One thing my happiness research has shown me in the last few weeks is this:

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simple growth. We are happy when we are growing.
W.B. Yeats

It’s true, isn’t it? This is why the things I often think should make me happy — Oreo cookies, shopping, Starbucks, relaxing into a vegetative state on the couch — don’t actually make me happy. Gretchen Rubin calls it “an atmosphere of growth”. In order to to feel what I want shopping or Starbucks to make me feel, I have to have some areas in my life in which I’m consistently challenged. An atmosphere of growth.

As I’ve identified a few of my own, some things became a little clearer.

With the perspective afforded me by the advanced age of 32, I think I can see now part of why my post-college years were so stressful. In addition to being out of school and facing the prospect of being on my own for the first time, I also — for the first time — had nothing in front of me that I was working on. No classes, no projects, no papers, no nothing. I felt clueless when it came to succeeding in a career, and at any rate, I didn’t find much fulfillment in my first few post-college jobs. (They were both disasters, for different reasons that aren’t related to today’s post!)

In short, though, I just didn’t know how to expect much from myself. I was afraid of failure, too, which made me afraid to try. I was so intimidated by the very idea of challenging myself — it would be hard, it would be unpleasant at times, it wouldn’t always be fun — that I lost track of the fact that in challenging myself, I would also be empowering myself, which was something I desperately needed at the time. I thought that not asking much of myself meant that I wouldn’t disappoint myself — which, in turn, would surely make it easier for me to be happy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, honestly. It just made me complacent. It wasn’t until several years later, when I began to take an interest not only in my nutrition and fitness, but also in baking more and improving my knitting skills, that I noticed something curious going on. When I actually trained for a race, I felt better about my performance than if I just showed up and struggled through it. When I baked a new recipe with new techniques and ingredients, I was a lot prouder of what came out of the oven than I would if I threw together yet another pan of brownies. If I tried a new knitting skill (like knitting in the round) instead of making scarf after scarf after scarf, I was much more pleased with my finished projects. Somehow, getting through the scary part usually wasn’t so scary after all — and even when it was, it just meant that coming out on the other side was that much more exciting.

At the 2008 women’s four miler. Karen and my mom and I all have numbers in a row because at the time, we all shared a last name!

In short, if I allowed myself to feel sensation for a little while instead of giving into the fear of it, I actually wound up a lot happier, and I think that’s what Yeats is getting at. And apart from the endorphins they provide me, this is why running and yoga have become such a big part of my life in the last few years. I no longer fear challenging myself, and moreover, I know that the challenge is a large part of why these things make me so happy.

Writing, knitting and baking are other areas where I consistently feel engaged and challenged. These are all things in which I can anticipate a lifetime of growth. Of course I have to know myself — I know, for instance, that I’m not a long-term-projects kind of knitter (no sweaters in my future), and that the marathon distance isn’t on my five-year plan. But I do know that having an atmosphere of growth is essential to my happiness. Far from discouraging me, asking more of myself allows me to explore my own potential and feel good about my accomplishments.

I bet Melissa knows what I’m talking about.

Of course, there’s a lot more to growing in happiness and choosing joy than just training for races, deepening my yoga practice, trying new knitting patterns and baking a lot. But one thing at a time — I think those are lessons for another day.