The 2019 World Happiness Report was released this week, marking another moment where Americans can feel interminably unhappy. You can read the full report here, but to no one’s great surprise, the United States still lags behind the happiness envy of the world, Scandinavia. Additionally, the report notes a significant decrease in reported happiness in the United States from the original survey conducted in 2005. So in a society already rife with irony, enter a happiness report guaranteed to make us unhappy…or maybe not.
The problem with viewing the happiness report comparatively is the same problem that has landed us in this unhappy mess in the first place, comparison. Blame it on social media or your neighbor’s new car, the en vogue means of assessing happiness turns our attention from ourselves to everyone else. As Shrek claims before his whirlwind adventure, “I’m not the one with the problem, okay? It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me.” Rather than assess our happiness, we look at what other people or countries have or don’t have and see how we measure up. This competition for joy results in two unintended consequences. In most cases, we spring into action to create catalog of the ills of our own existence and a laundry list of the sources of our displeasure, sending us on our own tailspin adventure to try to remove the root of our unhappiness.
But as anyone who has undertaken a significant spring-cleaning project can attest, when you tidy up one area you simply notice the mess in another. So it seems to be with our happiness. As we respond to our unhappiness by attempting to remove sources of displeasure, we enter into a never-ending cycle: remove a negative, notice another, remove it, notice more. So now we find ourselves no more happy and far more exhausted.
Others will attempt to add happiness to their existence rather than remove unhappiness. While this has slightly more promising potential, we are often drawn to adding the highly visible and easily attainable commercial signs of happiness. We upgrade our wardrobe, or get that new mattress that promises heavenly support and angel dreams. Though these expenditures bring some momentary happiness, as the report Waiting for Merlot, first published by the Association for Psychological Science, points out they are often fleeting and don’t really pivot the happiness needle permanently.
So what can we do, and what does this have to do with running? What Waiting for Merlot and the World Happiness Report point out is that a focus on embracing and valuing experiences cultivates that greatest levels of happiness. For me, running has always been additive. Sure, I love the competition. I enjoy challenging and testing myself. But as my wife and children can confirm, running makes me a happier and more enjoyable person to be around. On a run, I am not thinking about what I don’t have or what ills I do. I am thinking about the best route along that ridge-line, or how great it feels to be cruising along a country road, or occasionally how much longer my legs and lungs can handle the punishment. In short, running is an experience in its purest form. So after you review the data about how miserable we all are, lace up your shoes and crush some miles. You might just feel better.