I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should 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. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.
One useful happiness finding is that we tend to regret the things we don’t do much more than the things we do. According to Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, one explanation for this is that when we act, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we learned a lot, even from a negative experience. It’s harder to make ourselves feel good about inaction.
I think this is generally true, and I often remind myself of this – for example, when I was deciding whether to go to my reunion, I considered the fact that I’d probably regret not going than I’d regret going.
However, there is a MAJOR and CRITICALLY IMPORTANT exception to this rule. And that is the decision to say something rude or mean. DON’T SAY IT. You won’t regret it. This is a place for inaction.
We’ve all heard the saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” This is so, so, so true. I can’t begin to count the times when I’ve said something, or written something, that I wished I could retract. It feels good for a moment to make that snarky comment, but then I bitterly regret it.
This is easier said than done, however.
For example, yesterday, I discovered something that the Big Man had done, out of inattention, that made me very angry.
I called him at work, and said “What have you done??!!” He hadn’t realized what he’d done, so I told him, but then he had to get off the phone for the rest of the day, so we didn’t really have a proper confrontation about it.
No surprise, the Big Man usually isn’t particularly eager to explore his missteps, so I kept thinking, “I’m going to tell him, ‘I need you to admit that this was a big mistake!’” “Just acknowledge that you screwed up!” “What were you thinking, how did this happen?” “This was your responsibility!” etc.
Then it occurred to me – I could say nothing. I’d brought the issue to his attention, and he knew what had happened. Now I could just let it go.
Can I actually do that? I really don’t know. So far, I haven’t said anything more about it, but it has taken superhuman self-control, and I don’t know whether I can keep it up. I’m going to try, however. There’s no real purpose to be served, other than satisfaction of my anger, and having an argument will sour the atmosphere of our house.
Relatedly, I’ll say this, too:
It’s true that a terrific happiness-project resolution is “Don’t say it.” Don’t say “I told you so,” don’t say “I was right,” don’t say “You screwed up majorly,” etc.
But if you’re on the other side of this situation, as the wrong-doer, it’s enormously helpful if you take the blame, if it’s deserved. If the Big Man would say to me, without prompting, “Hey, I wasn’t paying attention, and this happened, and I’m really sorry,” my anger would dissipate.
When I started working, my father told me, “If you’ll take the blame, you’ll get the responsibility,” and that’s absolutely true. There’s something enormously satisfying and comforting to people when a person accepts blame. By trying to deflect blame, you fan people’s angry feelings; by accepting blame (when appropriate), you discharge it.
I wish the Big Man would own up to his mistake. But I can’t control him. The question for myself is: given the situation, how do I choose to act? Do I bring it up, do I chide him? No, I choose not to say it. At least I’m going to try.
As Publilius Syrus wrote, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
***Update: after I wrote this, the sore subject came up naturally (I didn’t bring it up), and the Big Man said, “It was totally my fault.” And that was all it took to put the issue to rest. My hero.
My goodness, I’m dying to see this documentary, My Messy Life, which I read about on Gimundo — a journalist exposes his messiness. I’m a bit obsessed with the psychological effects of clutter and clutter elimination, so I’m really curious to hear what he has to say.
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