How to Make Yourself Happier.

My First Splendid Truth is: To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Although this sounds like a simple and rather obvious formula, it took me a huge amount of time and thinking to work it out.

Even once I’d come up with it, however, I didn’t understand the true importance of the fourth element, the atmosphere of growth. But the more I think about the elements of a happy life, the more convinced I’ve become of its importance.

How do you cultivate an atmosphere of growth? You can fix something broken; clean something up; help someone who’s in trouble; make something; help someone move forward; learn something new; start something; plan and execute something. Having a place in your life where you are “growing” will make you feel much happier – plus these kinds of activities tend to foster other happiness-boosting actions, like spending time with people, making new friends, anticipating something fun, trying something new and challenging, etc.

One of my favorite ways to “grow” is to read something that changes the way I view the world. Suddenly, everything comes into focus more clearly, and my understanding deepens.

I felt this way when I read McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Bataille’s The Accursed Share: Consumption (I thought my head would explode when I read that, still have never been able to re-read it), Woolf’s The Waves, Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Koestenbaum’s Jackie Under My Skin

I have a special fondness for analysis that’s heavy on lists, categories, and schemes. That’s how I think myself – whether about power, money, fame and sex, or the life of Winston Churchill, or a happiness project, I always impose a very strict explicit order on my subject.

I’m enjoying this experience of intellectual revelation right now, because I’m halfway through the extraordinary book, Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order: Book One: The Phenomenon of Life. I already had this experience reading Alexander before, because I still haven’t recovered from the ecstasy of reading A Pattern Language. I’m slowly working my way through everything Alexander wrote, and The Nature of Order is not disappointing me.

In a nutshell, Alexander is outlining the qualities that give “life” to design – in the man-made world and in the natural world. Since I began this book, I find myself looking at buildings, fabrics, shells, everything, in a new way. One of the great, fundamental interests of my life is the relationship between people and objects (why, I have no idea, but this subject fascinates me) – plus I have an obsession that I call “symbols beyond words” which incorporates some of Alexander’s ideas.

Alexander identifies “fifteen structural [and also, he argues, objective] features which appear again and again in things which do have life”:
1. levels of scale
2. strong centers
3. boundaries
4. alternating repetition
5. positive space
6. good shape
7. local symmetries
8. deep interlock and ambiguity
9. contrast
10. gradients
11. roughness
12. echoes
13. the void
14. simplicity and inner calm
15. non-separateness

Considering his arguments is giving me tremendous intellectual pleasure — in particular, because I’m not a visually oriented person, they’re giving me a very satisfying tool for looking at the world and understanding what I find pleasing. (Though I have to admit, I just don’t appreciate a good Turkish carpet design the way Alexander does.)

The atmosphere of growth can be particularly useful to consider when you’re feeling unhappy, because it’s an area that’s directly under your control, right away. You can do something now to create an atmosphere of growth.

True, when you’re feeling blue, it can be tough to push yourself to learn something new, or get something started, or whatever. So start small. Search for an area where you can foster a bit of growth.

* I always find a lot of interesting, and funny, material on RealDelia — “finding yourself in adulthood.”

* Volunteer as a Super-Fan, and from time to time, I’ll ask for your help. Nothing onerous, I promise! But a big help to me.

  • A really good insight and explanation of the ‘atmosphere of growth’….and also some books I’m now going to look into! Enjoyed the post – thanks.

  • ula

    Indigenous people also believe that all things listed are animate and have their energy that affect humans and vice versa. I recommend “Healing the Sould Wound” by Duran and “Look to the Mountain” by Cajete.

  • Sounds like the atmosphere of growth is partly about continually striving to learn new things. I like that. Make life feel enriching rather than limiting.

  • Gretchen,
    Alexander’s list of 15 features is interesting to ponder–as an artist I’m especially rolling the list around as I look at my paintings.

  • Love this post, Gretchen. That is a great Splendid truth. I’m looking forward to discussing it at the next DC Happiness Project meeting!

  • Reading something that changes your view of the world is one of life’s real treats. It can be really scary as well to have your fundamental beliefs challenged. On the other hand it can be very soothing to have your fundamental beliefs solidly reaffirmed from time to time. I just read the Railway Children and it made me so happy I cried.

    • gretchenrubin

      Nesbit’s THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve
      read it easily twenty-five times.

  • Finding opportunities to grow in every life situation can get you through even roughest times in your life.

    I really like your approach to looking for new perspectives for the “same old things”. It gives you a new, fresh, and unique perspective of looking at life. You are able to appreciate things you thought you once understood. You are able to redsicover and revaluate yourself and who you are in a completely different context.

    One of the books that I am reading currently is “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright. OUTSTANDING. Life changing and intellectually challenging. It provided with a different way of look at the world and where it is headed. It gave me an outside view of our the whole human history from a perspective that I never though of before.

    The more you live the more you realize that learning and growing sometimes is the only right thing to do in life.

    Thank you!



  • composerannie

    Just had hard proof about “thinking about feeling good” first. Just did my first session on the bio-feedback “HeartMath” program. About average. Had 47 on the Low Heart Coherance, 50 on the middle and 3 on the High Heart Coherance (high is best). Then did another session thinking about how I feel when I create (my happiest times). WOW! My High Heart Coherance score jumped to 96!

  • Good post, I guess I have to try it out to read on something to change my mood now.

  • good article, being happy= a good life

  • wildberryz

    🙁 i dont know if its workz!!! i keep wishing that one day im smiling 🙂