Find you inner tortoise and be happy

For my run today, I decided to listen to a Ted Radio Hour podcast on Happiness. We are close to the start of a new year, like so many of you, I pretty much feel this way about 2016:


and it was a blue bird day; 50 degrees in late December. The weather helped lift my mood. Perfect running weather.  

As with all things podcast, I am usually hearing insightful comments, quotes, or thought provoking questions every few minutes. When running, these sources of inspiration and intellectual engagement help pass the time, and send my mind into overdrive. Where my mind goes, my legs follow and sure enough, I find my Zone 2 run is hovering more around Zone 4. I have so many thoughts that I wish I could write them down while running. This may prove complicated and perhaps somewhere in that wish is a new generation of gadgets for creative runners. 

Back to the Happiness podcast. Among the many synapses firing from this hour of insight, two things struck me, well three actually. The first is that we move too fast. Our culture promotes doing more with less time, and thus, happiness passes us by because we are too preoccupied with doing rather than being. Second, we have too much stuff. We don't live simply enough and over the course of our lives, accrue a great deal of useless things. None of this stuff contributes to our happiness. The happiness we yield from it, is often momentary or is because the thing is associated with a happy memory. It is not the thing itself that makes us happy. Third, a quote: "it is not happiness that makes us grateful, it's gratefulness that makes us happy" (Brother David Steidl-Rast). I want to talk briefly about gratefulness and happiness and then about our fixation on speed because I see them as connected. I will save "stuff" for another post because there is much to say on that topic. 

Being grateful, according to Steidl-Rast whose Ted Talk was featured in this podcast, is connected to recognizing that every moment we experience is a gift and an opportunity. We have no idea how many more moments will be given to us, how many more opportunities, so we should be grateful for every one. With that gratefulness comes happiness. Steidl-Rast is not saying we should be grateful for everything, because I am not grateful for violence, hate, war and bigotry. What he is saying is that we should avail ourselves of every opportunity given to us, and in so doing, we find happiness. Moments, he argues, are the most valuable things we can be given.

Now to our preoccupation with speed. I am currently contemplating my desire to continue chasing the elusive Boston Marathon qualification time by running yet another marathon in 2017. I had thought that my most recent marathon would be the finale in this story. If I didn't make the cut off, I would release myself from the self-inflicted goal of seeking a qualification time. However, that is not how the post-marathon thinking has played out for me. Which, in hindsight, I should have easily predicted. Runners do have, after all, pretty bad short term memories.

Qualifying for Boston is about getting faster, and with getting faster, comes work. Lots of miles, lots of speed work, and lots of time spent running. The drive to get faster is relentless. And, I am not sure how healthy it is. The qualification bar for women is far easier than it is for men, and yet, for many of us, not reaching it feels like a badge of shame. It reminds me of fairground rides I couldn't go on when I was a kid because I wasn't tall enough. Failing to reach my BQ time evokes the same feelings of inadequacy as standing against the makeshift ruler to determine whether my height met their safety standard. At the fairground ride, I would stand on my tip toes, hoping those extra centimeters would make a difference. This time, it's minutes and seconds and not feet and inches that determine my entry into the club. It is a point of pride for many, many runners to qualify for Boston, and they wear their Boston jackets and shirts like it's their nation's flag. I don't begrudge them that, and yet, it advertises a club to many of us that we can't be a member of. It separates them from us. The fast from the slow. For some of us, no matter how hard we train, those qualifying times are not attainable, like those extra inches elude many of us who just don't grow that tall. 

Speed. My pursuit of it over all else is present in running and in life. According to one of the TED talkers in this podcast, Carl Honore: "We're so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives - on our health, our work, our relationships and our community." As these sentiments from the podcast bounced around my brain, and ideas started shooting off in all directions, my pace quickened. My mind and my legs were turning over at a pace far greater than was helpful. I thought about my work, and how my days are not as full as they used to be in different jobs. I crave to be busier. Why? Why can't I enjoy the slower more relaxed pace of my new environment? It is an entire frame shift for me to slow down at work and slow down in running (despite how often I tell my athletes to slow down). According to Honore, U.S. culture makes slowing down a behavior that is shamed or discouraged. He states:

"slow is a dirty word in our culture. It's a byword for lazy, slacker, for being somebody who gives up. You know, he's a bit slow. It's actually synonymous with being stupid. I think there's a kind of metaphysical dimension that speed becomes a way of walling ourselves off from the bigger, deeper questions. We fill our heads with distraction, with busyness so that we don't have to ask - am I well? Am I happy? Are my children growing up right?"

The amount of times I have heard fellow athletes offer up "I'm slow" prior to a run or other workout as if naming it up front anesthetizes them from their embarrassment. They don't profess to be good or fast and just want others around them to know that. What does "slow" really mean when a vast majority of people don't even choose to exercise in any way? Why do we tell ourselves and others we are "slow" or "not as fast" as someone else? We say this self-deprecating statement in fun, but it reveals an underlying sense of shame about our level of ability. 

Faster isn't necessarily better. Running in Zone 4 for every run, work or life activity won't actually make you faster or more efficient, it will just wear you out. U.S. culture promotes Zone 4 all the time for everything with the prestige associated with a BQ time, 40 hour work weeks, minimal PTO, and lack of health and wellness benefits. Is it any wonder many of us struggle with the meaning of happiness when we don't ever give ourselves enough time to really think about it. To be in the moment, and accept each moment as an opportunity, is what we miss. How many more moments will we all get? As Honore says, it's time for us to get "in touch with [our] inner tortoise[s]." Live our lives rather than racing through them.



Quote and information taken from NPR podcast Ted Radio Hour, "Is There a Secret to Happiness?" (2/14/2104)