False Choices: Do Any of These Sound Familiar?

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

The more I’ve thought about happiness, the more wary I’ve become of false choices. It’s so easy to frame choices or attitudes in an either/or way, and yet, so often, that choice is misleading. Often, there are other options; or the choice is overly reductionist; or no choice is necessary at all.

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. Consider this list … do you ever find yourself thinking in these terms?

  • I can either be positive, or I can be authentic
  • I should decide whether I want a life that’s interesting, or a life that’s happy
  • I can have a few close friends or lots of superficial friends
  • I can choose a job I enjoy, or I can make good money
  • I have to decide to marry this person now, or accept the fact that I’ll never have a family
  • I must worry about the happiness of other people, or about my own happiness
  • I can have a life full of fun, passion, and adventure, and I can have security

Maybe these are your only two choices — but maybe not.

I often struggle with the first one; I try to find ways to be authentically enthusiastic, and sincerely positive. Usually it’s not as hard as I expect.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” Happiness is a goal and a by-product. 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.”

Have you ever caught yourself framing a problem in a false choice?

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.

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    People worry too much about being happy or making the right choices. There is never a definitive answer for every situation. As I age some of the situations I fretted over turned out to be growth experiences. They certainly weren’t pleasant when they happened but examining and learning from them were opportunities. Growth isn’t an easy process not is it especially happy but it contributes to how we develop as individuals.
    Real happiness comes from learning to live in the moment and learning to let go of what you can’t control in life. It can be watching birds or squirrels at the feeder to enjoying a conversation with a friend. It is quiet reflection as I watch a sunrise or sunset or being thankful for the people in my life. If I stopped to ask myself if I’m really happy I might miss the little things that give life quality.

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Perhaps – just perhaps – it takes a few more years of life to understand this – but most of what you call “happiness” comes unbidden.  But wallowing in indecision, tossing and turning, watching the days go by instead of making them happen, playing to this ephemeral thing called happiness often seems to have the opposite effect. 

    My own full life and experience has proven to me that LIFE HAPPENS when you step out your door and open yourself to the world beyond.  Of course – in so doing – you make mistakes.  We all make mistakes, but in looking back at them I prefer to call them “lessons”.   They can make for some good stories that – when told – you will find are more common than you think.
    The “poor me”aspect of “my disaster” should be dissipated when it is shared.  You learn — and then move on. 

    Some of our greatest “happiness” comes at the surprise moments when we are out there, not wallowing in indecision.  A little child running over and hugging you, saying “I love you, mommy” is hard to beat.  IF we are out there finding joy in small moments, we radiate.  What happens then?  We are attractive to others — and often we become a magnet.  Like attracts like and I have found that best friends “happen”.  There is more than one fish in the ocean as far as men goes — believe it.  They are attracted to women who are enjoying themselves, are lively, exuding a love of life.  Better to live alone than to “settle” for someone who – in the end – will drag you down like an anchor.  But I don’t think you will live alone long – if you don’t want to – if you are doing things you find you love, working at jobs where your love and expertise play together – making you run on a HIGH. 

    LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST, I believe, should be a goal placed on your fridge to see every day.  Taking steps, big and small, but doing something that is forward thinking every day usually is rewarded in surprises and friends and lovers AND adventure . . . but most of all in smiles and a feeling of self-completion.    

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      The term false choices implies there are true choices. There are just choices. We all hit “forks in the road.” Sometimes there are two paths to choose from. Sometimes there are twenty. We choose one and hope for the best. Sometimes it seems it turns out to be the worst. In reality there is no such thing. We learn from our mistakes. And our “false choices.” Sometimes we learn things we desperately need to learn!

      I really believe this focus on a “pursuit of happiness” is a pursuit of perfection. Folly at best. Or worst.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Baby,  As you too know by now, the pursuit of happiness, boldly stated as it is, is folly – as you have stated.  I have always believed that the periods of CONTENTMENT in our lives are the times to be grateful for.  Again, we do not go after contentment – any more than we can go after happiness in the form of a pursuit — for we are almost destined to fail — or not see it when we have it.  We can’t capture it in a butterfly net and keep it.  Life with its highs and lows — and everyone at one time or other has “the lows”, like it or not — happens.  If we look at the lesser times in the right way, we do – as you have said – learn by them.

        Personally, I have found contentment and those moments of unbelievable happiness when I was not thinking of “the Me” but when I was busy making life perhaps a little bit better for others.  What goes around, comes around.  And when it does, it seeps into your being.  YOu notices differences, you smile more.  And for each of us, our experiences with what we call “happiness” remain unique.  For me it is moments when my heart leaps — that is the best way to explain what really can’t be explained.

