Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hike Your Way to Happiness

A note from for Thursday May 15 2008

Welcome to this fine Thursday.

I’ve been having some interesting feedback this week from folks who are really taking to heart the whole subject of “happiness”. It tells me that we could spend months dealing with factors that lead to genuine “happiness”. We’ll come back to that.

We all strive for happiness in life. Like many, you probably think achievements such as education, marriage, family and social/financial status make you happy.

However, studies of happiness in several countries have found that these achievements have little to do with your happiness. For millions of people, happiness has remained a rather elusive goal. They've tried to buy happiness.

They've sought it through materialistic and pleasurable activities such as buying a new SUV or going on vacation. But nothing has seemed to work. For most people these changes, new possessions or temporary pleasures, might work for a while but will eventually become part of your status quo, and their power to deliver happiness will fade.

Much of my mail though, clearly shows that many folks have got the theme mixed up somewhat. The only quote I could think of that covered the entire spectrum is:

“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” Albert Camus

Today’s offering is a reflection from one of our U.K. contributors on the theme of the week.

Hike Your Way to Happiness
by Roger Elliot
(or why deliberate discomfort is good for you)

The other day a friend and myself spent 3 hours preparing to do an overnight hike. We packed a huge range of things into two large backpacks – things to keep us warm, to cook with, to keep us dry, to stop us from getting lost. In fact, all things that I would already have if I stayed at home.

We then had my wife's father drive us 20 miles from my house and we walked back. And not the shortest route either, or the flattest. In fact, we went out of our way to make the walk as arduous as possible.

So why did we do it?

It’s a question we pondered as we labored along under 40 pounds of load, peering bleary-eyed through sweat at the magnificent scenery around us. Why would two grown men, both reasonably sensible at other times, load themselves up like pack mules and ask to be abandoned miles from home?

And as we mulled it over, we started discussing the fact that much of modern life is geared towards making things easier. And there are many benefits to that:

1. hot water straight from the tap, no campfire required
2. heat on demand, no shivering necessary
3. light at the flick of a switch to extend your day as long as you want
4. food all in one place so you don’t have to hunt all over

No-one would argue that these are advances that have left us able to conduct more comfortable, fulfilling and hopefully useful lives. But what happens when we take it to extremes? We must remember that human beings have developed to struggle and overcome. Nature/God/evolution has enabled us to progress this far by ensuring we feel good when we reach a goal or solve a problem.

Our brains and bodies have evolved a wonderfully subtle built-in reward system to keep us achieving. Be it climbing a mountain or cleaning the house, our biology makes us feel good in order to keep us trying.

A vacuum of effort, meaning - and happiness?

So what happens when people stop making effort? When they stop stretching themselves? Take lottery winners for example; a year after their win, their happiness levels are the same as before it. Happiness does not come from having lots of money. Happiness comes from leading a satisfying life despite the fact that you have lots of money and can afford to sit around and do nothing.

In fact, with a little thought it is obvious that happiness does not come from the things that many of us in the West focus on every day. There are millions of happy people around the World who have little in material terms.

Why did we put ourselves through all that suffering?

So why go through step after step, mile after mile of burning muscles and aching backs? Because it made us feel good. And it made us feel good because:

1. we set and achieved a goal
2. we completed something arduous enough to stretch us and expand our perceptions of our own capabilities
3. the exercise released serotonin, and that combined with the exhaustion made us sleep better
4. we ached for days, reminding us of just how hard we had worked

Of course our friends and family have stopped talking to us because we won’t shut up about how tough we are, but that’s a small price to pay. ;-)

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Warren Wojnowski said...

Hey Peter. It strikes me that one of the key points in Roger's article is that our concept of happiness is grounded in contrast.

I believe happiness is about enjoyment of the journey, but in the absence of seeing and experiencing things that I don't want (or things that are difficult or uncomfortable) how will I ever experience happiness in the present?

Without the contrast, I'd have nothing to compare it to and so wouldn't be able to recognize happiness when I found it.

Food for thought!

Joyce said...

This article reminds me of a quote from Einstein..

"There are only two ways to live your life, one is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Perhaps this is the real happiness in life,enjoying the miracles in our lives, and paying attention enough to notice them.