Being a better person is highly overrated. It tends to involve a lot of “shoulds.” You should eat less salt. You should drive with your hands at 10 and 2. You should sit at least three feet from all electronic devices and never swim after eating spaghetti. In the therapy world, we call this “shoulding” yourself.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with your list of “shoulds.” The problem is, the items on this list typically come from someone other than you. Someone tells you to eat less salt. So you eat less salt, you’re healthier, you live longer. But what do you do with all this bonus time alive? Do you get better at driving with your hands at 10 and 2? Do you finally learn to sit three feet from all electronic devices?
As a kid in school, when you’re “good” they give you a gold star on your colored construction paper. As an adult, when you’re “good” you get a satisfactory dental checkup and a receipt. I guess you could pin the receipt to your refrigerator.
What you really want is to be happy. Are “better” people happier people, or are they just people with a lot of gold stars? The thing about being happy is there’s no clear set of rules. They don’t teach you to be happy in school because they can’t. You’ve got to figure this one out for yourself. And a big part of happiness is recognizing how limiting and arbitrary are the Rules for Being Better. You don’t have to lower your cholesterol numbers to pre-qualify for happiness. You don’t have to pay off your credit cards before you start living your life.
Be happy first and the rest will follow. Give yourself permission to be happy Here and Now even if there isn’t a single gold star on your page. A truly happy person–and these are rarer than you think–is kind, compassionate, healthy, financially satisfied. But they are this way naturally, authentically. An unhappy person can really only aspire to these qualities. An unhappy person behaving kindly is like a chimpanzee tap-dancing. Everyone appreciates the heroic effort being made, but a tap-dancing chimp is still just a chimp. Behaving compassionately is not the same thing as being compassionate. Going to the gym six times a week isn’t the same thing as being healthy.
You’ll never achieve happiness by collecting gold stars. This is good news. Because collecting gold stars tends to be a drag. So feel free to talk in class, forget your homework, head out to recess a few hours early. Or not. Nothing you should do, just a lot of things you could do. No road map. Nothing to navigate by but the inner compass of your own happiness.
About the Author: James Robbins is a licensed professional counselor, published author and co-owner of Dallas Whole Life Counseling. He has over 15 years of experience helping people in various life stages that come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and family backgrounds. Learn more about his background by clicking here.