The last time I was leaving Paris, a book at the newsagent next to my gate caught my eye: Du Bonheur, by the philosopher Fredric Lenoir. On Happiness. This is the genius of the French: In America the grab‘n’go paperback for sale at the register would be something like ‘7 Tricks for Better Multitasking’, but at Charles de Gaulle, airborne actualisation lit runs to treatises on being. Consider not what you do, but what you are. Réfléchissez!
Me, I’m such a fucking American, though. I perceived the efficiency of Lenoir’s volume immediately. By reading it, I’d kill two birds with one stone – work on my French, which I was resolved to improve, and contemplate the nature of happiness, a thing I’d lately decided was a sham.
“What is happiness? Good question. No one—not a single person in the whole history of human thought—has arrived at a satisfactory answer.”
What is happiness? Good question. No one—not a single person in the whole history of human thought—has arrived at a satisfactory answer. It’s a condition best understood in the void, just as the condition of being “well” can only really be appreciated when one is injured or ill. As a result, much of the study of happiness focuses on ways to alleviate the negative pressure of its absence – there are countless tips for becoming happier, but no particularly convincing descriptions of a steady state of happiness itself.
A case-in-point: I heard a tip on a podcast, that one way to be happier is to make a practice of doing—right away—anything that will take you under a minute. Wash a dish, water a plant, reply to a yes-or-no email. Whatever. I’ve been trying to follow that advice, and it has eased certain of my daily frustrations. Which I guess means that I am less unhappy. But because life isn’t a zero-sum game, that hasn’t made me more happy in exchange. Happy is always out there, a firefly flickering in the twilight, occasionally to be cupped in the hands and then, its spark dimmed, set free and re-pursued.
I write this as a happy person. Seriously. I’m more happy than not, if you define “happiness” down to just, well, being in a decent mood. I’ve got depressive tendencies and ambient anxieties and a suite of bad habits I wish I could kick. But I’m alert to pleasure, I laugh a lot, I feel cared about by people I, in turn, care for, and I awake every day with a sense of purpose.
Regarding that last item in particular: Since childhood, I’ve been a great goal-setter and maker of lists of things-to-do. But I’m also a great failer. I excel at failing. There’s always something I’m supposed to be accomplishing that I’m not. Such as, for example, reading Du Bonheur, which I haven’t cracked since I got back from Paris. There are many things I imagine I should have already achieved that I haven’t. I am haunted by discontent, but I enjoy the striving. Has my Type A-ness made me more happy or less? I can’t decide.
“I write this as a happy person. Seriously. I’m more happy than not, if you define “happiness” down to just, well, being in a decent mood.”
I returned from Paris with the half-marathon in Big Sur looming. The race was a month out, which meant I should have been starting my taper – gradually diminishing the length and frequency of my runs as a means of storing up power for the big day. But I’d been traveling for work, and running at a slow clip when I ran at all, and once I was back home I resumed training with a sense of panic.
I’d already given up on the 9:30 mile pace I’d originally set for myself – that was well out of reach, given the timing. But I was determined to crack ten minutes, and every third day I’d lace up my Nikes and force myself along my accustomed route: Down through Chinatown, up and over Williamsburg Bridge, all the way around the Navy Yard, then looping Dumbo and onto the Manhattan Bridge. It’s a hilly course, a little over seven miles if I quit after re-descending into Manhattan. But I was after ten miles, then twelve, and I’d wind up improvising the last bit, a different way each time. East Village to Gramercy one day. West Village to Tribeca the next.
Usually I like that kind of picking about, but these were joyless runs. I don’t mean that they were difficult—though they could be, at times—or that they were uncomfortable in the moment-by-moment way that running just inevitably is. I mean they were joyless. Drudge work. Clock-punching, soul-sucking. If happiness is best understood in the void, then these runs made me realise that something about running had been making me happy. With every stride, I struggled to recall what it had been.
“Running was never pleasurable for me. But running has, in some mysterious way, brought me joy.”
