Do You Love Paradoxes? Embrace Happiness Paradoxes.

I’ve always loved paradoxes and koans, and was very struck by an observation by physicist Niels Bohr: “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

This is very true in the area of happiness, and in particular, I’ve noticed it with my resolutions. In many cases, my most important resolutions come paired with the opposite resolutions, and yet both are important to my happiness.

This tension was beautifully illustrated in a novel I love, Vikram Chandra’s mesmerizing Sacred Games. “Sartaj was thinking about how uncanny an animal this life was, that you had to seize it and let go of it at the same time, that you had to enjoy but also plan, live every minute and die every moment.”

Of everything I’ve ever written, I think this short paradox–The days are long, but the years are short–resonates most with people. (Watch the one-minute video here.)

I want to Be Gretchen and accept myself, but I also want to perfect my nature (as this entire project demonstrates). I want to think about myself so I can forget myself. I want to work on my own happiness so I can make other people happier.

I want to lighten up and not take myself so seriously — but I also want to take myself more seriously.

I want to spend my time efficiently and not waste it, but I also want to wander, to play, to fail, to read at whim.

I want to be free from envy and fear of the future, and live fully in the present moment — but not lose my ambition.

Control and mastery are key elements of happiness; so are novelty and challenge.

Everything matters, and nothing matters. As Samuel Butler wrote in his Notebooks, “Everything matters more than we think it does, and, at the same time, nothing matters so much as we think it does. The merest spark may set all Europe in a blaze, but though all Europe be set in a blaze twenty times over, the world will wag itself right again.”

Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happier.

Somewhere, keep an empty shelf; somewhere, keep a junk drawer.

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.

Go slow to go fast.

Do it now. Wait.

A few years ago, my one-word theme for the year was Bigger. My sister chose Smaller.

Have you found any paradoxes that have been important to your happiness? Contrary resolutions that you try to follow in both directions?

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. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

  • My favorite paradox: Living in the moment while planning for the future!

    • Yes! That one is tough when you throw in an adoption process!


      • Sue

         We hope that all will be well — very soon!

  • Peninith1

    My hardest-to-learn paradox: if you love someone, let them go [i.e. don’t try to hold or control]. An inclination toward attachment is one of the deepest aspects of my nature, but my best relationships are those in which I can manage not to hold tight. Very hard from me, and I will be practicing this all my life. The practice is difficult, but the rewards are great.

  •  One paradox I learned early on that is very central to my happiness is have routines and then throw them all out the window from time to time.  I enjoy knowing what is going to come next and at the same time I begin to chafe from the monotony. I love the healthy benefits to routines – regular exercise, healthy meals, etc but at the same time I want to eat dessert for breakfast sometimes and do almost nothing productive all day.

    One of my all time favorite mottoes is “Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”

  • No, happiness doesn’t always make you feel happier. But in a big golden frame somewhere at the back of your mind, you store the big picture. And then when you see a loved one- a child who owns a portion of your soul smile, you realize that the path you’re on is the one you want to follow skipping. 
    Neiha- Mom and Blogger (Reading with Children)

  • Ida Jackson

    Just thought I ought to tell you that the link to the Goodlife Project is broken (c;

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for letting me know. Just fixed it!

  • Debora

    I love paradox, and learning to live within the tension of opposites. I am taken with the  quote from Samuel Butler.   There is enormous wisdom in this. On the other hand, I am thinking about the destruction of the earth, and wonder if the ecological imbalances we have created can ever jigger themselves back into alignment.  In cosmological terms, perhaps. 

  • Tibby Gold

    I’m three states from home culling through my aunt’s house – she left me to deal with 25oo sq ft of ‘stuff”. 🙂 I have learned to carefully go through all paperwork in case something of note should surface and today I found this, a handwritten note that must have caught her eye:
    “Nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength…a bird can soar because he takes himself lightly.” And so it goes……tomorrow the attic. 

  • I thought of one today: Everyday is another chance to do better. 🙂

  • Nleeguitar

    Be Still. Let it flow.

  • PeterEHall

    One I like is the need to be focused yet open to new opportunities.

