What Is Happiness? My Surprising Lesson

Happiness On Purpose

Did you grow up thinking that happiness was something you had or you didn't, lucky or unlucky? Did that conviction follow you into adulthood?

My lesson about how to be intentionally happy came to me, not as something I was looking for but as something that found me.

If you asked me, I'd have told you I wasn't looking for anything tricks to add more speed for my next road race.

For fifteen years, I trained as a long distance runner. Except for two years upstate, almost all of my miles were built up circling a 3.7 mile loop along the East River in New York City. In my prime (which really wasn't much of a prime, but still, mine.), I did double laps four or five times a week, preparing for competitive runs with NYC Road Runners, usually through Central Park.

As I ran all these miles, it felt better to be thin and athletic again.

But what is happiness? Is it just a question I thought to ask myself.? I was already as happy in general as anyone I knew. That's not to say endlessly or deeply happy all the time, just better than most.

What Is Happiness, The Lesson

Mindful of the punishing summer heat in New York, Road Runners planned most races from September through May. I ran early in the morning to insure I'd have time to shower and shave and get to work on time, hitting the promenade around Roosevelt Island usually around 5:30.

Along with the normal physical and emotional ups and downs, I managed my way through all sorts of weather and fatigue along with minor aches and pains more than I did questions about happiness.

On plenty of days, I ran north toward Hell Gate with stiff winds throwing sleet directly in my face. One single digit morning, I returned home with sweat icicles clinging to the ends of my hair.

The lesson I'm writing about was simple yet profound. Everyone training in challenging conditions tries a few things, maybe everything, including some not so legal, to cushion the challenges. Having a preference for running toward, rather than away from, I stuck to the legal strategies.

Any early tactic was buying a cassette player. Later, I upgraded to a radio, then a handheld CD player my wife gave me. After Apple blessed the world with iPods, I bought my first of several.

These efforts all worked pretty well. I found that listening to the Grateful Dead, even on a bad day, improved my time. It certainly made me happier that the constant awareness of my thighs straining. I also found that jazz worked but classical left me feeling like I was running in mud. Which, of course, I sometimes was.

There were experiments with apparel, different shoe styles and what to drink and/or eat during, before and after a run.

Experienced runners will probably recognize the cunning that drove these efforts and have stories of their own. The one thing I did that made the most difference, in not just my training experience, but in my life, was probably the most simple.

And it's the only runners story I know that led to the unexpected answer for the big question: What is happiness?

What Is Happiness?

The secret (No, not that Secret!) was published and widely available in a small article in Runners' World magazine. The piece told us that a study showed that simply smiling during a run relieved tension and made the experience much easier and enjoyable.

Simple. I tried it the next time I was straining through a dark, cold morning.

It worked and fast. Amazing. I could feel the stress ooze out of my limbs and my pace smooth and quicken.

What an easy trick to learn! Smiling must have sent endorphins or something else happiness related charging to my rescue.

But wait a minute‚Äďa trick? Hadn't I just learned something so profound it almost got by me unrecognized? I'd learned, purely by accident, that I could intentionally make myself happy, for want of a better word, when no good reason existed, except my intention.

I had always believed, along with somewhere around 100% of the rest of the population, that I smiled because I felt happy. Now, it seemed that the opposite was also true.

A scientist by nature, as we all are, I soon went to the lab we call "the real world" and tried some practical experiments. I found that, with commitment, I could make myself happy at any time, regardless of circumstances. It was simply a choice.

But, my learning went further. I could also make myself unhappy, enraptured, upset, annoyed and self-righteous at the flip of that virtual switch.

This put me in charge of my life and well-being in a way more powerful than ever before. It took me off autopilot and also showed me that the common sense declarations about no one being able to make me unhappy or (re: the great Eleanor Roosevelt) feel inferior without my consent were more than feel good slogans. They were a matter of practical reality.

I didn't need yoga for this or meditation or any other powerful practice or training. I just needed to decide to feel good or whatever it was I wanted to feel. Then, it was up to me to determine what and why. Lots of opportunity, lots of responsibility.

Make no mistake, taking conscious control of how you feel has implications for everyone around you and, since everything is connected, many others. It can lead to better health and better relationships, eliminate habitual behaviors and moods. Pretty neat lesson to learn from a casual runners' tip.

Maybe you can make good use of it as you jog along your own personal trails.

Just remember, happiness is a choice.

Where not to find happiness...

One can, of course, try other options.
One can, of course, try other options.

Let's tak a snapshot.

Are you happy?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Bit of both
  • In transition
See results without voting

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What do you think? 11 comments

David Stone profile image

David Stone 2 years ago from New York City Author

Thank you, Merry.

Others reactions? Smiles are infectious, whether they like it or not.


David Stone profile image

David Stone 2 years ago from New York City Author

It's a revelation, suddenly understanding how in charge we really are. It's freedom.

Thank you, Pam.


Pam Irie profile image

Pam Irie 2 years ago from Land of Aloha

Reading this page, I made myself smile. You're right.....it works! :)


Merrci profile image

Merrci 2 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

I'm smiling even as I read it, so that would seem to be a good sign. It's an excellent discovery, and I bet seeing the reactions of others would encourage more smiling. It's often my goal to get a smile from others, though occasionally they just look at me funny. Still we all must have our goals. Very enjoyable read. Pinning.


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Hi, Maggie. You are busy. With good, creative stuff, I hope.


Maggie-May profile image

Maggie-May 6 years ago from the Island of Cape Breton to the Eastern Shores near Halifax, NS

Finally found time to read. Your words always make me smile..Can't wait to discover the impact of the new smile technique! M.


Dan Carpenter 6 years ago

Great article David! I used to run 10 mile a day for track as well in High School and remember those icicle days and chuckled when reading your story! Thanks for the moment of reflection!


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Join the club, Lee. I lapsed into autopilot all the time, and I wrote the hub as well as a recent book that spent a lot of time on this practice.

As they say, if it was easy, everyone would do it.


Lee B profile image

Lee B 6 years ago from New Mexico

So enjoyed this hub! I remember reading similar research years ago--Act "as if" you are happy, sad, anxious, etc., and you are likely to become so. Too bad I can't seem to keep it in mind more often!


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Thanks. I had fun writing it, not to mention the experiences it came from.


Sandyspider profile image

Sandyspider 6 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

Nice hub.

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