How to Cultivate Happiness

This post is part of a series on happiness. Read the first post here and the second here.

“The plants!”

When someone enters our house, they almost always talk about the plants. My friend, Maia, calls it “Jungle Status”. I’m not quite there, but I can see what she means by the term. I love houseplants. My house is full of them.


If you’d asked me years ago, I would have told you I have a black thumb. It was a silly belief I had based on nothing since I never really had a plant living with me.

Then, five years ago, my now husband and I went on our first trip to Tangletown Nursery. I said to him I had a black thumb. He told me not to worry about it. We bought a dozen or so plants and in our new apartment we hung them on curtain rods and stacked them on bookcases and the radiator. Today we have three plants from that first trip five years ago, and dozens more including an 8 foot fiddle leaf fig that used to barely stretch above my knees. Shoot, I’ve kept a table size fern alive indoors through two years of Minnesota winter heating. I have changed my mind. I think I’m pretty good at plants.

I was walking around our home this morning, and I thought about Christopher Aiff. Facing the end of his life, he said, “The decision to be positive is not one that disregards or belittles the sadness that exists. It is rather a conscious choice to focus on the good and to cultivate happiness.”

Cultivate. It’s a word we use for our plants, our gardens, our fields of wheat and hay and pumpkins. It is a word I’m getting comfortable with for happiness, too.

How to do it then?

First, I think it’s important to know that happiness isn’t a way you can ‘be’. There is no combination of things that will put you in a state of perpetual happiness. Happiness is simply a feeling, a reaction. You put your thumb on a burner, you feel pain. You are kissed by your great love, you feel happy.

My therapist used to tell me that anger is a great emotional reaction. “It’s useful,” he would say. “It let’s you know all kinds of things – where you need protection or where you’re hurting that you can’t name yet.” Anger is a reaction, he would say. It isn’t the truth, but it can point the way to a truth we need to know. 

Happiness, I’ve come to believe, is the same way.  ‘Happy’ isn’t a way we should expect to feel all the time. It is a reaction to the things happening around us. Happiness can teach you when you’re close to the things you truly want, things that are good for you or others around you, things that you can build your dreams out of.

Happiness isn’t a way you can be. Mindful is. You can be mindful all the time, no matter how you feel. Loving is a way you can be. You can be loving no matter what is going on around you. Happy… happy is a reaction. You cannot make yourself happy.

What can you do? You can cultivate. You can notice where happiness exists in your life, and you can work to help it grow.

So, in thinking about houseplants and happiness, I’ve learned some lessons about cultivating.

Some things just don’t make you happy. Let them go.

When my friend, Maia, started gathering plants for her own “Jungle Status” apartment, I gave her some advice. “Some plants die,” I said. “Let them go. Don’t give up. The strong ones will survive. Keep those alive and add another and then another.”

Happiness is that way. Some things simply don’t make you happy. You try to water them, to care for them, and you wake up in the morning and they’ve withered down to the nubs. Compost them. Be sad if you need, but don’t let the sadness keep you from believing in the happiness to come. Look for happiness blooming in the world around you. Plant a tree, a stalk, a single seed if it’s all you can find. Plant it. Water it. Put it in the sun. Believe.

Sometimes, when you think you’ve lost happiness, you probably still have just enough to grow something new.

Five years ago, when our jade tree dried to a crisp next to the radiator I was devastated. $60 and four square feet of beautiful succulent leaves now crumbled in my hands. But before I took the crispy tree to the trashcan, I noticed three tiny pairs of leaves, still green, no larger than a nickel each. I plucked them from the grey stems of the jade tree. I put them in dirt in three tiny pots. I watered them every few days for months, standing at the sink with the faucet running at a slow trickle not to disturb the dirt too much. Nothing happened. They stayed green and nickel small. Months went by, and still they were just little green shapes on the dirt. Then, suddenly, without warning, new leaf buds appeared. I called Charlie from the other side of the apartment.

