One of the main goals of Project Renaissance is to give me a chance to explore some new interests and pick up some old ones again. I also want to challenge myself with new things. It’s easy, when life is tough, to just keep going, doing the same things without seeking out new opportunities and interests. It can be hard work to do that, and I think for too long I’ve been coming home after work, collapsing on the sofa for the rest of the evening, and then feeling vaguely upset with myself that another evening has passed without much happening.
Gretchen Rubin identifies this as the ‘atmosphere of growth’ in her First Splendid Truth of Happiness:
To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
Now, to be perfectly frank, there was always something that bothered me a bit about how this is put. Maybe it’s because I’m British, but ‘atmosphere of growth’ sounded a bit – well, new-agey and self-helpy and too vague to really mean anything to me. But I do see the point – that is, that a life that is just coasting along, where everything is fine but nothing new or challenging is happening, is not going to lead to happiness (for most people, anyway).
It finally dawned on me that I’ve been unconsciously testing this theory for the last year and a half. After A. and I met, we started going to ballroom dancing classes together. Almost from the very beginning, it’s been one of the things I look forward to most in our week. That’s partly due to the hilarious teacher, and the other lovely people in our class, but it wasn’t until I reread The Happiness Project recently that I realised those aren’t what were making it such a source of fun for me. It was that I was learning a new skill, something that challenged me, not so much that I wanted to give up, but enough that I wanted, and could, get good at it.
In the last few months, we’ve also been taking additional private dance classes in preparation for our wedding. We’ve learned a fairly complex routine, and we’ve been practising all summer. It’s been the most fun I’ve had in a long while, and it’s because it’s a challenge. We really struggled with some of the steps to begin with, but now we can see how much we’ve improved. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I want to keep getting better with this new skill.
Gretchen says that there are three types of fun: relaxing fun (like watching a film), accommodating fun (like going to a party with friends) and challenging fun (like my dance class). The latter is the most rewarding, but it takes the most effort – you have to put energy into it, it can sometimes be frustrating, even upsetting – but because it’s challenging, it’s ultimately the most satisfying. Relaxing fun, which is probably the kind we all do most often, is easiest, because it’s the most passive, but it brings very little return – that feeling I had of being unsatisfied after an evening vegging in front of the telly.
Now that I’ve recognised one source of challenging fun in my life, I want to get more, even if it takes more energy. Crafting, reading (when it’s done actively, rather than passively – more on that soon), maybe picking up my violin again – these could all be ready-made sources of more challenging fun for me. I just have to seek them out, and overcome that initial pull to the more relaxing thing.
That’s all for this week – I’ll leave you with a taste of the sort of thing that I’ve been enjoying!