How to Train for Happiness

By Angela Vega – January 1, 2017
Illustrations by Edgar Vega

You are hurting all over, waiting for the finish line to throw itself at your feet. You run as if your hopes and dreams are on the other side of that line. You finish strong with a smile on your face, a celebratory beer in one hand and a blueberry bagel in the other. Yet, you feel a wave of unease pushing you toward the next race. Your recent success fades into others, becoming another number reminding of what you’ve done, not what you’are capable of. 

No matter the level of success we achieve, we always fall short of what we hope to accomplish as we hop back on the hedonic treadmill to continue our chase of moving finish line.

 The theory of the hedonic treadmill states that regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event. We have a “set point” of happiness and no matter the event, good or bad, we eventually return to that baseline. So why do we constantly pursue that which can not be achieved? 

 The mechanism that allows us to perform better athletically over time is the same mechanism that keeps us chasing—adaption. Two factors that influence adaptation are contrast, (the comparison of where we are now to the past) and habituation, (becoming familiar over time with new situations).  

Imagine you are on a treadmill, running a comfortable pace. This is the pace you could run all day; this is your set point. As you go faster, you are experiencing something positive, and as your pace slows, you are experiencing something negative. Just like in training, you can’t sustain a faster pace nor do you want to be slower for long, so you always come back to your set point.

However, you can adapt your set point, because your happiness is fluid and sits on a spectrum. Eventually, running faster will become your new set point. When we believe in a binary system—happy or unhappy—we are unable to celebrate our past, and are petrified to pursue our future.

 We forget to celebrate milestones as much as we forget each mile we have endured. We look to the horizon for the next hill to conquer. The hill looks bigger until we are on top, and we find comfort at the apex of our momentum. It is with that momentum that propels us forward to chase things beyond our abilities in the hopes of accomplishing happiness. For athletes, happiness is a derivative of mastery—and mastery is the unforgiving pursuit of the “almost” with boundless passion to an unknown destination. 

This chart shows Angela Vega’s improvement in marathon finishing times starting in 2010 through December 2016.

So how do we enjoy a ride when we don’t know where it will go? How can we celebrate the moments while striving for new goals? I have struggled with this for years, so I try to remember the following:

1/ Invest in the Process

It is more than enjoying the moment; it is about investing in the process. Our true happiness comes from the process, not the outcome, as happiness coach Srikumar Rao says. If you don’t reach your goal, then you feel unhappy because you were reaching for the outcome. If you put your time into learning how to be a better cyclist, yogi, or runner, chances are you have become better. If I have learned anything, it is that my abilities or success are not the sum of one event, but the commitment to become better. 

2/ Review the Data

Those gadgets you strap to your wrist or bike each day have the power to tell a story of where you came from, in hopes of revealing where you are heading. I look back and see my first marathon at a pace of 11:05/mile and now it is at 7:41/mile. Celebrate how far you have come and use it to propel you forward. 

3/ Think Back

This isn’t the first goal you have pursued. Think back to your first race and what you hoped to accomplish. You probably thought “If I could just…then I could…” Are you happy now that you broke a 30 minute 5K? How about losing 10 pounds? You probably have a whole new set of goals to achieve happiness; know that the accomplishment of that goal is not what brings you happiness but the journey to reach it. 

4/ Do What Matters

Passion is a requirement if you want to aim for mastery. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing or training for, then why do it? Not everything you do has to be toward your life’s work, but you should get into a “flow” with your training. If you are constantly looking at the clock to see when your cycling class is over, you should try something different.

5/ Enjoy With Others

Think back to your favorite memories, the times when you felt happiest. Were you alone or with someone? Most likely, you were with someone when you hit a major milestone. I am happiest when I am running with Gilbert’s Gazelles or with my mom. I will cherish those memories forever knowing I can build on them.


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