THE BLOG
08/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated 6 days ago

The Secret To Happiness: Don't Care!

Candle-flameI'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could 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.

A friend told me this story, and I've never forgotten it, though the following anecdote about G. Gordon Liddy may not, in fact, be true; I've never verified it. According to my friend, Liddy once held his hand over a candle flame until his flesh burned. Someone asked, "What's your secret?" and he replied, "The secret is not to care."

I think about this phrase constantly: "The secret is not to care." Because if I don't want to let certain things make me unhappy, the secret is not to care. (Not to mention not caring about the weird grammar of the phrase.)

Recently a friend explained that although she doesn't enjoy getting manicures, she has to get them, because her hands must look nice for work (she has a fancy job). The last time I had a manicure was two years ago when my sister got married, and I know that even if I had my friend's job, I wouldn't get manicures. I just don't care, and because I don't care, I don't believe that other people care much either.

Another friend is honestly worried because his children don't have very adventurous tastes in foods. Again, I just don't care about that, so that worry doesn't make a difference to me. Of course, I care about things that other people don't care about.

I think this "secret" is important, because while we can't exercise complete control over the things we care about, we can take notice, remember that some of our concerns are idiosyncratic, and try to master them where appropriate. Mindfulness! Yikes, mindfulness turns out to be important everywhere I look. (Wondering how mindful you are? I'm not very. Here's a quiz.)

Often I invoke this phrase, "The secret is not to care," in a context where I find myself worrying about what other people will think. When I feel myself fussing about something, I ask myself, "Do I really care? Or is the secret not to care?"

I felt myself caring about the fact that my four-year-old often goes to school wearing hideous outfits. She loves to pick out her own clothes and tends to choose eye-popping combinations. I found myself wanting to explain to everyone, "She chose that herself! I didn't match that shirt with those pants!" Then I realized - the secret is not to care. Why shouldn't she pick out her own clothes to please herself? Why should I care? I don't care. And I let it go.

This observation by Samuel Johnson keeps springing to my mind: "Since every man is obliged to promote happiness and virtue, he should be careful not to mislead unwary minds, by appearing to set too high a value upon things by which no real excellence is conferred."

Accordingly, I'm not "setting too high a value" upon coordinated outfits on a pre-schooler, "by which no real excellence is conferred." The secret is not to care.

Have you found yourself caring about things you don't really care about? How do you address it?

* I see on Gimundo that the New Economics Foundation ranked Costa Rica as the world"s happiest country. Interesting.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you'd like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I'm trying to thwart spammers.) Just write "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.