Turn smugness into a positive virtue
Various times here in my posts I've admitted to an unfortunate tendency toward smugness. It's really a negative character trait, and one that I struggle against. There are ways, though, that it can be turned into a positive, at least partially.
I've been trying to figure out what to call the part of smugness that's not ugly and destructive, and I've about settled on glee. Because, really, that's what I feel when I do stuff that seems right and then things turn out well.
Gleeful is the way I feel when I ride my bike for transportation--getting exercise, spending no money, burning no fuel, making no excess contributions to greenhouse gasses, adding scarcely at all to roadway wear-and-tear or to road congestion. It's good. It's positive.
It turns into smugness, though, when I compare myself to others. When I bicycle past a gas station and feel superior to the lazy schlubs pumping expensive gas into their SUVs, that's not glee. That's smugness.
Where smugness gets ugly is when other people detect it. And it's not as easy to hide as you might think. When you're smug about something, people can tell. However bland you try to keep your tone or your expression, there's something about smug that just shines through.
Where smugness gets destructive is when you're wrong. If you've got a great plan and you're following it and things are working out great, that's all fine. But when you feel all smug about it, that's when you're particularly likely to fail to notice if things aren't working out so great after all. Just because you're feeling all superior doesn't mean that you are.
The keys to avoiding smugness lie in not feeling superior to others. It's fine to feel pleased with yourself when you set a course that you think will lead to good things, stick to your plan, and find yourself better off. It's when you look at other people who weren't as clever or diligent (or lucky) as you and imagine that you're better than them that you cross over into smugness. (And, really, there's no need: you can feel satisfied without feeling smugly self-satisfied.) A little humility goes a long way, as does a little compassion--and a little discretion.
So, the first and best choice is to not feel smug. Stick with gleeful instead. It's really more fun.
Having said all that, I think you can find something positive in smugness: Glee only goes so far when it comes to motivation.
However much fun I have bicycling--and it is fun as well as being good for me and gentle on the planet--it does take a little extra effort and a little extra time. When I'm feeling lazy and rushed I'm all too likely to figure I might as well take the car. Feeling gleeful is great, but when I'm tired I'll just figure that I can feel gleeful about bicycling next time.
That's when smugness helps: I don't want to become one of the poor bastards I was feeling so smugly superior to just the day before, so I go ahead and bicycle anyway.
This can work for anything. Feeling smug about sticking to the budget can help you brown-bag your lunch, borrow books from the library, and get your evening's entertainment with a DVD instead of paying up for tickets to the theater. Feeling smug about serving your family healthy food can help you not give in to the allure of microwave meals. Always paying your credit card bill in full is just good sense--but maybe feeling a bit smug about it can help you hold back from charging something you can't afford (and if it doesn't, maybe it can push you to tighten your belt enough to pay the card off anyway).
Basically, smugness is a win to the extent that it helps you stick to the things that you're doing right. Of course there are other (better) ways to do that--ways that aren't so ugly and that don't set you up to fool yourself into thinking things are going well when they aren't. But, if a little smugness helps you get the job done (and if you can manage to keep it mostly hidden from other people), I think it's kind of okay.
I hope so, anyway.