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Longing for Lasting Happiness? Avoid this ONE Word!

Happy young woman with flower

Quit “should”-ing all over yourself.

I should get my car washed. I should pay my bills. I should eat less. I should wake up earlier on weekends.

We fill our lives with shoulds and shouldn’ts. Shoulds keep us on the straight and narrow path of responsibility, but do they simultaneously derail us from finding real happiness?

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What are shoulds and where did they come from? Of course, we can trace them back to the original holy set — the Ten Commandments — but I’m guessing that shoulds arose well before that.

We create a should when a group of people agree on how the world is or might be, but this may differ from culture to culture and century to century. Democrats have different shoulds about the world than Republicans.

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Religious believers and non-believers differ about the shoulds that label us good or bad. The shoulds of your family and friends may differ vastly from those of your neighbor. Americans have different social expectations than Chinese or Ugandan people about what it takes to become a good or productive person.

Shoulds may lead to procrastination. Putting things off is often the result of unconsciously rebelling against or avoiding an unpleasant should. This is because the outside inflicts shoulds on us.

From our earliest years, we’re told what a good boy or girl should or shouldn’t do to gain approval from a parent, teacher, family, community, religion, and the world.

We are not given opportunities to challenge these instructions. When we do, we may end up going our own way and marching to our own drummer, but may also carry a load of guilt or shame about breaking away from what’s expected.

Who says I should wash my car, pay my bills, or eat less junk food? You may say you do, but where did the original rule come from and who imposed it on you? Take a moment to think about some of the things you are dragging your feet about doing right now. Pick one.

Pretend you are standing in front of your local ATM about to make a withdrawal. This time, you are going to withdraw some information. Pretend you are typing in this question instead of the amount of money: How young was I when I decided that I’d be a bad person if I didn’t ___? (Fill in the thing you are putting off)

Take a deep breath and as you let it out, a number will pop into your head.

As you identify your age you may automatically know who told you it was wrong or bad. If not, do the ATM routine, again asking for that information. Remember what was happening back then and how you felt when you accepted that command.

Take a moment to acknowledge all the guilt or shame you have felt throughout your life and each time you resisted. How often have you struggled with this and other shoulds handed down from generation to generation?

Please don’t think I am telling you to drop all shoulds and rebel against everything; the result would create chaos and harm. Children need some rules to help them conform to the expectations of their culture and to keep them safe. Yet, once we are grown-ups we assess these directives and decide which ones fit our beliefs and lifestyle, and which don’t.

Grown-ups can choose which decrees they want to adhere to.

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Try this: Go back to the command you chose above. Say out loud to yourself, “I should do my laundry.”

How do you feel? Is there tension in your stomach or throat? Do you feel ashamed of yourself for being lazy?

Think about this for a moment. Do you want to do your laundry? If you don’t then are you willing to deal with the consequences? After all, you are an adult now and responsible for your actions.

Make a decision and say either, “I choose to do my laundry,” or “I choose to not do my laundry.” Does that feel different when you say it out loud?

Most people find that when they trade in their shoulds for choose to or choose not to, they get rid of a load of guilt and shame. See if you can eliminate the words should, shouldn’t, must, and have to from your life this week and notice what happens.

This guest article originally appeared on The #1 Word You Should NEVER Use If You Want To Be Happy.

Longing for Lasting Happiness? Avoid this ONE Word!

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). Longing for Lasting Happiness? Avoid this ONE Word!. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.