Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How to be a Happy Runner

It seems to me that running can easily make you miserable. Not because it a miserable sport in itself(although some would argue that it is), but because you cannot help compare your performances to your peers and your younger self. Now surround yourself with like minded and more fleet-footed friends and you've got a recipe for disaster.

I just read somewhere that the countries with the highest rates of happiness also have the highest rates of suicide. There were so many possible confounding factors that researchers then did a similar study looking at states in the US. Interestingly enough, the states with the highest level of life satisfaction also had the highest levels of suicide. I bet if you then look at runners' satisfaction, the slowest runners in a certain peer group will also be the most unhappy(assuming all things equal of course).

Obviously there are still a lot of possibilities for this, but one theory is that of relative comparison. That is we compare ourselves to people around us. Similar to why people are always trying to keep up with the Joneses, we compare our happiness to those around us. Unhappy people in a overall happy and contented society have a starker and more drastic contrast than if they were in a country/state/county/cul de sac that was all fairly miserable.  Those slow runners may be very fast but in comparison to their peers they are lead-footed snails. This certainly becomes a problem if their self-worth and image are linked closely to running.

The author of that study on state happiness concluded that: "Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide. If humans are subject to mood swings, the lows of life may thus be most tolerable in an environment in which other humans are unhappy.”

One solution of course, is to move to somewhere where everyone is miserable and just surviving is a struggle(or in the case of running, move to somewhere where everyone moves sloth-like). Another, less radical option would be to change your sample size. You can do this one of two ways: 1) Make it bigger, or 2)Make it smaller.

The case for a large comparison group.

If you are only comparing yourself to your richer (and seemingly) happier neighbors, and you're struggling financially or whatnot, your troubles are glaring. However, broaden that comparison group to those in the neighboring towns, counties or states and you may not fare so poorly. I maintain that, at least to a certain degree, people volunteer out of selfish reasons to make themselves feel better about themselves. When exposed to people worse off than you may help put things in perspective.

However, our confirmation biases can lead to trouble where we ignore information that refutes our opinions and seek out only the examples that confirm that we are poor, slow or miserable. Sometimes we may need a smaller comparison group.

The case for a smaller comparison group.

Ditch social media! There have been several studies looking at people using Facebook and becoming more unhappy! Your comparison group is too big and you're only seeing people expressing their best side(for the most part). Sometimes we need to unplug and be with the ones that we love and not worry about those around us. Run for the love of it, not for strava points or placing at a race.

As far as has been shown by science, we only live once and we cannot spend it comparing ourselves to others. The first way to overcome the inherent pitfalls of comparison is to recognize that we do this and then we can make a conscious effort to be mindful of all the good things(or fast times) we have.

Run Happy!

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