Happiness Project Commandment One: “Be [Yourself]”

As mentioned here and here, I’ve been exploring a blog called The Happiness Project.

Gretchen Rubin, author of that blog and a book by the same name, spent a year considering, essentially, how she wanted to live. She phrased her quest in terms of “how to be happy,” but while “happy” is a word I’m suspicious of (in other countries, people often don’t know what Americans mean with their constant talk of whether or not they are “happy”), her project doesn’t seem to me to be as silly as it sounds. (I keep saying that; perhaps I protest too much?)

Rubin eventually came up with twelve personal “commandments.” Today I wanted to jot some thoughts on the first of these. It’s called “Be Gretchen,” but what Rubin is really getting at is “be yourself.” What she means is that, in order to do more of what you enjoy, you need to figure out what you enjoy: “just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa.”

I ran into this as I hit my thirties and discovered, for example, that I didn’t like spending as much time in bars or staying up as late as I once did. Ever notice the slightly ashamed or embarrassed tone that creeps into people’s voices (maybe even yours) if they are forced to admit that they are usually in bed by ten p.m.? “Are we boring?” Amy sometimes asks me, when we are confronted with the fact of how little we “go out.”

By commonly accepted societal standards, yes, we are. But it’s important to step back and realize that there is no objective definition of what is fun. If it’s not fun for you, well, it’s not fun-no need to feel guilty about it. And it’s probably the case that you’re not alone when the standard “fun” things leave you cold. We live in a consumerist, youth-worshiping culture, so it stands to reason that (1) fun is a marketing tool to get you to buy things, and (2) there is an automatic but by no means warranted assumption that the most fun is to be had doing the things that young people do. Here’s what Rubin has to say about some of her own realizations about what she finds fun:

“It’s a Secret of Adulthood: just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. Wine-tasting, skiing, baking cookies, reading mysteries — I personally would NOT enjoy any of these “fun” activities. They’re fun for some people; not for me. Don’t try to be self-improving, and don’t plan a “fun” event based on what other people would enjoy. Make time for something that’s fun for YOU.”

Of course, deciding this stuff isn’t easy; there’s a price to be paid. Rubin says it made her sad to acknowledge that these things aren’t fun for her.

“The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.”

I can identify: to be Sutton, I have to acknowledge not enjoying things such as going to art museums, hiking, loving recorded (as opposed to live) music, and board games. I’ll do all of those things with you, if you want, and I won’t hate doing them (if the company is right, far from it). But if I were going to plan out an ideal day just for myself, it probably shouldn’t include any of those things.

It seems pertinent to mention that, having typed out that list, I immediately want to qualify it and remove items. It’s like I’m afraid of offending that portion of the world that does love these things. But my acknowledging I don’t like these things is nothing against the people who do. I’m just trying to figure out what I enjoy, and an important first step, it makes sense to me, is figuring out what I don’t.

It’s obvious that neither step will be easy or fast, however.

Tomorrow: some thoughts on what the commandment “be [yourself]” means about choosing jobs. (To the extent any of us get to do that, especially now.)

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