For those of us that have dealt all our lives with the double drain of anxiety and depression, the thought of being “happy” can seem more like a phenomenon than a true state of mind. Yet there have been many periods of life when I was genuinely happy for long stretches of time, and can honestly say that I’m a fairly happy person now. But it’s a journey, not a destination. There’s always more road ahead.
Recently I got thinking about moments when I was happy to the point of actually living in a satisfied state of mind. And confining the criteria to running and such, my senior year in college cross country was one of those times. So was training in Chicago during the summer of ’84 and setting all my PRs. Returning to training for the fun of it later in life has definitely made me happy. Doing triathlons too. Every event is a new experience, and without the pressure of trying to win all the time, I’m happy to be out there on my own terms.
The Rain King
But when it comes to happiness or the lack of it, I think of the book Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow. The lead character goes through most of life with this thought in his head that repeats itself: “I want…I want…I want…” and it never goes away. He’s never satisfied. The book is full of enormous insights on the human condition. Here is one grand quote from the book:
“All human accomplishment has this same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!”
That leads to trouble when he goes out searching for meaning in life. In the company of a guide, he ventures into the African continent and gets hooked up with a tribe that installs him as chief through an odd mix of appetites and mistakes. Henderson is vexed because it all represents far more than he wanted and a lot that he did not want.
But his ultimate Come-To-Jesus moment arrives when he decides to use his training as a ballistics expert to rid the tribe of the plague of frogs that has taken over their drinking water source. Wanting to be a hero, Henderson lines up the dynamite and tries to blow the frogs to kingdom come. Instead he winds up blowing a hole in that dam that holds the water. He has not only ruined the dam, but endangered the lifestyle of the entire tribe.
The point of the story is that many of us try so hard to find happiness we lose sight of what it really means. But those of us who run and ride and swim have opportunities on a daily basis to let happiness seep into our souls. Sometimes we absorb enough (through osmosis?) that it lasts us all day and all night. And if the happiness adds up it seems like we even earn rollover minutes from one day to the next.
Exercise is a known antidote to depression. It also helps with anxiety, mostly by giving our heads time to think through problems about which we might otherwise ruminate.
There can also be happiness involved in setting and achieving goals. Even the goals we don’t achieve have a tendency to take us new places or to try new things. Sometimes people progress from one goal to the next overcoming fears along the way. The first-timer at 5K gets hooked on the feeling of fitness and does a 10k. Then comes a half marathon and finally, if people are dumb enough to be that stupid and happy at the same time, they run marathons.
I was never much for the marathon distance. I ran it a few times in practice and raced a few as well. But I found the challenge and rush of racing faster over shorter distances such as 10K much more inviting and smart. For one thing you could race a lot more often rather than pouring all your training into a single race on some weekend twelve weeks out. One of the happiest weekend of my life was built around running a 4:22 mile race on a Friday night and nearly winning a prestigious 15K that Sunday morning. My legs felt so good and my brain was so eager for competition I loved every minute of that running.
Last year I did a bike ride with options of 45, 65 and 100 miles. I separated from Sue at one point because she was doing 114 miles that day. But I made a wrong turn on the course and put in 25 miles that I did not expect to ride. Funny thing about that…I rode is all much faster than the rest of the day, catching groups of cyclists along the way. Sure I was a little pissed and depressed when I realized what I’d done. Yet it got me all the way up to 88 miles when I got back to the finish line. So I rode out a mile and back to hit 90 on the spot.
The winds had been fierce so I wasn’t chomping at the bit to go the extra 10 miles and do a full century. But the hurt I’d put on myself out on the bike actually felt good. I was proud and happy to have ridden more than I expected that day.
At least I didn’t “blow up” like Henderson putting a hurt on those frogs in the African plains. And when I got back there was no more echoes of “I want, I want…” in my head. My butt was tired and so were my legs. It’s funny how much a little pain and fatigue can make you happy just to be done.
And sometimes that’s all the happiness we need in life.