What Happiness and Guilt have in common

At the YMCA this morning two guys sitting at weight machines were having a conversation that went like this:

A: “Why do I do this? I come in here three days a week to beat myself up?”

B: “I agree. This is crazy, to come in here and pull and push and sweat. Why DO we do this?”

A: <after a short pause> “You know what it is? Guilt. If I don’t come in, I feel guilty.”

B: “Yeah, I know what you mean. If I don’t come in, I feel like I let myself down, ‘cuz I know how good I feel on the days I work out.”

A: “Guilt is a pretty good motivator.”

Listening to this exchange, I found myself chuckling. So many people I work with are driven by guilt into beating themselves up for not being perfect, for not “taking care of” everyone in the world, for not meeting impossible standards, and so on… and guilt in those circumstances has become negative and corrosive.

Yet, all guilt is essentially us telling ourselves that we’ve failed to meet some personal standard. So if my standard is that I work out three days a week, and I fail to get my butt out of bed on Monday morning, I feel a little guilt, which serves to motivate me.

Guilt, unchecked, can eat us alive.  Yet if we use it (in small quantities) to hold ourselves accountable when we fail to honor one of our own values or when we renege on a promise we made, guilt keeps us honorable.  And when I keep my promises, I feel happier.

So what guilt and happiness have in common is that they can each, in their own way, serve to motivate us and cause us to shift our behavior.

Thanks, Guilt, for keeping me honest, and supporting my happiness!

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