Even in the year 2021, there isn't an academic consensus as to what well-being means. The longest standing definition and what we typically come up with is associated with happy feelings...
maybe peace...maybe even as the guru Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it - flow. These typically deal with emotional states, positive affect.
The only problem is that we are no closer to deconstructing how to induce these states then we were when the words were first invented.
The answer most people have is to strive toward a more peaceful, desire-less state of being. Meditation apps are on the rise, but tell me this - who do you actually know that does this and has done it for years? Who do you know that does yoga and has reached exaltation?
I've tried them too. I think all these things that we try are good correlates towards a better state of well-being but not cause and effect.
I have though, found some information that, based on my own experiences, seems true and it's this:
Psychological well being has nothing to do with you feeling happy.
Psychological well-being has everything to do with you having meaning, direction, and ultimately striving to reach your potential in this life.
Carol Ryff is a psychologist that's been studying this way before it was hip and popular; way before terms like flourishing were ever on the scene. What she determined is chasing after feel-good feelings could be called hedonic happiness whereas this pursuit of excellence has classically been called eudaimonic.
Now eudainomia is a greek word that means "happiness" but if you read any socrates, plato or Aristotle you know that THEIR definition is more closely related towards pursuing the highest human good versus doing something of ease or for the sake of pleasure.
What I like is the eudaimonic definition of well-being
Now back to this new definition and way of thinking - what activities enable you to live well? To be well?
Fortunately for us, Dodge, Daly, Huyton and Sanders gave us a road map. They said that well-being is the BALANCE POINT between an individuals resource pool and the challenges faced. (INSERT GRAPHIC)
What word sticks out to you? To me, it's challenge. Ryff goes on to say that the way to well-being is pursuing both challenging and rewarding events.
I'll give you the street version: if good life equals personal potential, and person potential means deliberately introducing challenge then a good life equals a strenuous life.
What I think that means is that there is a connection to resilience and inducing stress and recalibrating each time to enjoy meeting a higher personal potential
CHALLENGE AND WHY IT'S NECESSARY TO LOOK A CERTAIN WAY
I'm reading this amazing book right now called MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. It's written by David McCullough and it's about Teddy Roosevelt but before he was a rough rider, before he was president before he was...anything. He was an asthmatic. He was undersized and over toothed (teeth were too big for his body). At one point in his life, his father and doctor said the only way you are going to beat this is to challenge your organs and your body to work.
TR goes on to do just that and it made such an impact in his life he gives a speech about in Chicago and do you know what that speech is called? THE STRENUOUS LIFE - he said that strenuous effort and overcoming hardship were ideals to be EARNED. (Worth reading)
SO maybe, just maybe, the ultimate irony of our life is that in order to reach this state of well-being, there will be intermittent moments of great struggle, great challenge in order to, through purification get there.
Intuitively that makes sense. Anything you've looked back upon in your life that you are proud of was probably correlated with difficulty, not ease.
Another irony, in talking about Teddy Roosevelt is that he NONE of the resources we have. God I sound like an old man but it's true!
Back to the study from Dodge, Daly, Huyton, and Sanders, there is this cute graph that shows that it's not just challenge we need but resources...but I'd argue we have all the resources we could dream of but only a fraction of the challenge.
I know the pandemic has been hard and maybe that's the point. Maybe it's been extra hard because of how much ease we had in navigating life before that...I've done a little thought experiment if Teddy was alive in present day and would he think wearing masks and the other misgosh we have to do would be that hard...but I digress.
I believe that a secret hack to Psychological well-being is to deliberately and intentionally put yourself into hard and challenging situations. It's secretly the reason I fell in love with fitness and Crossfit specifically. Sure, they methodology was sound, but what I antidotally found to be true is that some of the workouts were better for my mental well-being more so than my physical well-being.
There were some workouts in fact that I don't think are good for your body but are great for your well-being.
I call this the most dynamic form of meditation. You see I have a hard time do the breathing and zen and no stress and silence your monkey mind thing - it's passive in a way. I like something to be so hard that it's physiologically the only thing you can focus on. You want to see what real zen is? Talk to someone after they've climbed a mountain, finished an hour roll in jiu-jitsu or just completed a hero workout.
