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The Pursuit of Happiness & Endurance Sports

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

In a book I read when I was very young, the author wrote about the "wheel of life." Sometimes you're at the top, but you'll always come back down. And if you're at the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up. It's not that profound, but it's true.

I've found it to be difficult to find sustained happiness because it's human nature to need problems to solve, or something to overcome, or someone (or something) to fight against. We can't have happiness without struggle. And many of us live in a way that offers no glaring problems or threats: food is abundant, war is not on our doorstep, safety is relatively common, etc. Small things seem big because our perspective is limited. We create challenges and problems because it's boring and uncomfortable for us to sit back and just be content. If we're not solving problems or overcoming challenges, we don't feel useful and then, why are we here? Life is easier to justify if we're working toward something, which is (I think) one of the most interesting things about endurance sports.

I'm currently training for an ultra marathons (100 miles), which presents a new and interesting challenge, a thing to overcome, and a thing to strive toward. Ultras are physically and mentally challenging, which scratches a certain itch. I'm a human figuring out how to be happy, which means there is a part of me looking for problems to solve and challenges to face. There is a certain something deep in my psyche that is a bit unsettled and a bit distressed. I don't know if that will ever go away. Probably, unrest is just an inevitable part of life. Running doesn't solve this unrest, but it does make it feel, temporarily, better.

If you can't find something on this enormous earth to be passionate about, there is something out of order. If you're not solving problems or facing challenges in working toward your passion, what are you really, honestly doing?

I've noticed (anecdotally) that addiction is common in the endurance space. Others have noticed this too, and written about it and studied it and basically shrugged as if to say, "makes sense." Maybe, one reason endurance sports intrigue ex-addicts is that theses sports require a bit of addiction, too. Or maybe, addicts need to prove to themselves that they're stronger than life has taught them that they are. What better way to prove to yourself that you're strong and capable than putting yourself through intense physical and mental challenges?

Running is a fairly accessible, tangible thing. I remember the first time I ran 10 miles, because that was further than I ever thought possible. Same with a marathon. Same with 50 miles. It's empowering to prove yourself wrong, to show yourself that you're capable of more. And once you're empowered by knowing how much you can handle, you learn not only to respect yourself, but to demand respect from the rest of the world. That's profound, and sometimes, that's exactly the lesson an addict truly needs to learn.

Ultras are a good challenge for me because progress depends entirely on myself. There is no judge giving me a score, no referee deciding who won a game or match. I can measure myself against myself, and as I watch my old, weaker self fall away, I feel unilaterally empowered because I have proven to myself that I can do hard things. I think that's a more lasting type of satisfaction than any momentary glimmer of happiness, or any temporary feeling of contentment. But nothing lasts forever, which is why endurance athletes keep coming back for more. New challenges, longer races, harder races, something new.

To really be happy, I believe, it's necessary to test your mind and your body at the same time, and figure out, in a very immediate way, that you're capable of more than you ever thought. If I enter the "pain cave" enough times and see with real clarity how much pain I can endure, then the noise and bullshit of the world sort of falls away and disappears. Life feels less stressful because, having endured some degree of pain, small things cease to matter.

Enduring is a powerful thing. I am sure that no one else has ever caused me as much pain as I've caused myself, so it stands to reason that no one else can cause me as much happiness, either. No one else can make you dive into the pain cave, no one else can be blamed for your bad days or your good ones. It's idiosyncratic in a way, but also really fucking cool. I'm not here pursuing happiness. I'm here to pursue challenge, and happiness is just a side effect.

P.S. Read Thich Naht Hanh's take on happiness and suffering here, read David Hall's take on happiness here, or watch Joe Rogan talk about happiness and struggle here.


Sarah Rose

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