In his 2004 TED talk, Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, quotes Morese Bickam, a man who spent several years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit: “It was a glorious experience”. The point Gilbert makes is that gratitude can come at times when we least expect it.
Or maybe not. Maybe there is something to losing everything that makes us value what we have left. Years ago, a friend of mine recounted the experience of losing his business, his marriage, and almost his life to drugs, then one day deciding to go for a run. As he said, “There was nothing left to do but run.”
Yet on that run he discovered a truth that had been missing from his life. He didn’t need the business, the wife, the money, or the drugs. All he needed to do in that moment was run. “It was such a relief to realize that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other. There was peace in that,” he’d said to me.
To Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, the two researchers who identified what is known as “Posttraumatic Growth” this makes perfect sense. Posttraumatic growth is defined as the profound growth that results from the search for meaning after a traumatic experience. It often involves a fundamental shift in our sense of priorities and the way we view the world. One of those changes is an encompassing sense of gratitude.
Things we might have overlooked now become incredibly important. Things like going for a run.
Gratitude, for Tedeschi and Calhoun, is not an “add-on”. It is not something that we search for, build, or go after. Rather, it is what emerges when we take everything else away. At its core, gratitude is the profound realization that nothing more is needed beyond life itself.
Last year while volunteering at a local 10K run with a friend of mine, we stood underneath the finish banner and handed out medals as the runners came across the timing mat. One by one they ran by, grabbed their medal, and marched off, without so much as a thank you. The experience brought me back to recollections of the Icarus Florida UltraFest, the ultramarathon race I founded with my husband. I couldn’t shake the comparison. At Icarus when I hand out medals, the runners’ gratitude is palpable as they often hug me, smile broadly, and offer heartfelt thanks. I began to wonder if there is something to struggling – I think most people would agree that running in any form can be called a struggle – for longer periods of time that lends itself to a more deeply felt sense of gratitude. After all, Bickam did 37 years.
Sure enough, according to Tedeschi and Calhoun, it is the traumatic experiences that are more severe in nature, or last longer, that are associated with greater gains in growth.
In many ways, this makes perfect sense. Athletes who peak early in youth are often not the athletes that go on to great performances. Why? Longer learning curves lend themselves to better mastery of a skill. When something takes a long time to learn, we simply learn it better than when it comes easily to us.
Perhaps running 10K is too easy. Perhaps it doesn’t truly test us enough; the struggle is not long or hard enough to make us appreciate crossing that line. Or maybe there is no uncertainty, no self-doubt as to whether the challenge can be accomplished, and no searching for why, or how we will get there. Maybe the run just isn’t long enough
My friend didn’t run 10K races. Neither did Marshall Ulrich, who crossed Death Valley a record 24 times, including a 586-mile ‘Badwater Quad,’ covering the course four times (twice up and back), a self-contained, unaided solo, in which he pulled all supplies (food, ice, medical) in a cart that weighed more than 200 pounds at the start, an unprecedented four wins of the Badwater 135 mile race, and a record for the Badwater 146 mile race that ended in a summit to Mt. Whitney that still stands today. In Ulrich’s memoir, Running On Empty, he describes running incredibly long distances as a way to cope with the loss of his first wife to cancer, and an overwhelming mountain of self-doubt and insecurity.
Now Ulrich heads up the Dreams In Action association, raising several thousand dollars for various charities and telling people to “discover what you are made of: it’s more than you think,” and my friend runs hundred mile races to benefit those addicted to drugs, who, like he had been, are searching for hope.
All they needed to do was go for a run – a long one.