10 Feb How getting outside can boost your happiness
by Brad Stulberg
If you’re reading Outside, you’re likely a pusher—someone who runs, climbs, kayaks, hikes, skis, or bikes far more often and intensely than many other people in your life. And while we spend lots of time considering the physical consequences of these endeavors, we don’t spend nearly as much time considering the psychological and spiritual ones. Dating back to the ancient Greek Empire, happiness, or what Aristotle called “an activity of soul…the highest good…the ultimate end,” has been a primary goal for those of us living in the Western world. So we have to ask: Do our active lifestyles make us happy? And are there things we can do to become even happier?
The definition of the word “happiness” has been the subject of a fierce battle in psychological science over the past few decades. It pits eudaimonic happiness, which deals with finding meaning and striving for self-realization, against hedonic happiness, or the attainment of positive emotions and pleasure and the avoidance of pain. But according to Acacia Parks, an associate professor of psychology at Hiram College, in Hiram, Ohio, and chief scientist at Happify, an app that claims to help users increase their happiness and life satisfaction via activities and games, the dichotomy is overdone and often altogether false. “Eudaimonia, or the kind of happiness that comes from doing meaningful things, is inextricably entwined with positive emotions,” Parks says. “How do we know we have done something good? Because it brings us a feeling of satisfaction and contentment.”
This isn’t to say that you have to run ultramarathons or climb mountains to find happiness, but you can’t just sit around eating candy and drinking beer, either. “Many positive emotions are hard won,” says Parks. “It’s not all about seeking out immediate pleasures like snorting cocaine and eating cupcakes. When it comes to enduring happiness, there are no quick fixes that last.”
Centuries ago, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, said much the same: “The happy life is thought to be virtuous; a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”
A 2009 study published in the journal Happiness Studies lends credence to Aristotle’s thinking. Researchers from the University of Ottawa and the University of Rochester asked college students to focus over a ten-day period on increasing either meaning (for example, pursuing excellence and personal growth, practicing gratitude, showing kindness toward others, engaging in introspection) or amusement and pleasure (sleeping more, watching television, shopping, eating sweets). They found that the students who focused on pleasurable activities felt an immediate boost in happiness over the first ten days, but only those who focused on meaningful activities experienced a sustained increase over the subsequent three weeks. Pursuing meaningful activities, the researchers concluded, “was generally related to elevating experience.”
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