The Happiness Project

Don’t Get Trapped by False Choices—There Are Usually More Than Two Options

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.

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, too.

“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? In my experience, it’s often possible, though it can take a little work.

From Eleanor Roosevelt: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a byproduct.”
Happiness is a goal and a byproduct. 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.”

Can you think of examples of when you, or someone you know, fell into the trap of a false choice?

* I’m not very manly myself, but I get a big kick out of The Art of Manliness .

* I’m thrilled by the number of people who have let me know that they’re interested in starting a happiness-project group in their area. I’ve been working hard on the starter kit to send you, and hope to have that ready to go very soon.

If you’d like to receive a starter-kit for launching your own group, let me know. Email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name (Use the usual email format – that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line.