So I believe, and it's one of the central thesis of my life, that intentional physical duress and purposeful stress is a secret weapon to producing a higher state of psychological well-being - way better than any transcendental meditation session could.
However, over the years, and this is really unfortunate, Crossfit and functional fitness became redundant for me. Not redundant from a physical standpoint - I believe there is an endless progression physically. But mentally, it's become rote. Common place. I'm comfortable.
Therefore I had to up the ante over time. Ever so often over the years we would introduce something that was so physically taxing it produced what's called an autotelic experience. Some examples of this, for me personally were
These mini pain quests once again were great inoculations for stress and the strenuous life but over time they fell short. They needed to be bigger. Grander & a higher degree of stakes - of failure! I knew I found the sweet spot where as soon as I did it I wouldn't feel the need to repeat it in the next year or maybe ever
And then I came across an outside magazine journal article using the word MISOGI and it all made sense to me.
The Japanese are always centuries ahead of us and this ancient word, MISOGI, describes a practice of ritual purification. They pilgrimage to this freezing cold waterfall, throw themselves under it and the physical strain of this is so gnarly...they only can handle it once a year.
So this new chapter in my life was born where I would go, like don quioxte, pursue these yearly quests where they challenge was high enough that there would be a 50% chance I would fail. An unknown environment is key to upping the positive anxiousness you feel.
There was a time where I used Crossfit as this resource and did regionals and the games one year, I tried out and made, to my surprise, made the us bobsled team and competed for a couple of years, I started jiu-jitsu and competed in the world tournament for two years, and most recently, I've picked up split boarding and skinning UP a mountain instead of riding the lift.
Can I tell you a little secret? There is a moment every time, actually several, that I DON'T enjoy these things. I struggle with anxious thoughts and an overprotective mind of what could potentially go wrong in the future
I've never regretted anything. Everything I look back on I say, "man that sucked and man I'm so glad I did it". A few years ago we lead a group up Mount arkansas in Colorado (VIDEO). Some guys had never even put on skis before and no one made it to the top - WE ALL FAILED
But when I look back, that doesn't even matter to me. The lessons learned and what I think I gained from driving closer to my personal potential had no bearing on completion or not.
Why do I share that? Because the worry of failure that we all have is natural and ultimately (as long as you don't die) won't have any impact on the growth that you derive from these things.
So what do I think?
I think waiting for this blissful mental state to arrive and make you happy is never going to happen.
I think we've been given these physical bodies that are supposed to work and strain
I think we are fitter then 99.999999 of the history of mankind but all we put them to use for is... more exercise. We have all of the physical resources and none of the physical challenges.
Like the greeks of old, we should be pursuing the most exalted version of ourselves and that can't come through pleasure and leisure, or even thinking about it - it has to come through action and it has to come through challenge.
The most punk rock thing we can do is exercise not JUST to feel good and look good, but to intentionally subject ourselves to our own "Misogis", throughout our lives. Different adventures we take every year for the rest of our lives!
This is the road map - the actual action you take to achieving psychological well-being.
Bethea, C. (2014, December 09). The one-day-a-year fitness plan. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.outsideonline.com/1928041/one-day-year-fitness-plan#close
Cummins, Robert & Wooden, Mark. (2014). Personal Resilience in Times of Crisis: The Implications of SWB Homeostasis and Set-Points. Journal of Happiness Studies. 15. 10.1007/s10902-013-9481-4.
Dodge, Rachel; Daly, Annette; Huyton, Jan; Sanders, Lalage (2012). "The challenge of defining wellbeing". International Journal of Wellbeing. 2 (3): 222–235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4
Eudaimonia. (2021, February 15). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia
MacCullough, D. G. (2001). Mornings on horseback: The story of an extraordinary family, a vanished way of life, and the unique child who became Theodore Roosevelt. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Roosevelt, T., Jr. (1899, April 10). Roosevelt, Theodore. 1900. the Strenuous Life; essays AND Addresses: I. the STRENUOUS LIFE. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.bartleby.com/58/1.html