You may already know that living authentically is a key to happiness. But knowing this is one thing, while actually doing it is far more complicated. Where do you start? Gaining clarity about what you value most is key, as is choosing companions who share those values. For me, having autonomy is supremely important. Ever since I was a small child, I've had a strong drive to do things in a way that makes sense to me, feels right to me and works for me. "Because that's the way things have always been done," and "because that's what everyone else is doing," don't persuade me to follow a particular course of action if the proposed approach doesn't stand up to an evaluation of its merits and disadvantages. One of the keys to my longtime ability to craft a life that reflects my values is that I have shared it for more than 25 years with a man with similar values and the same thirst for authenticity.
How can you tell if a potential life partner shares your values and is likely to support you? In my case, I got a powerful sign from my then-boyfriend a couple of years before we married. He was flipping through a society magazine while we sat in a waiting room. The pages at the back depicted attractive, well-dressed, wealthy people at gala dinners and charity balls. The photo captions identified each married woman by her husband's name: Mrs. Edmund Langmore, Mrs. William Rigsdale, and so on.
"It seems like these women have no identity of their own," Dan said. "Why is it always the case that women give up their own name and take their husband's? Why is it never the other way around?"
And then, the bombshell: "I would take your name if we got married. I wouldn't want you to be Mrs. Somebody Else."
It was both an expression of his love for me and an impressive sign that here was a man who would not be bound by conventions that didn't hold value for him. His offer was impressively original and highly significant; even the most deeply closeted male chauvinist would be hard-pressed to pull it off with the earnestness that Dan did.
When we did marry two years later, my husband stuck with his offer and became Dan Valcour. When our two daughters were born, we also gave them the last name Valcour. Our choice has generated a variety of responses, the overwhelming majority of them positive and supportive. We've occasionally encountered confusion as people try to figure out how it is that my husband has the same last name as my parents, but never any outright hostility. For us, being a couple in which the husband has taken the wife's name is a shared identity of which we are very proud. It says something about who we are and what we value. It's a story that we are always proud to share with others, one that most often generates delight. And it arose from the simple act of stopping to ask "why?" rather than automatically accepting "that's the way things are.
Modern psychological science supports what philosophers including Heidegger have argued for many years: that leading your life on your own terms enhances meaning and happiness. Living in harmony with your values makes carrying out your daily activities satisfying for the simple reason that your efforts and their outcomes are meaningful to you. Contrast this to the sense of futility that plagues people whose lives feel out of sync with their values. It's like being called on stage as the understudy to play a role that belongs to someone else. You may know the lines, but you're still mimicking a performance you've watched someone else give rather than creating the character yourself. In work as in the rest of life, it's much harder to find the motivation to persist at goals that aren't meaningful to you. Furthermore, their rewards don't deliver the same degree of satisfaction that the rewards from accomplishing something you really care about do.
Some social norms and conventions help us along the pathway to happiness, while others are roadblocks. Generically speaking, social norms are necessary to the healthy functioning of society. Taken individually, however, there are plenty of social norms that limit the ability of some people to live happy, fulfilling lives. We should think critically about social norms that create pressure for us to act in a way that conflicts with our own deeply-held values and identity. Going along with a social norm that doesn't reflect who we are deep down and what we care about is alienating; it produces anxiety and dissatisfaction. Knowing who we are and what we value is fundamental to adopting norms that support our most precious resources -- our health, well-being and happiness -- rather than undermining them. And it's easier to navigate the path to authenticity and happiness in the company of like-minded souls than it is to walk it alone.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.
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