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
4. alternating repetition
5. positive space
6. good shape
7. local symmetries
8. deep interlock and ambiguity
13. the void
14. simplicity and inner calm
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."
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