        I believe that we each trod our separate paths in life with our unique dreams and goals, and depending on how well we do — and realizing that circumstances beyond our control can knock us for loops along the way, making it often difficult to get up and move on — will perhaps mean more of the special moments.  But we can’t count on it, can we?  And personally, I like surprises!!!

        • avatar Baby Snooks says:

          Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
          and remember what peace there may be in silence.

          As far as possible, without surrender,
          be on good terms with all persons.
          Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
          and listen to others,
          even to the dull and the ignorant;
          they too have their story.
          Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
          they are vexatious to the spirit.

          If you compare yourself with others,
          you may become vain or bitter,
          for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
          Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
          Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
          it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

          Exercise caution in your business affairs,
          for the world is full of trickery.
          But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
          many persons strive for high ideals,
          and everywhere life is full of heroism.
          Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
          Neither be cynical about love,
          for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
          it is as perennial as the grass.

          Take kindly the counsel of the years,
          gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
          Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
          But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
          Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

          Beyond a wholesome discipline,
          be gentle with yourself.
          You are a child of the universe
          no less than the trees and the stars;
          you have a right to be here.
          And whether or not it is clear to you,
          no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

          Therefore be at peace with God,
          whatever you conceive Him to be.
          And whatever your labors and aspirations,
          in the noisy confusion of life,
          keep peace with your soul.

          With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
          it is still a beautiful world.
          Be careful. Strive to be happy.

          Desiderata by Max Ehrmann


          Those are the words I read each morning and have read each morning for over 40 years. The last line perhaps should have been “strive to be content” but then perhaps contentment is happiness. Contentment is merely acceptance. And acceptance is merely acknowledgement that there is something beyond all of us that we cannot really comprehend. Only trust in.

          After I read it, I say a little “thank you for this day.” To whatever, whoever, is out there beyond all of us. And off I go. Reminding myself, it seems, at one point or another during the day, whether it is a good day or a bad day, that as Rod McKuen put it, love at best is giving what you need to get. Sometimes just a smile is all it takes. Smiles are the one thing in life I have found that are always returned.

          Wondering about it all of late I made a comment to a friend at one point that I got an “F” in perfection. But an “A” in life.

          • avatar Joan Larsen says:

            Thank you, Baby.  I have never read a poem and then your after words that so express the truly right way to think and live our lives.  I am copying it to place on my fridge — but do try to live this way.  All I can say to you is that I would give you an A-plus and more in LIFE.  Joan

          • avatar Baby Snooks says:

            I probably would have gotten a “D” in perfection but usually I am singing my version of “Edelweiss” while waiting for the coffee.  “Schadenfreuede, schadenfreude….”  My one real vice I suppose. I probably should have been a gossip columnist. But as one gossip columnist pointed out years ago when I made that observation, I would have been shot before the second column hit the press. 
            A friend founded a hospice organization years ago and it of course affected my outlook on life. We truly only have the guarantee of “this day.”  And really of “this moment.”  So we really do need to “be at peace” as it’s put in Desiderata. With ourselves as well as god. Whatever we perceive god to be. I think, to be honest, it is more important to be at peace with ourselves. To have no regrets. To have done the best we could. And to have done what we believed was the right thing to do.  In that sense, there are no wrong choices. Certainly no false choices. Only choices made on the basis of what we believed was best and right for everyone  Not just for us.  

            And smiles? No one needs a smile more than someone facing death. And nothing touches the soul more than the smile they give back.

          • avatar Joan Larsen says:

            Baby . . . I am responding as I don’t believe I have ever found anyone who – word for word on this – would respond and think as I do.  I admit — most people are unable, unwilling, not open to express themselves.  But with your last responsve, I find us even more alike.  And as you said so well, there are no false choices.  We make choices – period — and hopefully, we are learning and growing every day by their results.

            Be sure to read NYT Mag Feb 12 last page with the lately missing Diane Ackerman reminding us that we do not know what tomorrow will bring so we must make all we can of today.  Joan

  3. avatar Laurie Deer says:

    It’s funny some of your “terms” are on my mind lately.  In the past month, it’s “Do I put my own needs aside or put other people’s needs before my own.”  Well, I choose my own and got what I expected, a whole cart full of anger and resentment.   But it made me recognize that I undervalued myself enough to be second for too long.
    So to answer your question, Have you ever caught yourself framing a question with a false choice?  Yes, I have and for far too long.
    Life is such joy.

  4. avatar Marylei says:

    It has taken me 50 years to understand that happiness is measured in moments.  We all feel happiness, sadness, anger, boredom, or excitement on most days.  I don’t believe that most people feel happy all the time.  Happiness seems to come from being at peace with yourself regardless of what has happened in the past.  You cannot just live in the present because it is shaped by your past and your dreams of what the future will be.  Just hold on to all of your happy moments.