One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Meditate on koans. In Buddhist tradition, a Zen koan (rhymes with Ken Cohen) is a question or a statement that can’t be understood logically. Monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment. The most famous koan is probably: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”
I'm haunted by my own koans – lines that flicker through my mind and evade logical thinking. One of my koans is from the Bible, Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”
This doesn’t really sound fair, on first reading! I think the meaning of Jesus’ words is something like, “Those who have sought to understand divine truth will learn more, and those who haven’t tried won’t even remember the little they’ve learned.”
But whatever Jesus meant in the context of that verse, I find myself thinking about it in the happiness context, and I’ve often reflected that this statement sums up one of the cruel truths about happiness, and about human nature generally: you get more of what you have.
When you feel friendly, people want to be your friend. When you feel sexy, people are attracted to you. When you feel confident, others have confidence in you.
This truth is cruel because so often, you want others to give you what you feel you’re lacking. It’s when you’re feeling isolated and awkward that you want people to be friendly. When you’re feeling ugly, you want someone to tell you how sexy you are. When you’re feeling insecure, you wish someone would express confidence in you.
During my happiness project, I’ve been startled to discover the efficacy of the third of my Personal Commandments: Act the way I want to feel.
This commandment is important for two reasons. First, although we think we act because of the way we feel, often we feel because of the way we act. So by acting the way we wish we felt, we can change our emotions – a strategy that is uncannily effective.
Second, the world’s reaction to us is quite influenced by the way we act toward the world. For example, in situation evocation, we spark a response from people that reinforces a tendency we already have — for example, if I act irritable all the time, the people around me are going to treat me with less patience and helpfulness, which will, in turn, stoke my irritability. If I can manage to joke around, I’ll evoke a situation in which the people around me were more likely to joke around, too.
Life isn’t fair. People with a propensity to good cheer will find themselves in a friendly, cheerful environment, while people who are already angry or crabby will find themselves surrounded by uncooperative, suspicious people. “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”
Which leads, as always, to the same conclusion: that even though it’s tempting sometimes to think that I’d be much happier if other people would behave differently toward me, the only person whose behavior I can change is myself. If I want people to be friendlier to me, I must be friendlier. If I want my husband to be tender and romantic, I must be tender and romantic. If I want our household atmosphere to be light-hearted, I must be light-hearted.
Goethe wrote: “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” And he that brings a sunny day will find a sunny day waiting for him.
* The folks from the terrific site Wise Bread have done a great new book, 10,0001 Ways to Life Large on a Small Budget. It's an excellent resource, and the information is presented in an attractive, accessible, and even funny way. I got a lot of great ideas from the book.
* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 20,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.
One Last Thing
Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?
Sign up to get my free weekly newsletter. I share ideas for being happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.
Dive into The Blog
More Posts For You
Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.
The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.