I have been reading various articles about research done by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor, on the pursuit of happiness. These articles caught my attention because, after nearly 20 years of research, Dr. Gilovich has come to the same conclusion that I have. If you want to be happy, buy experiences, not stuff.
Dr. Gilovich has found that we are initially happy when we first buy some material possession but over time, the novelty wears off (or as he puts it, “we adapt” to it). For example, you certainly are happy when you buy a new car – the fancy features like satellite radio and USB ports for your electronics, and of course, the new car smell. But then a newer model comes out with better features, the new car smell fades and along with it the happiness from that new car. It becomes just something you own, convenience to get you where you need to go.
Experiences on the other hand become part of who we are. Dr. Gilovich explains experiences are a bigger part of who we are than the things we own. You can recall a funny story about your first trip to Europe or the fear you felt when flying over Glacier National Park in a helicopter. Our experiences – both good and bad – are what define us.
So what does all this have to do with running? Well, during my 2015 spring racing season, I met many people who were running their first marathon or half marathon. They all had the same apprehensive look on their face the night before the race. They were not sure that they could finish the race. I told them all the same thing. Relax and focus on enjoying the moment. Regardless of how you do in that first race, you will always remember it. And the feeling that you have when you finish is something that you can’t buy in a store. You won’t have that same feeling ever again. It is special and something that you will want to savor. It is an experience that will shape who you are.
My first marathon was the 2007 Country Music Marathon but I remember it as if it was last weekend. I had no clue what to expect. I was astonished to see so many runners. There were over 30,000 people running the race. At Mile 10, my coach saw me and yelled at me for going out too fast. I had been running 4 minutes per mile faster than my normal pace. The race strategy that he had given me the night before went out the window when the starting gun went off. I had gotten caught up in the excitement of the race – the cheering spectators along the course, the bands playing at each mile, and runners dressed in costumes – and run way too fast.
I paid dearly for failing to follow my race strategy. In the second half of the course I ran over 6 minutes slower than my normal pace. My coach saw me again at Mile 25. He ran with me for the next mile before stopping at Mile 26 to give me a hug and send me off to the finish line. When I finished, I was in pain but I was extremely happy. It was a huge accomplishment. I had become a runner. Even today I can still see every turn, every water stop, and landmark along the course of my first marathon. I can’t say that for all the races that I have done since then.
There is something else that is special about my first race. It is a comment that I have heard other runners make about their first marathon as well. When I finished my first race, I stopped being afraid to do things. I had run a marathon – something that I thought was impossible for me to do but I had done it. There wasn’t anything that could be thrown at me that I couldn’t handle. I wasn’t invincible but I wasn’t afraid.
So next time you think you need some fancy new gizmo, stop and reconsider whether it will really make you happy. Take a trip, visit a museum, or better yet sign up to train for a marathon. You will be creating experiences that will last a lifetime.
Interested in reading more about Dr. Gilovich’s research? Here is a link to a paper he published with Leaf Van Boven “To Do or To Have? That is the Question”