I was in my early 50s — too old for swim team, I thought. But the coach — Igor was his name — persisted: “I see you are good svimmer.”
Intrigued, and being a sucker for flattery, I relented and joined his ragtag group of swimmers. Workouts started at 5:30 in the morning, when most sane people were tucked in bed. It didn’t matter because no matter how sleepy we were, we were guaranteed to be wide-awake, if not euphoric, when we finished. We enjoyed our camaraderie and although we were all at different swimming levels, we had one thing in common: We wanted to get better.
One day, a bunch of us were grousing about how little progress we were making in our swim times, how slow we were.
Ever the philosopher of the pool, Igor smiled and said, “You are all confused! Speed is not the goal; it is the result of perfect beautiful technique.”
What really mattered to Igor was excellence — the efficient stroke. Once you mastered that, he argued, speed would follow naturally. Speed was simply the welcome side effect of swimming well.
I’ve been thinking lately that there’s a lesson here that goes beyond the pool. We all wanted to swim faster and the more hysterically we tried, the more speed escaped us. The same goes for happiness. Everyone wants to be happy, yet the more directly we pursue happiness, the more elusive it becomes.
We’ve all experienced this phenomenon. Think, for example, about your coming vacation. You are excited about going to the beach or mountains and relaxing with lots of free time. How happy you are going to be! Then you start to plan out what you’ll do, what you need to bring, what restaurants you need a reservation for. Soon you’re feeling a bit stressed out about your future pleasure.
Research shows that thinking too much about how to be happy actually backfires and undermines well-being. This is in part because all that thinking consumes a fair amount of time, and is not itself enjoyable.
The researchers behind this study, called “Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness,” randomly assigned subjects to one of two tasks: One group was asked to write down 10 things that could make them become happier, while the other wrote 10 things that demonstrated that they were already happy.
The subjects were then asked to what extent they felt time was slipping away and how happy they felt at that moment. Those prompted to think about how they could become happier felt more pressed for time and significantly less happy.
This jibes with the argument the journalist Ruth Whippman makes in her 2016 book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” Trying too hard to be happy — downloading mindfulness apps, taking yoga classes, reading self-help books — mostly just stresses us out, she writes. So what should we do instead? Maybe simply hang out with some friends, doing something we like to do together: “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life.”
Which brings me back to swimming. When I swim, I feel that I have all the time in the world, in part because much of what marks time — my everyday life — vanishes the moment I step in the water. And all the while I’m there with my buddies, bound by mutual exertion and joking about life.
Our technique has improved, thanks to Igor. We have a smoother pull, never dropping our elbows, and a steadier flutter kick. Some days, I swim a little faster than I did before. But even if I don’t, I feel great.
In the end, happiness is a side effect of living well — just like speed can be the result of excellent swimming technique. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the pool.
Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer.