Beware the Snare of the Linen Cocktail Napkin.

I'm a classic under-buyer, and practically the only time I do any successful shopping is when I'm with my mother. Once, when we were out shopping in Kansas City, we came across a sales table. My mother held up a set of elegant linen napkins with monkeys embroidered on them (no, monkeys on napkins doesn't sound elegant, but these were).

"Look at these!" she said. "They're 40% off, a real bargain. I don't need any, but could you use them? I love them!"

"They're beautiful," I answered.

"Do you want them?"

For a moment I thought, Sure, what a great deal, what great linen napkins.

Then fortunately I thought again. What? Linen napkins? In what fantasy, alternative-reality dreamworld did I imagine myself using linen napkins? I just didn't have that kind of life, and I didn't see myself changing any time soon.

I wished that I had a place in my life for elegant cocktail napkins -- but owning the napkins wouldn't make me any different. I'd still be the same old Gretchen. Even apart from the expense, they'd just clutter up my apartment, and make me feel guilty, too.

It's tempting, sometimes, to imagine that if I just acquired the right paraphernalia, I'd change my nature. I once bought a digital recorder, because I thought if I had it, I'd be more likely to want to conduct interviews. Didn't work. I have a friend who bought a stationary bike and put it in her bedroom: "If I have a stationary bike taking up half my bedroom, I'll have to exercise." Nope. She uses it as a free-standing closet.

It's true that having the proper tools and equipment makes it easier and more pleasant to accomplish certain activities, but the things themselves, without the desire to use them, can't supply me with that will.

If I'm remembering this passage correctly, from her brilliant book The Fashionable Mind, Kennedy Fraser observed that to be fashionable, it's not enough to have fashionable clothes; you have to have a fashionable mind. Which I believe is absolutely true. I reflect on those linen cocktail napkins to remind myself to Be Gretchen -- not who I wish I were, not who I think I ought to be, but who I actually am.

How about you? Have you ever considered buying something and then realized that it was a possession that suited a fantasy notion of yourself, not your actual self?

* One of the main challenges of any happiness project is sticking to a resolution. For help, you might join the 2011 Happiness Challenge, you might use the Happiness Project Toolbox, you might start a Happiness Project group -- or you could use stickK, "a way to set and achieve your goals."

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