Difficult Questions We Face In Creating a Happy Life

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

As I think about happiness, and talk to people about their own happiness challenges, certain issues come up over and over. Some arise within a person — “How do I make myself do something I don’t want to do?” and some arise in a relationship — “Why won’t you do this task, even if only to make me happy?”

In seeing these questions, it’s tempting to say that some of these questions are “wrong” — for example, the question “Can you make me happy?” But rather than describe how people ought to frame these questions, I’ve tried to characterize them to reflect my sense of how people do frame them.

  • How do I balance what makes me happy now with what will make me happy in the long term?
  • Should I make myself do something I don’t want to do? And how do I make myself do something that I want to do (but for some reason, am not doing)?
  • How can I insulate myself from your constant negativity?
  • How do I balance what makes me happy against what makes you happy?
  • How can I be happier if you won’t make any changes?
  • Is it possible for me to be happy if I grew up in an unhappy family?
  • After the terrible thing I’ve suffered, can I find my way back to a happy life?
  • Can I make up for lost time?
  • Why won’t you do this task, even if only to make me happy? –do I have to do everything myself?
  • Can I make you happy? Can you make me happy?
  • Do I expect too much? Too little?
  • How do I make time for all the things that are important to me?
  • If I try to be positive and enthusiastic, does that make me insincere?
  • Do I deserve this?
  • Why won’t you give me what I need to be happy?
  • When should I accept myself, and when should I expect more from myself?
  • What if I not only want you to do something, but I want you to want to do it? And to do it without me asking you to do it?
  • Why don’t you appreciate my honesty?
  • Why is it sometimes so hard to do things that I know will make me happy? And to resist doing things I know will bring unhappiness?
  • When should I give up on you?
  • What if you don’t accept me? What if I don’t accept you?
  • How do I make time for myself when I feel overwhelmed by your needs?
  • Why am I drawn to you, when I know you’re a hurtful person?
  • How is it possible that I simultaneously love and hate you?
  • How can I claim my rightful share of attention?
  • What’s the most effective way to show you my love?
  • How do I take responsibility and make amends for the terrible mistake I made that hurt you?
  • How can I forgive you?
  • When should I show you tenderness and sympathy, and when should I get tough?
  • How can I be happy with this terrible thing hanging over my head?
  • How can I escape the unhappiness of the life I now live?

These questions don’t have easy answers. There’s no book to consult, no Delphic oracle to provide the answers. But sometimes it helps to distill a large issue into a very simple question. I’m sure I’m missing many big questions. What have I overlooked?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

16 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Gretchen —  I am sure you are missing many “big” questions as each of our private lives – when we close that front door — are unique . . . just as each of us is unique.  We can spin our wheels forever, grinding ourselves into a hole in the ground, to ask them over and over  and coming up with no answer.  But wait!  Hopefully, most of us are smart women and we have ideas that we certainly could try.  We don’t.  We procrastinate.  Why?  We are afraid of violent outbursts, we are afraid of rejection, we are afraid of being crushed — or worse:  IGNORED!

    For a lifetime, I have friends quote to me about themselves and their own dilemmas:  “If Mama isn’t happy, nobody is happy!”  This is enough to tell me that Mama isn’t happy, and probably hasn’t been for what seems forever. 

    Every story is different so there is no solution that works for all.  Life is full of pitfalls and the best of us have had to claw our way out of more than a few.  No wonder our fingernails are bitten-off looking things!!! 

    I prefer not to use the overused word “happy” as it only comes in moments anyhow.  Let’s call it “contentment” instead as against living in a living hell.  Is it so wrong to think of ourselves first at least part of the time?  Face it — reading those questions — I would wonder if life is really worth living.  To be frank, it is “existing” at best. 

    I DO think that “mama” has to lead at least a piece of her own life that is pleasing to her, making her feel really rewarded or excited.  If you are reading this on your computer, you DO have time to also make new friends, learn new things, open new windows in your mind.  You can’t then say “I don’t have time”.  You DO.  Letting your thoughts out and getting responses is very often helpful.  If you find someone who cares more than a little bit — and I have found those people on our website — YOUR life changes.  I promise you it does. 

    I am trying not to write a book.  . but some of the questions asked above would make me wonder if this partner, this other person was worth it for me.  Just because some of our mothers said on our marriage “You made your bed and now you have to lie in it” no longer makes sense to me.  Mistakes are made and if they are bad enough and we have given our all with little reward, perhaps tossing out those questions over and over should stop and positive action instead take place.  We only go around once — and I don’t know about you, but I want to make it the best it can be and don’t want to be messed up with a destructive person.

