In my first year of university, I made a poster with a quotation from Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw: "As we drive along this road called life, occasionally a gal will find herself a little lost. And when that happens, I guess she has to let go of the coulda, shoulda, woulda, buckle up and just keep going."
I made the decorative choice during a period in which I also wore a housecoat and a full face of makeup to morning lectures. But behind my saccharine bubble letters, the modern proverb was a real reminder of one of my greatest weaknesses: I'm incredibly indecisive, and when I make a decision, I instantly second-guess myself.
The switch from Christmas to the new year feels like the moment lights turn on after a long night at the bar. Without eggnog-coloured glasses, every pile of vomit and broken glass in our lives becomes visible. The personality flaws we've been hiding behind fuzzy holiday sweaters begin to unravel in plain sight. In a panic, we make resolutions: Spend more time with aunt Edna. Be less judgemental. Approach cheeseburgers with moderation.
North American culture touts self-improvement as the key to happiness. But more of us would be happy if we simply embraced our flaws.
The Tony Robbins brand of self-help does not work for everyone. Motivational quotes, positive thinking and excessive goal-planning can have damaging effects for naturally pessimistic people. Oliver Burkeman, author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking", found that when people try hard to ignore negativity, it's all they can think about. In his journey through the self-help world, Burkeman discovered many contradictions. He writes in the New York Times that cheery slogans often "make people with low self-esteem feel worse" (But I'm too ugly to deserve love!). Goal visualization can lead to a false sense of achievement and rigid goal setting can turn humans into unethical monsters. It turns out the most useful New Year's resolution is not to become more positive, but to hug your imperfections a little tighter.
There's no need to pretend negativity doesn't exist to be happy. Accepting difficult emotions such as anxiety and depression is in fact an excellent coping mechanism. When Buddhists meditate, they acknowledge negative thoughts and promptly let them go. The exercise turns the mind into a sturdy boat that won't capsize when life becomes rocky. Sometimes, it's best for cynics to indulge their negative thoughts. Obviously moderation is key. Being Oscar the Grouch will land you a garbage can of a life. But psychologist Julie Norem has coined "defensive pessimism" as an effective strategy in certain situations. When an anxious person imagines a worst-case scenario (I will forget my speech in front of 100 people), it motives him or her to take the necessary steps to succeed (I will practise said speech 100 times). Positive thinking, on the other hand, can act as little more than a reminder of expectations a person cannot fulfill.
Every personality flaw is also a strength. Take my indecision for example. Your brain naturally wants to slow down when faced with a difficult decision so it can toss information back and forth like pizza dough and arrive at a well-rounded conclusion. And because of my constant uncertainty, I let that process happen. Whenever I make a decision it feels like I'm conducting a mini-trial in which I argue for and against each choice, calling friends and family to the stand. Impulsiveness short circuits that admittedly exhausting inquiry and often results in half-baked choices with lasting consequence. I may waste 20 minutes trying to decide on a brand of toothpaste (and another 10 minutes second-guessing the one I buy) but I have almost no long-term life regrets. My indecisiveness also stems from good aspects of my personality. Because I care about people, I'm overly sensitive to how a choice will affect anyone involved. Because I'm curious and open-minded, I always see a web of possibilities rather than a straight line.
There's no doubt we should try and be happy. But rather than follow Tony Robbins and his ilk, we should see our flaws as secret weapons. Now that I've long since graduated from housecoat-clad student to a wise adult, I know those coulda, shoulda, wouldas are worth holding on to.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen