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I started thinking about false choices when I heard a friend describe a new job he was considering. “I don’t think I’ll take it,” he explained. “There are two ways to do that job. John Doe was the wise counselor to the boss, the old friend who had the boss’s respect and his ear. Joe Doe was the sycophant, the suck-up who told the boss what he wanted to hear and did all his dirty work. I can’t follow the first model, and I won’t follow the second model. So the job’s not for me.”
But that was a false choice. There are any number of ways to do a job; he didn’t have to limit himself to one of those two models.
I’ve noticed that in the area of happiness, people often offer false choices.
“I’d rather have three true friends, instead of tons of shallow friends.”
There aren’t just two options at the extreme. There are all kinds of friendship, along a wide spectrum of intimacy. You don’t have to choose between a “real” few and “superficial” many.
“I think it’s more important to worry about other people’s happiness, instead of thinking only about myself and my own happiness.”
Why do you have to choose? You can think about your happiness and other people’s happiness. In fact, as summed up in the Second Splendid Truth, thinking about your own happiness will help you make others happy. And vice versa!
“I believe it’s more important to be authentic and honest than it is to be positive and enthusiastic.”
Can you find a way to be authentically enthusiastic or honestly positive? In my experience, it’s often possible, though it can take a little extra work.
From Eleanor Roosevelt: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
Happiness is a goal and a by-product. Nietzche explained this well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”
I think false choices are tempting for a couple of reasons. First, instead of facing a bewildering array of options, you limit yourself to a few simple possibilities. Also, the way you set up the options usually makes it obvious that one choice is the high-minded, reasonable, laudable choice, and one is not.
But although false choices can be comforting, they can leave you feeling trapped, and they can blind you to other choices you might make. “Either I can be financially secure, or I can have a job I enjoy.” “I have to decide whether to marry this person now or to accept the fact that I’m never going to have a family.”
One of my Secrets of Adulthood is "The opposite of a great truth is also true." Sometimes, the falsity of a false choice comes from the fact that both choices are true. I have more time than I think and less time than I think. I can accept myself and expect more from myself.
Can you think of examples of when you, or someone you know, fell into the trap of a false choice?
* I'm fascinated by ice sculptures, jack-o-lanterns, and radishes cut to look like flowers, so I enjoyed this video showing how someone carving roses out of a watermelon.
* I posted a question on the Facebook Page: "What was the last book that kept you awake way past your bedtime, because you couldn't stop reading?" The question generated a huge number of responses, and now I've added lots of books to my summer-reading list.
If you're also looking for a good summer book, please consider The Happiness Project (can't resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.