gold medals won’t make you happy

Have you heard about post-Olympic depression in athletes? It’s very real. Even in the gold medal winners.

I get this. I had my own brush with sporting excellence in 2003 when I won a bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in the Women’s 8+ event. We qualified Canada for the Olympics with that performance and, along with my teammates, I was on television and in some newspapers. I should say half of my face was on the television because when they did the close up shot of all of us holding our medals my good friend deeked her head in front of mine. Complete accident but she still apologizes whenever we meet up.

After the post-race reveling I had some time to reflect on my achievement. In the two weeks we had off of training to visit family and take a breather, I realized I had placed my happiness on achieving a goal. Now the goal was achieved and I was no happier. In fact, I was feeling quite sad and empty.

I had focused so much on the goal I had slipped into hating the journey.

As an athlete I was not enjoying the process. I hated moving every six months and transporting my dollar store kitchen items via FedEx Ground across the country. I whined and complained about Victoria in the winter and how isolated I felt from my family in Vancouver. Finding temporary accommodations for six months of the year was a struggle and as soon as I got settled in one place I was worried about where I would live when we moved across the country again. I was stressed out about my accumulating debt and what I would do about it once I stopped rowing. I’d quietly been telling myself for three years that if I made it, made the national team and won a medal at the World Championships, there would be a great sense of accomplishment and pride and serenity and joy that I would hold on to. But there wasn’t any of that.

Instead there was a great emptiness. This was it? All I had been working for, all the choices and sacrifices and moldy basement apartments for this?

I decided that I needed to enjoy my days more. Instead of spending my afternoons in a semi-comatose state watching television and dreading the evening weight room workout I got out of the house. I walked places. I socialized. I went out on a Saturday night. I connected more with my teammates. I tried very hard to enjoy the workouts and be in the moment instead of counting down the minutes and strokes until it was over.

In the end I didn’t make the 2004 Olympic team. Two better athletes beat me out. At the time it was a tough pill to swallow, that my best wasn’t good enough, but I also knew that becoming an Olympian or winning a medal at the Games – while an amazing accomplishment – wasn’t going to change my daily happiness. In my experience failure is hard but living an unhappy life is harder.

How does this relate to minimalism? Since diving into a less cluttered life I’ve had daily reminders that my happiness is about the journey – not the end result. That I derive a greater joy from exercise and connecting with my loved ones than from buying something. That a new kitchen would be lovely but it’s not going to radically change my life.

Frugal Babe has a great post on her relationship with money that really inspired me. She wrote, “…if we’re not truly content once we have the basics covered, nothing we buy will make us content in the long run.” It’s so true, once you have the basics covered more money (or gold medals) won’t make you happy.

It seems simple, that having the basics covered is enough to enjoy all of your life. That happiness will not be found in a new car or a piece of jewelery or a vacation. That we find the happiness each hour in our lives and not from one big event. It seems so simple that it’s not about the result but the journey. So simple yet on tough days at work a lot of us dream about 65 and retirement believing that is when we will really start enjoying life.

I went to film school for screenwriting in my mid-20’s and the first few months we did a lot of exercises to get the creative juices flowing. One of them was to think back on the last 24 hours of your life and recall when you were happiest. For me it was an early morning run on a quiet sea wall and an afternoon writing in a coffee shop.

When were you happiest in the last 24 hours? How can you put more of that into your life?

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  • The happiest I have been in the last 24 hours was standing in the snow with the sun on my back (my favourite place on earth) with my two kids building a snowman. I’m a lucky woman – Jo

  • Love this and obviously it resonates with me. Still wishing I’d jumped on that electrical bull at the cowboy bar rather than living in fear of a rowing ending injury.

  • Great article! I know that the happiest I’ve been in the last 24 hours was during all the time I spent with my husband and son, just hanging out, playing at the park, going for walks, etc. I know I’m very lucky to be with them so much of the time, and I try to focus on not taking that for granted.

  • Big events often lead to a let-down after it’s over…graduation, holidays, weddings, giving birth.
    My happiest moments in the last 24 hours were eating a delicious dinner, cuddling up with my dog, and doing my makeup & hair and feeling pretty when I looked in the mirror. Shallow…

    • Not shallow. One of my commitments in 2011 is to spend more time on me: blowing out my hair, straightening it and putting on a bit of make-up. I think it is healthy to take care of yourself and enjoy your appearance!

  • I was happiest sitting in the dark early this morning in front of the gas fireplace with my dh, and my 3yos wiggling his toes under my shirt because he’s infatuated with my belly (soft & squishy after so many pregnancies).

  • I was happiest about 20 minutes ago watching the sun set over English Bay, standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean (in my wellies, thankfully) until my feet got cold. I was enjoying just watching the clouds and the birds and the reflection on the water.

    Now I have to remember that while I do my laundry…

    Thanks for this. Definitely a reminder to enjoy the journey.

  • Wow, that totally hit the mark for me. I think it actually helped me understand myself. Great work. As for the happiest, I broke fifty for half a round of golf. I had an idiotic grin going for at least three hours.

  • Love this post! Being together with family and seeing my parents enjoying my son was priceless. I also enjoy the moment right before I got to sleep and my husband snuggles up next to me.

  • My happiest was watching my son in pageant rehearsal last night and sitting among all the other moms with fidgety babies on our laps. With our first one, I made the mistake of, “Oh, I can’t wait until he can___”, and now I’m trying harder just to enjoy all the stages – the journey. Happy Holidays, Rachel (and I’m hopping on a train to get your chocolates this very morning!!!). Hugs to you and your family.

    • I made that mistake with my son in the early days too. I think I turned a corner when he was 10 months. For sure I didn’t enjoy as many small baby snuggles as I could have because I was focused on my exhaustion. Sigh.
      You are so nice to send me chocolates!
      Hugs back at you and yours.

  • My happiness was literally slowing down, listening to some tunes while making dinner (and no it wasn’t cheese and crackers) and turning off my brain for at least 30mins. I find it difficult these days to just relax. When I can, it’s glorious. P.S. I miss you guys!

  • Hello! Happy to have met another Vancouver blogger! I am so interested in your minimalist ideas and hope to read more. I am most happy out in the beautiful nature that we are so blessed with here!

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