“They are growing!” I pointed to the tiny pots on the window ledge. “Babe, they are growing!” I cheered. Now, so much water and many years later, those tiny leaves are much larger shoots, tall and leaning to the sun.

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You may feel like you’ve lost your happiness. I will bet there is at least a tiny little bit left worth watering. Maybe you had to move to a new city where you don’t know anyone. You’ve left the best friends of your life in Santa Fe. Take a clipping, a picture, put it on your fridge. Smile when you see the photo, even if you also want to cry. Call them. Go to their Facebook pages or their Instagrams and like all their selfies, every one. Write a postcard. Ask for their address, put it in the mail. Put a google alert on flights to Santa Fe and save your money and watch for the day when the first flight at the right price sends you up into the air and down into their arms and off to the nearest margaritas over which you can talk about everything.

There is a happiness in the cultivation alone.

Watering my houseplants is a chore. It is also the only time I take in each plant, the beauty in their leaves, the funny way they’re leaning out to the sun, the flowers on the cacti. Watering is a chore, but it also reminds me that I have these beautiful things in my home

“There is no better feeling,” my therapist would say, “than the feeling of hitting the bed totally exhausted because you gave every ounce of everything you had in service to your dreams.”

He was a good therapist. And he’s right. It feels good to cultivate your happiness.

What makes you happy? Is it quilting? Spend Thursday night at your local craft shop. Fill a cart with every fabric that gives you that happiness feeling. The purple tie-dye catch your eye? Put it in the cart. That Christmas Star Wars fabric make you giggle? Into the cart it goes. A gorgeous silk with seahorses playing the harp? Yes and yes and into the cart! Make a quilt out of every happy fabric you can find. Don’t follow patterns or the bias. Let your happiest feelings guide your hands and when you wrap up in that blanket you’ll feel like happiness is giving you a big, fat hug.

What makes you happy? Is it that feeling you get when you find something new and interesting at the grocery store? Go, go, go to the grocery store! Call your mom or your best friend and catch up with them while you walk aisle after aisle. Set no time limits. Let yourself pick up anything that looks interesting. Organic wasabi bread crumbs. Pineapple dust. Jackfruit bigger than your head. Note every spot on the shelf that sparks delight. Soak in the stories your favorite person tells you while you shop, and choose something you can use to spice up dinner, whether it’s something you can’t pronounce or your old standby salsa. Walk to the cash register. Luxuriate in this moment. Plan to come back tomorrow.

What makes you happy? Is it feeling of warmth in your belly while you sip hot tea? Put on that kettle, honey.

And here’s my favorite lesson of all.

When my mother’s mother died, my Grammi, my coworkers gave me a card with a Helen Keller quote on it – “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

What you have loved, you never lose. You always have at least a part of what makes you happy. A clipping is always with you.

Take all those clippings. Put them in pots and mugs and empty coffee cans. Water them and put them on every windowsill. Stack them on bookshelves and your side tables and hang them from the ceiling. Keep watering them. Once the clippings are out in pots, you don’t even need to wait for them grow. With pots of clippings growing all over your house you’ve already achieved Jungle Status; your house is packed with plants

And when you set about tending to the things that make you happy, once you are watering and caring for all the big things and little things, the friends and family and pets and books and hobbies and practices that make you happy, you won’t have to wait for happiness to come. You’ll find your heart is already full.


This week, I’m writing about Happiness. What is it? How do people get happy? What is it made of? Do you find happiness? Does it find you?

Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what I find. And in the meantime, ring a bell.



PS. If you or someone you know is happy, would you tell me about it? Leave a comment and share a memory that comes to mind when you think of happiness.


  1. Love this and the analogy :) happiness is like house plants. I find plants generally make me happier too”

    1. Thanks, Keelan! And don’t they… plants are pretty good at that. ;)

  2. […] I’ve loved writing about happiness this week. This post is the fourth in a series. You can read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.  […]

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