Running, Happiness and Resisting the Abyss
Scan The New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list any given week and you’ll find at least a half-dozen books designed to help us live a happier, better, more fulfilled life. In fact, annual estimates of the “self-help” industry’s profits range from $9 - $15 billion dollars, and the trend is precipitously upward. Despite the vast resources we pour into improving ourselves, all the data suggests we continue to grow more and more dissatisfied with ourselves, our lives, and our world. (Happy way to start this spring morning, right?)
Running is certainly no panacea for this personal and social pull into the abyss, but those of us who run can attest to its power to resist that gravity. But why? Why is running so uniquely equipped to provide a counterbalance to discontent?
In a recent podcast, entrepreneur and general deep-thinker, Naval Ravikant, defined happiness as, “The absence of the feeling that something is missing.” This “absence of absence” theory may help explain why running leads us to a deeper feeling of contentment than any hardcover book or self-help seminar, which like the pharmaceutical industry profit not from curing the problem, but from treating the symptoms.
Common definitions of anxiety and depression (two of the most common targets of self-help gurus) are anxiety is being trapped in the future and depression is being trapped in the past. In both of these situations, we find ourselves “trapped” by a sense that something is amiss, wrong, or missing from these two temporal periods. The great devastation of these experiences is that nothing can be done to affect the source directly. We cannot travel into the past nor project ourselves into the future, so we are left with the crushing weight of absence. This sense of absence is what Ravikant cites as the source of our perpetual unhappiness. So we fill this void with all sorts of products and processes, hoping to somehow touch the untouchable, somehow reach the past and the future, rather than recognize the solution is not something that can be purchased, but something that must be perceived...the present.
This is where running is uniquely positioned to result in positivity. In running, you are forced to embrace the present, forced to focus on the moment at hand. You can only run the mile you are in. You must disregard the miles you’ve traveled and avoid fixating on the miles yet to come. Anyone who has run a marathon, a 5k, or around the block knows this truth. If you worry about the miles to go, you will never reach your finish line. If you fixate on the miles you’ve covered, you’ll never improve on past glories or failures. Running mandates a moment by moment appreciation. It is this mindful nature of running that counteracts the absence abyss. Without 300 pages, a major credit card bill, or travel to some exoctic land of rejuvination, running places us firmly in the present, the temporal retreat from anxiety and depression, and the space most clearly defined by the “absence of the feeling that something is missing.”
While some runners will cite the source of running’s positivity in an elusive “runner’s high”, a moment to themselves, or a break from everyday stressors, these are all the outcomes of being forced to experience life fully in the present. Perhaps the greatest aspect of running’s positivity product is that it is infinitely replicable. There is no final chapter to the book, no last day of the seminar, and no check-out time from the retreat. With each run, we reinforce the mental patterns that allow us to bring this mindful presence into our non-running lives. We equip ourselves with not only a healthy body and mind, but also with the ammunition to resist the constant message that our lives could be better and should be better if only we had that one “thing.” Instead of focusing on a “missing piece” running teaches us to stop “missing peace.”