What’s Your Advice for A Happy Life?


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? 

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  1. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn

    Never argue with an angry woman. Even if you win (sometimes especially if you win), you lose.

    • #1
  2. 6foot2inhighheels Member

    My favorite is what my Father liked to say; Plan for Tomorrow, but Live for Today.  It is a simple truth that learning to balance the worries of the future with the joy of living in the moment is the secret to lifelong happiness.

    • #2
  3. user_554634 Moderator

    Read one good philosophy book. Don’t make this an academic exercise, but a personal journey. It shouldn’t be Plato or Wittgenstein. Find a book that teaches you how to philosophize, which means examining your own life. Play with your kids. And not some video game. Get down on your hands and knees and chase them around. Throw a ball. Get out of yourself and into them. Stay away from doctors unless your sure it’s serious.  Too many of us rush to docs for sniffles and sneezes. It makes us weak, whiny, and a pain to be around. There are many things in life that ought to be accepted. It’s good training for dealing with serious things.

    • #3
  4. user_86050 Inactive

    Allow me to note something from Ross Douthat’s column over the weekend:

    But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.

    In other words, the lukewarm are bound to get vomited.

    Social benefits come from people who actually believe and practice their faith. Pascal’s wager (or William James’) isn’t good enough, because there’s only conditional belief behind it.

    • #4
  5. Syzygy Inactive

    Realize that you are more than your missteps. It’s true that you have done terrible things in the past, things that are truly worthy of regret. But you are a person created in G-d’s image, and G-d doesn’t make junk. The fact that you woke up this morning means that G-d needs you for a purpose. Find out what your purpose is and pursue it no matter how many mistakes you make. At the same time (and this is crucial) realize that it’s the purpose which ought to be taken seriously, not you. Be able to laugh at yourself and your own craziness.

    • #5
  6. PsychLynne Inactive

    Troy, I’m going to put a corollary to the “cheerful pessimist,” for those of us preternaturally disposed to optimism, be able to anticipate roadblocks–a strategic optimist?  an optimist without rose colored glasses?  

    Also, I have to whole-heartedly agree with the understanding of trade-offs.  When I was having career angst in my mid-20s, worrying about not be taken seriously because I like to have a good time, my dad gave me priceless advice about trade-offs.  I was struggling with managing the tension between being taken seriously and being the person who people typically expect to have fun with.  He told me I could give up being fun or give up being taken seriously, but since neither of those were who I was, I needed to weigh the costs of those choices….and perhaps juggling the sometimes conflicting impulses wasn’t so bad.  

    Words of wisdom from my perspective. 

    • #6
  7. Melaniejw Inactive

    I would add to the list: get outside and enjoy nature. There is natural beauty to be found everywhere.

    • #7
  8. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam

    Become a hermit.  Buy a giraffe and a monkey.

    • #8
  9. PsychLynne Inactive

    I would add to the list: get outside and enjoy nature. There is natural beauty to be found everywhere.

     My husband and I have a long running “disagreement” about this.  He loves nature and if he is feeling at all under the weather he heads outside.  Thus, when I’m feeling bad (usually allergies) it took him a while to realize that the outdoors only makes them worse–it just makes me feel pathetic to sit outside with an inhaler in each hand.  On the other hand, my husband would give you a round of applause for your answer : )

    • #9
  10. iWc Coolidge

    Appreciate: Your spouse, your friends, your blessings, your god, your children.

    Always ask yourself: how can I do that good thing even better?

    Start each day with an ambitious to-do list. Stop when you are good and properly tired, but  before you drop into bed, congratulate yourself on all you achieved. 

    • #10
  11. Brian Inactive

    Stop trying to be happy. Happiness is not a goal or destination, it is a result.

    • #11
  12. Melaniejw Inactive

    PsychLynne – I’m sorry to hear about your allergies and that had not occurred to me in my comment. For your list, please disregard :)

    • #12
  13. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA

    Be kind, and look for opportunities to share kindness.

    Be content with what you have, where you are, and be willing to share.

    Get enough sleep–that helps you maintain kindness and contentment.

    oh, and of course…Eat more chocolate.

    • #13
  14. Dad of Four Inactive
    Dad of Four

    Ask yourself “How much is enough?”

    This question can be applied to money, prestige, learning, friends, children, sex, cheeseburgers and winning arguments.

    • #14
  15. iWc Coolidge

    Happiness cannot be achieved through pursuit. It is a byproduct of doing good things.

    • #15
  16. EThompson Inactive

    2. Learn How to Recognize Your Soul Mate sums it up nicely for me.

    Excellent post.

    • #16
  17. MaggiMc Coolidge

    The Boy Scout slogan is “do a good turn daily”, which seems like great advice for spreading happiness and good feelings around to other people.  I started taking this adage more seriously myself when we began teaching it to our boys.  Lord Baden-Powell’s reasoning behind the slogan was that “the good turn educates the boy out of the groove of selfishness.”  When I read that, I began to understand why it’s such a powerful and simple tool.  The benefit doesn’t come from the good feeling and gratitude you get back from other people; it comes from the proactive discipline of forcing yourself to look outside yourself. 

    • #17
  18. 6foot2inhighheels Member

    Stop trying to be happy.Happiness is not a goal or destination, it is a result.

     Or a symptom?

    • #18
  19. MaggiMc Coolidge

    If you have a family, do the hard work necessary for a harmonious home.  If your home, spouse and children are not your haven, I don’t think you can be happy.  We don’t have a lot of nit-picky rules; rather, we have a few general things that are not negotiable.  For example, no name-calling by parents or kids.  Period.  Bedtime is whenever we say it is.  Our actions let the kids know we mean what we say–we don’t argue with the kids.  Our way is not the only way, but it is the way that allows US to have a reliably functioning household with minimal chaos.  This is not effortless–it requires mental and emotional discipline from the adults.  But the reward is that we look forward to coming home to our family every single day.

    • #19
  20. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn

    I knew a man when I was a teenager who had been happy every day for almost 30 years. His secret was gratitude. He listed his blessings every day because, as he put it, it is impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time.

    • #20
  21. Blue State Curmudgeon Inactive
    Blue State Curmudgeon

    Troy; given my Ricochet handle idetifying me as a fellow curmudgeon I feel obliged to chime in on this. Here’s what I would add:

    1) Live your hopes not your fears. So many people become paralysed by risks that they fail to see any opportunities. Another way to say it is hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
    2) I believe it was Bill Cosby who, when asked what the secret of success was, he replied I don’t know; but I know that the secret of failure is to try to please everyone.
    3) Have a modest and acheivable definition of happiness. I see so many people who define happiness as an endless joy ride in life that is devoid of any pain or inconvenience. That’s neither realistic nor healthy. I define happiness more like satisfaction. While I may strive for more in some circumstances, knowing that I will be satisfied by what I have right now gives great peace of mind.

    • #21
  22. OkieSailor Member

    1. Discover what your talents and abilities are.

    2. Find ways to use them to serve the interests of others.

    3. Enjoy the rewards.

    • #22
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