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Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Charles Murray adapted from his forthcoming book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, a volume that belongs on all sensible people’s bookshelves.
In the Journal column, he lays out five pieces of advice for living a happy life, which I’ve copied below along with brief excerpts of the accompanying explanations:
1. Consider Marrying Young — “If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a startup. … [in startup marriages] you and your spouse will have made your way together. Whatever happens, you will have shared the experience. And each of you will know that you wouldn’t have become the person you are without the other.”
2. Learn How to Recognize Your Soul Mate — “It is absolutely crucial that you really, really like your spouse. You hear it all the time from people who are in great marriages: “I’m married to my best friend.” They are being literal. A good working definition of “soul mate” is “your closest friend, to whom you are also sexually attracted.”
3. Eventually Stop Fretting About Fame and Fortune — “Fame and wealth do accomplish something: They cure ambition anxiety. But that’s all. It isn’t much.”
4. Take Religion Seriously —”Taking religion seriously means work. If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Getting inside the wisdom of the great religions doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.”
5. Watch Groundhog Day Repeatedly — “You could learn the same truths by studying Aristotle’s “Ethics” carefully, but watching “Groundhog Day” repeatedly is a lot more fun.”
We’ve all got our favorite rules of the road. A few that I’d add to Murray’s list:
1. Be a Cheerful Pessimist —These days, pessimism has become almost synonymous with gloominess. I think of healthy pessimism, however, as nothing more than humility in the way one calibrates expectations. If you don’t expect much, the triumphs are that much sweeter and the failures sting a lot less, because you’ve already priced them in. Why be cheerful? You’re living in the West in the 21st century — you’re already playing with the house’s money. Much of what passes for hardship in your life would seem frivolous to most people in most places at most times in history.
2. Don’t Wait on Perfection — Don’t turn down a perfectly good job because it’s not an instant on-ramp to your dream career. Don’t throw away a perfectly good relationship because you think you’re still “figuring out who you are.” I get it — you had this vision worked out to the last detail in your journal when you were 15. But life is one big improv game. Stop waiting for a script, let alone one tailored to you.
3. Acknowledge Trade-Offs — Can we mothball the “you can have it all” mantra? If you pay for the elite school, the debt’s going to constrain the kind of careers you can think about and probably delay the point at which you can buy a home. If you wait to start a family until you’re older and more established in your career, your kids are going to get less time with their grandparents and, eventually, you. If you’re chasing a big paycheck early in your career, don’t expect to leave the office at 5 for happy hour with your friends. None of these decisions are inherently good or bad. That’s kind of the point. You have to make subjective judgments about relative value. And you know what? So does everyone else. So stop complaining about being forced to choose. That’s what grown-ups do.
4. Set Aside Time to Think — A friend of mine who worked in the Nixon White House told me once that the president budgeted an hour in his schedule every day to be alone with his thoughts. It’s a good idea (though it wouldn’t hurt you to be slightly less intellectually adventurous than Nixon). Allocate some time when you can be alone, without outside stimuli — without so much as a book — and just think. When we get busy, we tend to rely on intellectual shortcuts and reflexes more than deep thought. A little reflection goes a long way.
5. Laugh at Yourself — The more intimately you know someone, the more their shortcomings are exposed to you. You’ve spent your whole life trapped between your own ears, so you know in excruciating detail exactly what kind of Zeppelin-getting-hit-by-a-locomotive disaster you are. If you can’t laugh at that, the odds are strong that you’re a sociopath. If that’s the case, consider seeking psychological help or starting a lobbying firm.
How about you? What tips would you offer for a happy life?