Well-Being: The Necessary Precondition
September 24, 2012
My morning run in Maine follows a three-mile loop. It begins with a climb through the woods, levels off, and ends with a gradual descent along the shore. Here, the trees part to reveal a sloping meadow that affords a sweeping view of Frenchman Bay and the majestic mountains of Mount Desert Island.
The other day, at about that point, I was flying. Every cylinder was firing. My stride was long and strong. I felt as loose and light as the high school cross-country runner I once was. The ground kissed my feet, imparting energy. For the first time in a long while, I was free of injuries, aches, and pains.
The sensation thrilled me, and I experienced a surge of joy, a moment of pure happiness.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction.”
Although chronicling the strivings of the cut and buff is my ostensible mission, my real subject is the pursuit of happiness.
I don’t profess to be an expert on happiness (or to be happy all the time), but after more than 60 years on this planet, here’s what I know:
Happiness is fleeting, accidental, serendipitous. Benjamin Franklin was right: Happiness is produced “not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Happiness is a matter of attitude. It’s how you react to life’s curveballs that ultimately determines your batting average. “Life is 10 percent what you make it, 90 percent how you take it,” the saying goes. My grandfather used to tell me: “Artie, there’s no bad weather, just different kinds of good weather.” (And he lived to be 96.)
Happiness is much harder to attain if you’re not healthy.
Think of when you’ve been hurt or sick. You feel out of it, on the sideline, apart from the human race. Suddenly, all your priorities shift, all other worries fade. Nothing matters so much as getting better, getting back in the game. Happiness depends on healing.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Indian mystic and teacher who brought Sufism to the West, said: “The soul is happy by nature; the soul is happiness itself. It becomes unhappy when something is the matter with its vehicle, its instrument, its tool through which it experiences life. Care of the body, therefore, is the first and the most important principle of religion.”
One summer when I was in college, I worked for a multimillionaire in Radnor as his chauffeur, gardener, and handyman. One day, I was laying a flagstone path in his front yard. It was hot and steamy, and I was stripped to the waist. I had been working hard with pick and spade; my muscles bulged and gleamed.
I looked up and saw my employer sitting on his front steps, staring at me intensely. He was wizened and frail, tethered to an oxygen tank because of severe emphysema. He caught my glance and beckoned me.
“I would trade all my millions in a second,” he told me, “to have a body like yours and to be able to breathe again. Health is the greatest wealth, boy. Don’t ever forget it.”
Needless to say, I haven’t. Every morning, when I wake up and realize that I’m alive, that my physical equipment is in working order, and that I have a reasonable chance of staying vertical for the next 16 hours, I pause to bask in gratitude.
I exercise to take care of that equipment. After 50 years, it’s an enjoyable, unbreakable habit.
Yes, I like to look good, but fitness for me is not about vanity, but sanity. The family tree is diseased with depression or, to put it poetically, Irish melancholy. My devotion to daily exercise, I’m convinced, has helped, for the most part, keep that scourge at bay.
“Good for the body is the work of the body,” said Henry David Thoreau, my philosophical hero. “Good for the soul the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other.”
Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also knew the therapeutic value of body work. “When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health from the work that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”
The health tragedy of modern times is that we have confused the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of luxury. For many Americans, luxury means the absence of physical exertion. How wrong, and how sad.
Exertion equals ecstasy. The body was designed to move. Moving and being used make the body happy. Our sedentary ways are a violation of nature and the root of much of what ails us: rage, despondency, neurosis.
“The body is the first proselyte the Soul makes,” Thoreau wrote. “Our life is but the Soul made known by its fruits, the body. The whole duty of man may be expressed in one line: Make to yourself a perfect body.”
For most of my life, that’s been my goal. But now, age has forced me to accept limits. My goal now: not to perfect my body, but to maintain and appreciate it.
Please join me.