Here’s why I think “happiness” is a sham: The word happiness means too much. We use it interchangeably with pleasure, with exhilaration, with pride, with relief, with fulfillment, with everything we think about as the good in life, and everything that’s opposed to the bad. But how can one word contain all that?
When I said my runs were “joyless”, I was describing the want of a certain type of happiness. Running was never pleasurable for me. I’m not a runner who feels a validating kinship with other runners. But running has, in some mysterious way, brought me joy. That’s a soft-focus word, too, but I can point to specific categories of experience that deliver it unto me more or less reliably. Getting lost in a terrific book. Wading into the surf on a hot day. Wandering off course in a new city and then finding my way again. Music is a joy to me: Some of the most joyful hours of my life were the unaccounted for ones that I used to spend in record stores, leafing through the bins. In my early twenties, I tried to make a career out of that hobby, and the experience drained music of its joy. When I quit, the joy came back. Lesson learned — until this year, when I made that same mistake again.
It wasn’t until my final run in the city that I realised my blunder. I was a week from leaving for California and had permitted myself an abbreviated taper, cutting off the course at the seven-mile mark and leaving behind the pacing device I normally kept strapped to my wrist. The climb up Manhattan Bridge from the Brooklyn side is low and long, and for some reason, I love running it.
“The hard mental work of running giving way to a bliss, and because my mind wanted to possess that bliss, I committed a category error: I gave myself a goal.”
I picked up speed on the slope, without consciously intending to; all my muscles snapped into focus and I flew up and up, on the wings of my body’s own joy. My body’s joy. Which is what I’d felt that day, months earlier, out in Rockaway – the hard mental work of running giving way to a bliss that belonged to my blood and sinew and bone. And then, because my mind wanted to possess that bliss, I committed a category error: I gave myself a goal.
Cresting Manhattan Bridge, I could see my wrongheaded-ness as plain as the skyline. I’d kidnapped running from my body and displaced it into the realm of accomplishment, made it into a vehicle for my outsize ambition. I have only one ambition, really: To create. Tell stories. It’s no coincidence that my goal-setting as a runner times—almost to the minute—with my efforts to heave a major writing project into the universe. The two have gone hand-in-hand for the past year. Running a 9:30 pace at Big Sur should have been easier. But it was only in the writing that I was willing to bear the pressure and the disappointment and the toil.
People commit category errors of this kind all the time. They eat because they’re bored. They shop because they’re unfulfilled. They have sex with strangers because they want to feel loved. I’ll add my own tip to the vast literature on happiness and suggest this: If you want to become happier, take care to determine what type of happiness you’re missing. It may still be a struggle to find it, but at least you know what you’re looking for.
I clocked a 10:07 pace in Big Sur. I could have cracked ten – I was running comfortably at the front of my pace group, and the course suited me, with lots of long, low slopes about the same grade as Manhattan Bridge. The sun shone all morning, which wasn’t ideal for speed—you want some cloud cover and some damp—but was perfection itself when it came to taking in the view.
Big Sur is an out-and-back race—you run to an end point and loop back—and it was at the pivot that I decided, with all my heart, that I didn’t care. I paused at an aid station for a cup of water, and chewed a few of the caffeinated jelly beans I keep in my bumbag, and I stared for a solid minute or two at the waves slapping the cliffs below. They foamed over and then returned to the great expanse of the sea, heading out towards Hawaii. Eventually, I figured, that water would make it all the way to Japan. Or perhaps, carried by furtive currents, to Brisbane or the Bering Straits. I wasn’t tired. I just wanted to look. The world was before me. I had it in my grasp. I sipped the last of my water and set off again, on my two strong legs that can carry me anywhere.
Read more from Maya Singer’s FASTER series:
‘My Mind is an Idiot’
‘Running Fast is a Pain in the Ass’
‘A Grand Unifying Theory of Running, Body Shame and Environmental Catastrophe’