Gretchen Rubin

Consider the Elephant, or, Why Thinking about a Rhinoceros Can Make You Happier.

I often battle the familiar happiness challenge of keeping myself from ruminating about something that has annoyed, angered, or upset me. Studies show that dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes amplifies their power in our minds -- a real source of unhappiness. If I take a moment deliberately to distract myself from bad feelings, I help alleviate them.

When I’m having trouble with this, I tell myself to Contemplate the heavens. This phrase comes from one of my favorite quotations, from Boethius, who wrote, “Contemplate the extent and stability of the heavens, and then at last cease to admire worthless things.”

I also tell myself to “Consider the elephant,” in reference to painter Eugene Delacroix's framing of the same idea. He wrote in his Journal (which I highly recommend, by the way):

The Natural History Museum is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays. Elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus; extraordinary animals! Rubens rendered them marvelously. I had a feeling of happiness as soon as I entered the place and the further I went the stronger it grew. I felt my whole being rise above commonplaces and trivialities and the petty worries of my daily life. What an immense variety of animals and species of different shapes and functions!

Just thinking about his pleasure in seeing these animals makes me happier. And he summed up perfectly what I’m trying to do: “rise above the commonplaces and trivialities and the petty worries of my daily life.”

Some people get this feeling of elevation and perspective from nature, others from art, and I’m sure from many other things.

If you want to distract yourself and raise your thoughts, what do you think about? Do you consider the elephant, contemplate the heavens, or something similar?

* I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* I'm a huge fan of children's literature, and I'm also fascinated by the art of book-jacket design, so I wished that this fascinating piece, Classic Kids Book Covers Then and Now, had been fifty times longer.

* If you've been waiting for your free, personalized bookplate, sorry about the delay! I JUST got re-supplied and will catch up as soon as possible. If you haven't asked for one, but would like one, just email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Don't forget to include your mailing address, and feel free to ask for as many as you'd like.

icon emailNewsletterLight

Get monthly newsletter updates from Gretchen.

icon schooled

Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.

The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t actOur Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.

Take the quiz

Get My Monthly Newsletter

Sign up to get my free monthly newsletter. It highlights the best material from here, my Facebook Page, and new original work.