Like most GenX men, I was raised by Baby Boomer parents whose definition of success was to work hard, get a good paying job, accumulate lots of stuff, never complain and retire with a good pension. While that recipe for success might work for some, it was never the right recipe for me.
I’ve lived a good life. Things just always seem to work out for me and knowing that has always given me a false sense of security. I married my best friend and high school sweetheart who I have known since I was 5 years old. I often joke that it took her 12 years of school to learn what I great catch I was and still am. Together we purchased our first home, a brand-new bungalow in 1989, and we were blessed with raising two healthy and happy kids, a boy and a girl. While my career was never a progressive straight line, my entrepreneurial spirit allowed me to pay off our first home just before I turned 40.
Rather than enjoying what we had and finding happiness in our success, we immediately started looking to improve our social status. We bought a boat, a new truck and then started looking for a new home. We eventually settled on a custom-built home in an exclusive neighborhood with a high price tag and high taxes to match. That’s when the problems started. You see I had followed my parent’s formula for success and happiness, but I felt anything but successful or happy. My father had just been diagnosed with early onset Dementia and I had just suffered a heart scare of my own due to the stress of 80-hour work weeks and living a life no better or worse than anyone else. My health, happiness and life felt like it was spiraling out of control.
I had been joking with my wife that I was displaying all of the symptoms of a heart attack but because we were both young and didn’t consider ourselves to be obese, the thought of a heart attack was not even on our radar. I’m not sure when the seeds of doubt started to invade my everyday thoughts, but I just knew something was wrong. So, after driving my son home from his hockey game one night, I told my wife I was going to drive myself to the hospital because the pain in my chest and left arm were all I could think about. I was admitted into the cardiac ward where I was put through a barrage of tests. When the ER Doctor emerged with my results, he told me that I had two choices, that I could lose some weight and get in shape or go on heart and cholesterol medication for the rest of my life. So, like most men, I chose only to hear what I wanted to. I didn’t listen to the doctor’s advice, I only heard that I didn’t have a heart attack and therefore chose to ignore everything until one fateful day a few months later when the symptoms returned.
I wasn’t very keen on exercising at the ripe old age of 40 and I hated the idea of dieting but what I hated, even more, was the thought of taking pills for the rest of my life. Because I was only experiencing symptoms, I perceived that I still had a choice. I decided that I was going to throw away the scale that had controlled me in the past and invest in what I instinctively knew was the right thing to do which was to invest in my heart health every day with daily exercise and cutting out processed foods. I changed my perspective from trying to lose weight and chasing pounds to investing in my heart health and that’s when everything changed. Over time, a 5k walk turned into a 5k run that turned into 10lbs of fat loss each year. I had become Forest Gump running every single day for 3 years until one day I literally ran into an Ironman triathlete who changed my life. He told me that if all I ever did was run, it wasn’t a matter of if but when I would get hurt and so triathlon might be the perfect sport because if I did get injured running, I would have 2 non-impact sports to fall back on and continue my investment of heart-healthy living every day.
Because of that chance encounter, I went on a journey to become an Ironman triathlete, something I could never have imagined just 3 years earlier, but I still had my old recipe for health and happiness fully ingrained in my head. After enduring hundreds of hours of training and crossing the Ironman finish line in 2011, I didn’t find the happiness that I thought this monumental achievement would bring. Instead, I immediately looked at my time and asked myself how I could be better? We tend to mistake success for happiness. What we are really experiencing is momentary pleasure and as soon as we experience success, our brain immediately changes the goalposts for what success looks like. In this case, I allowed myself to be happy for about 10 seconds before I immediately set out to do better. It was the same emotions I felt just after paying off my first mortgage. I changed the goalposts and bought a bigger home.
It would take 2 more Ironman finish lines, 2013 and 2017 before I would truly understand and redefine my definition for happiness. You see, my first Ironman taught me that anything was possible if I put my mind to it. My second Ironman taught me to become a lifelong learner, to pay attention to the details and to be prepared. My third Ironman taught me to manage my expectations in life because life is messy and is rarely ever perfect. It was during this third block of training that I randomly watched an interview online with happiness researcher Shawn Achor who redefined happiness for me. He challenged me to think of happiness not as success but as the JOY you feel while striving for your full potential every day. That was powerful!
I chose to celebrate my 50th birthday by doing my 3rd Ironman and in that process, I was mentally and physically trying to remove myself as far as humanly possible from suffering the same fate as my father who was just about to succumb from his disease in a nursing home. What I found was that living a life no better or worse than anyone else is a recipe for disaster. Living a life defining happiness as success, being blissfully unaware of your environment and feeling no control over your circumstances is also a recipe for disaster. Health and happiness are not mutually exclusive, and they are not controlled by age. Health and happiness are moments in time that work together as an investment in your future and they are right in front of you every day. Make no mistake, happiness is a feeling that you can control. You can choose to rise above your current circumstances and you can choose to take the high road, that’s what happy people do when no one else is watching.
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