There is one question in life that has puzzled and perplexed everyone from the brightest academics to the deepest thinking philosophers. Even the 4am crew winding down from a night out, which they may never remember, will have had more than one stab at putting forth an answer.
For me, I found my answer to this question in faith, but whoever you are and whatever you believe, I think if we reduce all of our lives down to the composite parts, one thing is consistent:
Think about it, every decision you make comes down to your desire to be happy. Mix it any way you want and I’m confident you’ll come back to the same place. The job you apply for, the person you share your life with, what you do in your spare time and the things you buy.
Even when life gets hard, we’re driven on by a hope that one day we’ll feel the happiness we crave. Sometimes when facing a difficult decision the advice is; ‘do what makes you happy’. People can also intentionally choose hardship or difficulty, but the end game is still happiness for themselves or someone else, however that comes about.
With this in mind, it’s fair to say that happiness is part of who we are as humans. It’s in our DNA, literally. A 2016 study of nearly 300,000 people from 17 countries was published in Nature Genetics and showed the FAAH gene makes a protein that effects feelings of pleasure and pain.
But let’s be careful not to confuse pleasure and happiness. Inheriting a fortune and increasing your material possessions might bring you short-term pleasure. But there are enough very wealthy people who have testified that money doesn’t make you happy. Jim Carey was quoted as saying:
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer
We can probably all attest that happiness can be a slippery emotion, sometimes sliding away slowly almost unnoticed or jumping right out of our hands and in a split second, it’s gone. So how can we create a pincher like grip on our own happiness? It turns out that it’s much easier than you might have thought, and most importantly, it’s available to all of us.
The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England organisation have endorsed Action for Happiness, which is a movement for social change. Based on research they have shared ten common things that are consistently shown to make people happier and more fulfilled. They spell GREAT DREAM
Since starting calisthenics, I’ve known it’s about more than just a physical form of exercise, but when I first saw this I was blown away. The potential for calisthenics to bring happiness and improve your life is real. Let me explain:
Calisthenics is packed with opportunities to give. Often we instinctively think this means financially but it needn’t be. As you learn and progress your skills, you’ll become a magnet to others who want to do the same. This allows you to give your time, your knowledge and share what you’ve learnt.
Because of the pressures we face daily, time might be our most valuable asset. Giving it away to others and helping them to learn to move in new ways will bring inextricable happiness to them and in the process, we feel that too. Anne Frank once said, ‘No one has ever become poor by giving’.
Community is a central part of calisthenics and is just one of the ways in which it differs from other health and fitness options. The culture is largely non-competitive, it creates conversation and people are generally open and keen to connect with others who share their passion. Let’s be honest, calisthenics can be hard and sometimes you need all the help you can get. This can often be found through building relationships with other people.
Happiness is knitted into the very fabric of who you are. Your body is designed to move and it loves it! We know this because exercise causes the release of happiness in the form of endorphins. A natural chemical with a similar effect to morphine but this happy drug is healthy and available to you any time you want. The price? You just have to move.
When you combine the powerful effects of movement and the rush you get when you do something for the first time, you might find calisthenics can become addictive (in a good way!).
Calisthenics offers this in two forms. The first is about mindfulness, getting inside your own head and focusing on you. There is no other choice when you’re learning to move in a new way because you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, thus leaving little brain space for the worries and stresses of your life.
Get upside down in a handstand and you’ll see what I mean. Your brain and body are far to occupied having fun to worry about the other stuff you have going on.
The second level of appreciation comes from spending time in the world around you. Understanding how to use your own bodyweight means you can train anywhere, any time. Get all the benefits of exercise whilst looking at the mountains, or the sea, or by a lake or even your own backyard. The world is right there for you to enjoy and it certainly beats the four walls of a gym. Get outside and breathe!
One of the most exciting things about calisthenics is the opportunity to explore your physical potential and there is always something exciting to learn. Calisthenics presents endless opportunities to try new movements and once you have mastered one, there’s a more advanced progression waiting for you.
This is not only beneficial from the physical perspective but also mental. The brain is a muscle that needs flexing too and calisthenics allows us to stimulate neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s ability to change physically and functionally and occurs via challenge. Constantly learning new movement skills is a great way to enhance brain function. This is something we should all be thinking about for our lives now and as we age.
There are many goals in calisthenics that are laid out in front of you, all you have to do is pick one. Your first handstand, pull up or muscle up. Mastering your bodyweight is guided and shaped by having direction and achieving goals. And the great thing is, these goals are tangible. When you can do a human flag, you can do a human flag! So tick it off and move on to the next. This is a far more rewarding and healthy approach to your physical and mental health (see Acceptance below).
The road to achieving your goals in calisthenics will involve failure, that I can promise you, and we personally continue to experience it on a weekly basis. But these small, inconsequential incidences should never derail you entirely, they are simply opportunities to learn. In fact, it’s these difficulties that add the most amount of value to the journey. The hardship we experience shapes us and makes us better.
Calisthenics is a fun form of training that might even have positive effects on the rest of your life. Experiencing setbacks and developing resilience to keep trying will eventually lead to you redefining your impossible with your first handstand or muscle up. But what you learn about yourself and your ability to overcome obstacles might impact your work, family and relationships as well.
To find happiness in our lives we need to discover ways to experience joy, amusement, interest, awe, inspiration, satisfaction, confidence, contentment and euphoria. All of these emotions can be found in play. Play at it’s very basic level is about fun and fun is about being happy. Often as we grow old we forget about how much happiness play used to bring us as children. It was all we wanted to do. But life got serious and we stopped giving ourselves permission to do the thing that has no other purpose than to make us happy.
As much as calisthenics is about strength and fitness, in equal measure it is about play and having fun with your training. To find out more about this read our blog explaining why play is the highest form of research.
Body dysmorphia and negative feelings of self-image have become a pandemic in the health and fitness space. Fuelled by a desire to look a certain way men and women are going to great lengths to achieve an aesthetic look that they hope will make them happy. But what does ‘big’ or ‘skinny’ even look like? It’s a mirage and pursueing it is futile. It’s like trying to find the bottom of a rainbow, it just keeps moving.
In calisthenics there is a different outcome. We’re focused on what your body can do rather than what it looks like. Training hard to achieve a new movement or skill, we believe, is of far more value and is undoubtedly more benefical for your mental health. The irony is that along the way you’ll develop a great physique purely through using one of the most natural and complete forms of training available.
The School of Calisthenics was built to create community. We wanted to build something that people could feel part of, where we could share our knowledge and support you to redefine your impossible. We feel thoroughly blessed and privileged to have so many people join us on that journey and we would love you to be part of it too.
It’s clear that happiness is not expensive in monetary terms. Living a happier life is about finding ways to do more of the ten things that make up the GREAT DREAM. As a final thought, let’s reflect on what Socrates had to say on this subject. He believed that only those with self-knowledge could find true and lasting happiness as they develop a deep understanding of what is good for their soul. I’m confident that if you practically explore each component of the GREAT DREAM, whether through bodyweight training or something else, you too will develop a deeper knowledge of who you are and what it is that actually makes you happy.
Personally we have found all these things in calisthenics. Without knowing it at the time, it was a big reason as to why we changed our training practices entirely and built the School of Calisthenics. We wanted to be able to share the happiness we had discovered with others.
It’s mental health awareness week as I write this but mental health is something we all deal with, all year round. If you have enjoyed this blog and have found it valuable, please share it with others.