    It comes down to choices and US making our own choice to revamp our lives.  The ideas overflow in my own head so they must in other people’s also.  We take the first step out the door — the baby step followed by other baby steps — and see what lies out there in the world beyond our doorsteps.  We should be looking for the first phases of a sort of contentment in our own lives — we have to have a smile and a bit of confidence in ourselves to be able to answer the needed questions and move forward.  I have helped my friends with the most wonderful results though it took some sticking in when they got stuck in the ruts again.  But in the end, a new road was begun – often without the huge rock of that partner dragging them down.

    Don’t go nuts with the questions or find more to make it more difficult.  Make a small choice and try it, forgetting the procrastination that eats you up.  On this website there is usually a cheering section behind you !!!

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      When you think about it  the ideal of happiness is to be content.  And yet few, it seems, are content with their lives.  Our society has replaced the ideal of being content with the ideal of being perfect.  And none of us are.  Or can be.  But believe we must be in order to be happy. We must have the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house, the perfect nose, the perfect clothes, the perfect child,  the perfect this, the perfect that.  And since there is no perfect anything, there is no contentment. Just this constant pursuit of the perfection that doesn’t exist.  But what is contentment?  It is merely accepting things as they are.  Within relationships perhaps it is merely balancing the need to be selfish with yourself while being selfless with others.  Not allowing anyone to abuse you. Including the person in the mirror.  Lists for me are merely attempts at perfection.  My life has not been easy. Blessed in some ways. Cursed in others.  As I have gotten older I find I am content to merely enjoy the day. Without expectation.  The fleeting moments of happiness, and they are fleeting, are never expected anyway.  They just happen.  

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    People tend to create expectations/goals/comfort zones on behalf of others whether children, friends, family, etc. and then wonder why? they seem to fall short of the desired outcomes in life. If you take away all the questions that seem to need a puzzle piece that you do not have the ability to create, the list shortens.

  3. avatar Lila says:

    The questions here seem to hinge mostly on how someone else is making you happy or affecting your happiness.  That’s the problem right there!  Happiness comes from within.
    A bad partner can make your life miserable, and a good one can be a joy, but what happens when (s)he’s gone?  A partner should not be able to drive the contentment from your life (if so – dump him, duh), nor should a partner be the one and only thing that matters to you.  We all need to be able to find contentment on our own.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      The only relationships, strangely, that I felt content with were the ones on the “backstreet” and I ended them because while I was content, they were not.  No regrets. I was both selfish and selfless when I ended them. What wasn’t right for them in the end wouldn’t have been right for me either.  But I cherish the memories.  Of the moments. Here and there. In the end, with regard to happiness, that is all any of us have. Just the moments. 

      I could have “settled” along the way but I wouldn’t have felt content in doing so because “settling” for something simply to have it is selfish. And to be content, one must, again, be both selfish and selfless. If you are true to yourself, you are true to others. 

    • avatar Miss Lee says:

      Never had a good partner which is why I don’t have one now.  Starting over from the beginning with another is not something I want to go through again.  I like living by myself as I am no longer willing to make compromises which are a necessary part of living with someone else.   If I don’t want to share the remote, sharing the bathroom is totally out of the question.  Happiness is knowing yourself and accepting who you really are.  After 50, you are unlikely to change your true nature.

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    It is impossible to make others completely happy or for us to extract life satisfaction from other people. Happiness isn’t something I focus on as I go about my life. There are all kinds of unexpected pleasurable moments when I least expect them such as watching birds at the feeder, seeing flowers in bloom, enjoying a quiet evening with a good book. Happiness is sometimes tinged with relief that a tedious task is over or that I feel better after an illness. I agree that most happiness is deep contentment with accepting ourselves and our life circumstances. Even in the middle of sorrow there can be joyous moments. We determine our life satisfaction by our attitude.

  5. avatar Miss Lee says:

    I have become happier as I have aged..or maybe content would be a better description.  I now accept that nothing about my life is perfect, never has been and never will be.  If I get up and don’t hurt too bad physically, it’s a good day.  I also laugh more often than I used to.  Finding humor in much of what goes on makes life much easier for me, even on my darkest days.  And not watching the news too often.  Talk about depressing!!!!

  6. avatar Briana Baran says:

