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Why I Try Not To Do Things For Others, But Instead, Do Them For Myself.

One thing I’ve learned from my happiness project is that whenever appropriate, I should “Do it for for myself.”

I have a bad habit of self-righteously telling myself that I’ve made various efforts “for my husband,” “for my family,” or whomever.

While this sounds generous, it leads to a bad result: often I expect other people to appreciate my efforts -- or at least notice my efforts -- and while sometimes it makes me feel virtuous, sometimes it makes me feel resentful.

Now, when appropriate, I remind myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I want tidy kitchen cabinets. I want to decorate for Halloween. Which is true.

This sounds selfish, but in fact, being honest with myself makes me less demanding and resentful.

When I talk to people who seem to follow the same practice, it’s all I can do to refrain from giving little unsolicited happiness lectures.

For instance, one person told me she was compiling an enormous book of quotations and thoughts for her baby daughters. “That way, they can really know their mother.” The thing is -- will they want to read through this tome? Will they treasure it, as she expects? Maybe, but maybe not. Now, making such a book is a wonderfully satisfying thing to do for yourself. I have several of these, and I love them. And maybe the daughters will pore over this compendium. But when this woman does it “for her daughters,” it seems inevitable that she’ll expect them to react in a certain way. “You’re so ungrateful, I put years putting this together for you, and you can’t sit down for an hour to read it?” etc. etc. If she does it for herself, it doesn’t matter whether they love it (which they very well may) or not (also possible).

Another person told me about a collection of something-or-other he was amassing for his children. He took great pride in describing how he traveled, how he searched, how he pulled the whole thing together, so he’d be able to bequeath this collection to them. But again, will his children want this collection? Will they appreciate it, will they have a place for it? A major part of the fun of collecting is the hunt and the grab, the adventures and the learning. Having someone hand you a ready-made collection isn’t the same. Was it possible that this father didn’t want to take responsibility for the time and expense he was spending on his collection, so he pretended to himself that it was a selfless exercise?

I was joking with some people about how I always make my bed, even in a hotel room on the day I’m checking out. A woman said, “Oh, I do that, too! I do it as a gift to the person who will clean my room. I think, I will do this for you, so you don’t have to work in a messy, unattractive hotel room.” And I thought to myself, Gosh, I do it because I like it that way.

Now, there’s a great pleasure in doing good for others -- and it’s the right thing to do, of course. But, I have to confess, at least for me, that kind of thinking can lead all to easily to thoughts like, “All day long I think about other people. But no one ever thinks about me! No one gives me one word of appreciation.” (How I crave those gold stars!) But if I say, “I’m making the hotel bed because that’s the way I like it,” I don’t have the same potential for resentment.

Now, I'm not saying I shouldn't do things for other people, but rather, that I should be honest with myself. If I’m truly doing something for someone else, that’s worth noting. And it’s important to do things for others. But if I’m really doing it to suit myself, I fare better when I admit it.

How about you? Do you ever find yourself making this justification for yourself?

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.

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