month old. I sit on the couch and read while he plays around. Occasionally he will bring his books and stuff to me and interrupt me, but then he is off onto something else and I am back to my reading. I really try not to do any housework when it is my weekend because I work full time, but we are fairly uncluttered so split between me and my husband it is fairly quick.
      But I find it – with reading – just like with watching TV – all you need to do is pick up the book (or turn on the TV)!

      • Bev

        Oh i do read – lots and lots but never a book in a weekend or a day like my daughter seems to be able to do. I also tend to have a fiction and a non-fiction book on the go at the same time. Also i took Gretchen’s advice and joined a group and book group and i’m loving the interaction and the books.

  • So true – If we have so many faces and personalities to please then how can we be sure of  lasting satisfaction or direction for that matter.  Perhaps we need to dis-engage from the needing part of that equation.  

    Ed Fox 

  • Al Pittampalli

    I think every child at some point in their lives, thinks there is something wrong with them and from that moment on, it becomes difficult to be ourselves. It’s a lifelong journey, I think, to realize the the truth: we are whole and complete.

  • Robin

    It only works if you don;t have to worry about surviving economically every minute.

  • “Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not
    events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it
    shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day,
    today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” -Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx-  

  • This is one of the essential truths I struggle with the most, when trying to create my happiness project. I want to be more organized and better prepared. But I am at the core of my being not a planner and not organized. I also have a really hard time with follow through. I tend to fall into something wholeheartedly and then lose interest quickly. When I look at an area of my life and happiness I want to address

  • Audie

    Some people, most people, just need to spend more time alone with theirself

  • Matt Mason

    Gosh Gretchen,
    it’s a wonder you’re hovering that high when you don’t truly understand the nature of the identity problem. If you would like true insight into it, developed over something like thirty years, rather than three, read my book Zetetics and the Art of Identity, on Kindle books (Matt Mason)