More than 30 years ago, a good friend and I regularly launched what we mockingly called our “10-Point Plan for Happiness.” Our plans always included these steps: Quit going to the bars so much, especially during the week. Stop dating losers. Work out more. No more French fries/potato chips/chocolate or whatever indulgence was tempting us that week. Oh yeah, and save more money. But over the years, I’ve shortened up the list.
Even as my friend and I made those resolutions, we knew we were likely to backslide.
But there’s something very appealing about setting goals and having a plan—it helped me feel in control of my life. Setting goals is the means to accomplishing something and the counterpoint to daydreaming, but never doing. If I just follow these simple steps, I can make my life better—who wouldn’t want that?
Believing change is possible is ingrained in the American psyche. The lure of possibility is undeniable. If you’re fat and out of shape you can be transformed, especially if you win a chance to be on The Biggest Loser. If you’re clueless about clothes and your personal appearance, Stacy and Clinton can reform you on What Not to Wear. If you’re a philandering politician, you can humble yourself, ask your spouse and voters to forgive you and after some time has passed, you can be re-elected like U.S. representative Mark Sanford (ex-governor of South Carolina).
I believe real change is possible, but it isn’t fast or easy—it takes a lot more effort than making lists as I did in my 20’s or a going on a whirlwind clothes-buying spree. The people I’ve known who have reinvented themselves worked hard at it for years.
Sometimes my life feels like it’s one big Continuous Quality Improvement project. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the changes I need to undertake are refinements, not sweeping transformations. So I try to be a better writer, and I tinker with how to squeeze in more time for projects I enjoy, travel, family, friends, and fun. That focus has made my life richer and more fulfilled.
I no longer believe that I’m capable of making major improvements to myself . . . or that I even need to. That’s not smug self-satisfaction, but another way of saying I’m learning to accept my flaws. I’ll keep trying to think before I speak. I’ll also try not to offer advice unless asked. However, I know I’m going to backslide sometimes, and even though I’ll fall short on those goals (and others), I’m still basically OK.
If the goal is happiness, perfection is not required . . . or even useful. So my current Plan for Happiness has a mere three points:
- Be kinder to myself— accept and forgive my shortcomings.
- Continue to focus on being healthy (food, exercise, stress management), but don’t fret too much about any of those items.
- Continue to spend more time doing what I love, less on what I don’t.
What works for you?