The Counterintuitiveness of Happiness
Posted on February 24th, 2012
In December, right after I finished my 12-week training plan and met my elite running goals, I was pretty burned out. I’d been doing hour-long hard training runs — even hour-long interval workouts around the track — in the steady, cold rain that fell here the entire month of November. The blazing beauty of autumn had been gone for weeks; the cold and dark were creeping in; and I’d still had weeks to get through. It had been as challenging mentally as physically.
“So you met your goal!” my birth father Richard congratulated me at the holiday.
“Yep,” I said, a little flat.
He read my mood. “So… you enjoy running?” he asked.
“Well, sure. I mean. I’m sick of it right now.” It didn’t come out as a rousing endorsement.
“Well — why would you do it if you don’t like it?” he asked, puzzled. “I mean, if you’re not having fun?”
I realize I was at a low point for “enjoying” running! But his question made me think about what it means to me to enjoy running, and how to explain that better. I do enjoy it, but it’s hard at the same time. It’s totally different from enjoying a bowl of ice cream, or a movie. It’s something like the way I used to enjoy math problems (I was a math major) — and I had a hard time explaining that to disbelievers, too!
On his Authentic Happiness website, psychologist Martin Seligman has an “Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire,” among many other things. In the questionnaire, he explains that he measures three scales, or three components to happiness:
Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction.
How interesting! What most of us would think of casually as “happiness” — increasing pleasures in our life; having more fun — doesn’t make us any more satisfied with our lives! What we need are flow and meaning to find true satisfaction.
I’m mid-range (though not low) on my Pleasant Life scale (lots of lattes, I guess!), and very high on my Engaging Life and Meaningful Life scales. I know what this looks like to a lot of people: I work hard at some things that don’t look very fun, and I eat less fast food and watch less TV than many (well, except for the three hours a night during baseball season…)! How can I possibly be happy in this self-deprived condition?
Running, I think, can be a form of pleasure, when you’re getting stress relief or a runner’s high; it can be fun to run fast or on beautiful trails. But many days it’s not obviously that. During my 12-week training plan, it was even less pleasurable, since most of the runs focused on a time or effort goal that was outside the comfort range. (Even when exercise can be pleasurable, it often starts with a push each day through an initially unpleasant resistance.) But Seligman explains why running might still increase happiness: I for one, find enormous flow and engagement in pursuing the goals of running and racing, and it taps into some of my key strengths. I’ve copied my own top strengths from 2005 below to give a flavor of the test. While Seligman is measuring character strengths, not physical abilities, it may be a strength in “Bravery and valor” in addition to physical strengths, that feeds my running passion. “You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain” — how cool is that??? I’d forgotten about that one. It sounds to me, among other things, like a description of endurance sport.
And everyone should take the test! We all need to dwell on our strengths for a change!
Falling into a pattern in life of pursuing pleasure, rather than flow and meaning, is a counterintuitive, hidden-in-plain-site reason people don’t find happiness and satisfaction. It’s easier not to exercise; not to (ahem) write that blog; to eat too much of the wrong thing or to waste too much time; but the returns are small. Don’t look to exercise only to provide a pleasurable experience, and wonder what’s wrong when it doesn’t always deliver. Find the ways it fits into a larger picture in your life — the strengths you already own and want to develop; ways it makes you a good example, a strong, energetic person more available to other people.
So, back to the question: Do I enjoy running? Yes, I do. Do I find running fun or pleasurable all the time? No. But it makes me happy.
Example: My top strengths on Seligman’s “VIA Survey of Character Strengths,” at least back in 2005:
|Your Top Strength|
|Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.
|Your Second Strength|
|Love of learning
You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.
|Your Third Strength|
|Bravery and valor
You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.
|Your Fourth Strength|
|Curiosity and interest in the world
You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.
|Your Fifth Strength|
|Fairness, equity, and justice
Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.