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How to Be Happier: Know Yourself. Harder Than It Sounds.

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.

In my studies of happiness, I’m always asking myself, “Is this bit of happiness wisdom a universal truth, or is this just true for some people?”

I haven’t identified many universal truths, but one of them is “Know thyself.” You can’t build a happy life if you don’t recognize and acknowledge the things that make you happy. That's why the first of my Twelve Commandments is "Be Gretchen."

This doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Yet I’m continually astonished how difficult it is to do. One reason that it’s challenging is that we’re so judgmental. We judge others, and we judge ourselves.

I was thinking about this last night. At dinner, I was seated next to a very friendly, intelligent woman. In the course of the conversation, she told me two things about herself:

1. She is a non-materialistic person who isn’t interested in “stuff.”
2. She loves beautifully-made clothes (result: she loves buying clothes).

I couldn’t read her mind, of course, but I think I detected some uneasiness as she talked about these two ideas. She didn’t value stuff, and she didn’t want to be the kind of person who valued stuff, yet she had this other passion that conflicted with that conception. Can you be non-materialistic yet crave Prada? (I have another friend with a similar issue -- his passion is tech equipment.)

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is you can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do. This woman has three options as she lives her life:

First, she could live up to her non-materialistic ideals and squelch her love of clothes. This seems sad to me. Most of us don’t have so many passions that we can drop one without losing an important source of happiness.

Second, she could stop talking about her non-materialistic ideals, because they made her feel hypocritical, and throw herself into clothes-buying and clothes-wearing. That might be fun, day to day, but in her heart she’d probably feel that she was living a life out of synch with her values.

Third, she could strive to accept herself: her non-materialistic values are real, and her love for clothes is real.

To me, the third option is like the best option. Sometimes, we don’t like what we like. We wish we were different — more spiritual, more sophisticated, more adventurous, more cultured. But you don’t get to pick what you like.

You might argue, “If she truly believed in the value of living a non-materialistic life, she wouldn’t be interested in fashion and fancy clothes.” That sounds like it would be true, but I don’t think it is true. Human nature isn’t always consistent.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

There’s a sadness to a happiness project, and that’s the sadness that comes from accepting ourselves: the parts we embrace and the parts that we wish were different.

Now, this a difficult issue, because -- what does it mean to live in accordance with your values? It seems that they can't be real values if they don't actually guide your actions, if you don't make choices that reflect your beliefs. True. Maybe this woman would choose not to buy Prada etc., because she wanted to live her beliefs. But perhaps she could find other ways to enjoy that passion, rather than squelching it entirely.

A difficult issue. What do you think?

Thought-provoking study: "Psychologists have found that how much people smile in old photographs can predict their later success in marriage."

Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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