Enjoyment and Happiness

When you spend many hours on the bicycle every day you have a lot of time to think. Think about why to do a trip like this, what makes it so enjoyable, how it contributes to one’s happiness. Here I offer some of my thoughts on this topic.

One of the recurring themes in happiness literature is the distinction between things which are merely pleasant (mostly sensual pleasures such as good food) vs. things which offer a higher level of enjoyment (for example aesthetics, arts, music, etc.) Indulging in simple sensual pleasures makes us feel good in the short-term; however, the pleasure subsides when the sensual need is satisfied. And after a while the need arises again, so indulging in sensual pleasures can not provide long-lasting happiness.

Humans have the unique ability to forgo simple pleasures in the pursuit of some higher, more rewarding goals. (Animals don’t have this ability.) We tend to create more complex goals for ourselves; their pursuit often requires considerable effort and can in fact require periods of unpleasant activities. (Think about forgoing sleep or other leisure in pursuit of studies toward a university degree.) However, when such a complex goal is reached, it provides a much deeper and long-lasting gratification then sensual pleasures. (The positive psychology concept of Flow points to this distinction. Also the Dalai Lama, who bases his philosophy on the observation that all human beings universally want to be happy and avoid suffering, emphasizes this distinction.)

In that light a project like the Panamerican Peaks can be seen as a much more complex goal which requires a substantial effort along multiple lines. For example it clearly requires physical effort or exposure to the elements which can be unpleasant at times. However, reaching camp after an arduous day in the mountains or on the bike is quite enjoyable and makes one forget the physical discomfort associated with it. And reaching a summit or completing a bike journey through an entire country offers a reward on an even higher level. For example riding down the Baja the last two weeks was hard at times and not always pleasant; now I’m quite happy to have completed it. I can only speculate on the level of enjoyment that the completion of the entire project will bring!

Then there is the charitable aspect. It makes me genuinely happy to see donations in the name of this project to Doctors Without Borders. These donations enable the organization to do very valuable humanitarian work. This goes towards what the Dalai Lama calls compassion and love towards other fellow human beings.

And there is the aspect of simple and pure enjoyment of the activities associated with the adventure. Being out there and being active, doing the things because you can, makes you feel alive. Think about the last time you were just happy to be alive? I mean not just content, but happy as in getting-the-goosebumps-happy! This reminds me of a quote by the famous British climber George Mallory. He organized three expeditions to Mt. Everest in 1920, 1921 and 1923. On the last one he and Irvine famously vanished high on the North Face of Everest. (Mallory’s body was actually found in 1999 after some 76 years on the mountain!) When Mallory toured the country to raise funds for the next expedition, he preempted the question as to “Why” he wanted to climb Everest as follows:

“So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

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