Hanging from a bar and doing pull-ups over and over again is not the usual path to philosophical awakening. But it was for me. A few years ago, I set the Guinness World Record for Most Pull-Ups In a Minute. In case you’re curious, I managed to get my chin over the bar 51 times. I had trained hard and was proud of my achievement. But before long, my record was surpassed by a Bulgarian strongman who did 54. So I redoubled my training and reclaimed the record with 61. That record too was smashed, this time by a college wrestling champion who eked out 62 before a big crowd at half-time at a New York Jets game. Spurred on by the mounting competition, I trained even harder, and, a month later, reclaimed the record with 68 pull-ups in a minute. It stood for nearly two years before being topped by a Chinese athlete who reached 74.
Throughout my training for this intensely demanding physical competition, I spent most of my time studying and teaching philosophy. On one level, it’s hard to imagine two more disparate pursuits. Socrates, as far as I know, never attempted a single pull-up or engaged in any athletic competition. And yet, the more deeply I studied the accounts of the good life offered by Plato and Aristotle, the more I saw a connection between my competitive pursuits and the notion of happiness to be found in ancient philosophy.
These days, especially for those of us whose lives are filled with goal-driven striving, happiness is an elusive thing. In fact, the more strenuously we strive, the less happy we seem to be. Deep down we sense that there must be more to life than the cycle of striving, achievement, and the feeling of emptiness that often follows the glow of success. But how to articulate that something more is not easy. Being goal-oriented is a good thing, right? Isn’t that what makes one a responsible, dedicated person?
Here we might take a cue from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who draws a crucial distinction between two modes of activity: pursuing something as a means to an end and pursuing it as an end in itself. He conceives of happiness not as a pleasurable feeling that results from an endless cycle of striving and achieving but as a form of activity that is valuable for its own sake. His word for happiness is eudaimonia, which he elaborates as the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.
Aristotle’s perspective has led me to consider that at the root of our unhappiness is a falling away from three virtues that tend to get displaced and distorted by our goal-oriented striving: self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature. Disparate though these virtues may seem, they are all ways of conceiving what we might call “activity for the sake of itself,” activity that is intrinsically meaningful and that does not await some future accomplishment or acquisition for its justification. Such activity is the key to lasting fulfillment. Unlike goal-oriented striving, which, when it reaches its end, must restart itself in search of some new achievement, the commitment to being one’s self, to being a friend, and to engaging with nature comes with its own inspiring challenge and reward at every moment.
Reflecting on my succession of victories and defeats on the pull-up bar helped me arrive at this view. On one level, training and competing for a world record is about as goal-oriented an activity as one can imagine. But as I considered how fast my achievements slipped away, I came to realize that the true source of the joy I found in this activity consisted not in reaching my goals, but in something intrinsic to the journey itself – the friendships I made along the way, not only among my training partners but also among fellow competitors; the inner composure and self-possession that I gradually developed in dealing with injury and setback and that ultimately carried over to other aspects of my life; the communion with nature that I realized as I struggled with the force of gravity and came to appreciate it not simply as a foe but as a partner in digging into the bar and rebounding for the next rep.
Reorienting our lives to activity for the sake of itself does not imply giving up on our goals. We need to direct our efforts at certain aims if only to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. And the pursuit of goals that go beyond the bare necessities of life can be inspiring. The problem arises when we begin to regard our goals as the primary source of meaning in our lives or begin turning activities that we know we should appreciate for their own sake into tasks at which we might succeed or fail.
Even the virtues that ought to liberate us from goal-oriented striving are readily distorted by the goal-oriented disposition. Consider how we equate self-possession with the spirit of “leaning in”—a kind of self-assertiveness in the workplace aimed at having an impact and climbing the corporate ladder. We lose sight of the ways in which we might stand up for ourselves that have nothing to do with attainment or success and that may even involve risking our goals for the sake of our dignity.
Similarly, we easily mistake for friendship various forms of alliance in service of shared aims. We overlook the kind of friendship that arises from a shared history and enables us to grow in wisdom and self-understanding in each other’s company. When it comes to engaging with nature, we face the immense difficulty of squaring our momentary appreciation of natural wonders and the “great outdoors” with all the ways we try to shield ourselves from nature and exploit the earth and sky for our purposes.
The more we reflect on self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature, the more we realize that instantiating them in our daily practice requires rethinking our goal-obsessed way of life. At the same time, however, we should notice that these virtues are already implicit in the activities and relationships that give our lives meaning. Happiness is to be found in a new way of understanding the commitments that matter most to us. The point of our goal-oriented activities lies not in the goals themselves but in the journey of character formation and self-discovery along the way. Appreciating the way is the key to a happiness that lasts.