  • Julia Smith

    As I get older, I appreciate all the paradoxes of life more. Makes everything more interesting and unpredictable!

  • I just stumbled on the video. Having a new baby, it reminds me to savor times with her more. In a blink of an eye, she’ll be a grown up.  It’s hard though. I often feel harried and stressed. 

  • Missy

    Nothing is sacred, therefore everything is sacred.

  • Reshma Bachwani Paritosh

    Enjoyed reading this post. I struggled (and perhaps still do) with most of the paradoxes that you have written about. I like control and routine as much as I like freedom and Bohemia. I guess the happiness lies not in choosing but in accepting both these realities. There is a Buddhist saying that goes enjoy…what you have to enjoy, suffer what you have to suffer 🙂

  • “The only thing constant is change” That is the one that seems to always finds its way to me. I breathe and go on….always remembering that it might be gone tomorrow.

  • Diane

    Less is More. So important to remember in these times of over consumption which is destroying our planet.

  • Alicia

    Be disciplined. Be patient with yourself.

  • Jenna Rotach

    Did my comment get deleted?

    • Jenna Rotach

      Had said that I wasn’t trying to be a detractor, but I couldn’t help but notice you said “you wrote” a line, and I pointed out that “the days are long but the years are short” is a common saying that dates back at least as far as the 18th century to Nikita Ivanovich Panin. Curiously that comment has vanished?

      • gretchenrubin

        Hmm…I didn’t delete your comment… I’ve been having trouble with my comments ever since the blog re-design, but thought the issues were mostly ironed out. Maybe not!

        I came up with that phrase myself, but I’m not surprised that someone came up with it before me! The paradox of the long and short are so apparent in life, it cries out for an aphorism.

  • roberta

    Tibby. It might make a great story to keep notes on what you find and hat it all means to you.

  • Zen and the Art of Shabbat

    Have you ever considered reframing the idea of paradoxes into one of balancing life on a spectrum? For example: When you choose ‘Bigger’ as your one word theme and your sister chose ‘Smaller’. You could reframe the decision as a balance between the two. In your mind, you had not been prioritizing the ‘Bigger’ (projects, people, places) and felt a need to do so. Whereas your sister did the opposite. Next year, you may actually switch places!

    I think there are a few exceptions in which paradoxes highlight a misunderstanding (e.g., I’d say that “Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happier” illustrates the difference between Engaging (flow) /Meaningful happiness from Positive emotions). For the most part though I see them as signposts for the need for balance. What do you think?

  • Elle85

    This is brilliant! I found my self agreeing with you out loud as I read through the list of paradoxes. I have just recently started a blog about my own journey through life, self discovering and all that – settled on the name Seeking More – Staying Grateful.

    I want more, I deserve more, I desire more and yet I love what I have, I am so blessed and lucky to have the life I do and I want to find joy in the small things of everyday life.

    My favourite is this one! Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.

  • Sofie

    You have to use energy to get energy… or you have to give to get…

  • Calm Kitchen

    I’m fascinated with paradoxes. A paradox I discovered for myself recently was that by choosing NOT to take on a happiness project right now I have made myself happier! I did make a set of personal commandments and recommended The Happiness Project in the post

    I do hope to take on a full Happiness Project at some point though, you have really inspired me! I am currently reading Happier at Home and I love it. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • Danny

    As I continue to study economics, history, philosophy and education in my free-time, I am beginning to realize that these paradoxes you mention exist in all aspects of life. I believe the more we are attuned to our Human Spirit the easier it is to spot these seeming contradictions. But I’m not sure all these paradoxes actually speak truth; they may even hide it – in a way. Most things that happen (the passing of time, success, adventure) don’t happen because of something else, but in spite of, which is why as we grow older we spot these “paradoxes”. As we grow older, as we become more spiritually attuned, the idea of cause and effect holds less merit. Life does not happen in a vacuum. And the Human Spirit is more magnificent than we can possibly imagine, so why limit our imaginations?

    Thank you for the blog. I love all your inspiration.

  • I love that Maurits Escher illustration! Thank you for using it here.