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A Little Happier: An Ancient Story Is a Reminder that We Can Hurt People When We Try to Force Them to Fit into Our Model.


As I’ve studied happiness and human nature, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

And one thing I believe very strongly—and it becomes clearer to me all the time—is that to be happy, we must build our lives on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests, our own temperament.

There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution; we each must decide what’s true for us.

Because I talk about this theme frequently, and think about it all the time, there’s an old story from Greek mythology that I love to invoke, the story of the bed of Procrustes. This story is often used to illustrate the danger of trying to pressure everyone to fit into a single approach.

If you don’t know it, here’s my version of the ancient story.

Once upon a time, there lived the owner of a small estate that was located on a busy road, the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. This man was named Procrustes, which means “the stretcher,” and he was cruel and vicious.

When travelers passed on the road, he invited them into his house, gave them a generous dinner, and then asked them to spend the night in his special iron bed.

No visitor ever fit that bed exactly, so to make them fit, he’d stretch their bodies or amputate their limbs, so they’d fit exactly, and either way, his guests would die.

Eventually, he was killed by the hero Theseus, who fit Procrustes to his own bed.

Nowadays, terms like “Procrustean” and “the bed of Procrustes” are used to describe situations where someone tries—perhaps ruthlessly—to make others fit an arbitrary or unnatural standard.

I find that it’s easy to assume that a bed that fits me perfectly should fit another person just as well—but that person’s probably taller or shorter! Or in other words, I’m a morning person, but someone else is a night person; I’m a simplicity-lover, but someone else is an abundance-lover; I’m a marathoner in my work style, but someone else is a sprinter; I’m an abstainer when it comes to resisting strong temptation, but someone else is a moderator.

No bed fits every traveler; we can hurt people when we try to force them to fit into our model.

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