    If I started interrogating myself by asking all of these questions, I would surely be even more mentally ill than I was when I had my breakdown fourteen years ago. This sounds like a personal Inquisition. Worse, a great deal of the interrogator’s queries are outward directed…what is wrong with the some undisclosed “other” that is not the individual herself. A tendency of so many people in our culture and society today is that they depend heavily on others for contentment and that nebulous concept, “happiness”, therefore, the tenor of the questions does not surprise me.
    Happiness. I hear so many people wail and gnash their teeth and cry, “I’m not happy!”. But, and this has already been stated on this thread, when asked why they are so miserable, these are examples of the causes of their joylessness: my child isn’t doing well…in cheer, or high-school sports; my spouse works too many hours, or isn’t involved enough, or doesn’t get things done, or isn’t the same (which usually means that he/she is the same…only more so); I hate my dog, or my job, or my hair-dresser, or my doctor; I’m getting old (the alternative rather smells…and “old” is a state of mind); I’m bored; I hate my life. They so often either blame their “unhappiness” on others, on false expectations, or on a lack of stimulation in their lives. But ask them to make changes to themselves, to expand their horizons, to alleviate their boredom, and you will…and I guarantee this…receive hostile, confused looks, and this refrain: I can’t! It’s too expensive! I can’t afford it! He won’t let me! And etc..
    It’s none of those things, and it isn’t expensive, and it’s not a matter of getting permission. Happiness being the elusive thing that it is, whatever it is, one must start very small. To me, the fall of leaves in autumn, and the uncurling of new foliage in the spring is a delicate, fascinating natural rite. To read a book by a new author is venturing into unknown waters, and to have that author be one of the rare humans who can capture words, hold them briefly and softly in the hands, own them for a single breath, then release them into perfect, scintillating cascades of language and meaning is a profound joy. And I go to the library, which costs nothing. If you have internet access, you can spend hours listening to free music on U-Tube and other sites, and discovering hidden treasures of humanity, some full of wonder and delight, some poignant and full of the heart’s yearning, and some that will make you ache with their pure simplicity and beauty. You can learn about anything at all, if your heart and mind so desire, and why not? Answering curiosity’s call and learning exercise not only the mind, but the physical plant, the brain, and release good chemicals, stave off senility, open the horizons and change lives.
    There is a satisfaction and contentment in observing, studying and learning. People watching is fascinating, whether at the park, the mall (each mall has its own society) or at other venues. I find joy in lovers holding hands, sharing a simple kiss…or a moment…regardless of gender or age. I have a special fondness for fathers and children…they are not nearly as clueless and inefficient as so many women think. I will often help people, such as mothers with cumbersome strollers, those with walkers or wheelchairs, or burdened with packages. I am never rebuffed; I suppose because I don’t make an issue of it, nor do I expect anything in return…it’s just a simple part of life for me.
    I also exercise at the Y, which has a very friendly atmosphere and kind people. I do water aerobics in a class whose members are mostly senior citizens, and a more welcoming, lovely, delightful group of women I could not imagine anywhere. Everyone works as hard as she (or he, we have three men) desires. I work very hard, I have a lot of weight to lose and shaping up to do, so I sweat buckets, literally. But water loves me. Water is good if you are not…it’s where we rested in darkness and safety before we came into the cold and the light and uncertainty of everything but the finality of death. I also took up singing, my life-long desire (from the time that I was five). Now don’t laugh…at 248 pounds and 5’2″ you may be picturing a miniature Wagnerian heroine, very small Viking helmet and calf-horns and all (an Italianate Valkyrie?). Well, opera and choir are not my thing…I sing the blues, river-bottom, acoustic blues, and the old songs from the mountains and the early times, and a selection of newer things that make me feel. For a 51 year old who hasn’t done this in 33 years, I can now easily and clearly reach over two full octaves (to my amazement…and I do mean that), and actually read the music I love. My dream is to sing in front of an audience, not for fame and fortune, but to share the joy, and sorrow, and lift I experience when I feel my voice break away and just soar. I want to make people smile. Yeah, Baby Snooks, you’ve got it.
    I stole a phrase from the title of a remarkable book, Possessing the Secret of Joy. That is what finding “happiness” is about. Possessing the secret of joy, in the appearance of blue sky on a gray day of rain and cold, a single flower bravely growing in a crack on a busy sidewalk, the smile on your lover’s face when he’s watching something that amuses him, an impossibly early butterfly at a funeral, your child telling you, spontaneously, that Christmas is all about love. The rest is the willingness to let your curiosity work for you, to evolve, to be, and allow contentment into your life, with the secret knowledge that these fleeting moments of pure bliss will come to you. And that you can bring them to others…because if you can’t give to others what you know will come to you, part of the beauty of life is missing for you.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      And that you can bring them to others…because if you can’t give to others what you know will come to you, part of the beauty of life is missing for you.


      Like Rod McKuen said, Love at best is giving what you need to get.  And sometimes the giving is the getting. Particularly with smiles.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Briana —

      Lovely piece of writing — actually beautiful — and you never fail to hit the nail on the head each time.  Joan

  7. avatar Lizzie R. says:

    Back in the day there was a book called “Happiess Is Being Your Own Best Friend” and I think that is exactly true. If you can be happy with yourself, then whatever others do or don’t do to you doesn’t matter as much as it might otherwise. All the slings and arrows of others and life in general just cannot hurt you as much if you genuinely like yourself and can comfort yourself in times of trouble. Consequently you just might be able to deal with others better too’.
    Oh, I loved Rod McKuen back when he was so popular. One of my favorite things he said was “All your days can’t be sunshine bright, all your nights something to remember.” That could apply here too.