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Still Running, However We Feel About the Present or Future

We can’t trust our emotions so we should stick with what we know works in times of uncertainty.

Last week I received two proposals for an article on how the experience of being injured can help runners cope with the experience of living through a global pandemic. We published one of them by elite marathoner Becky Wade, an article which focused, of course—because we’re not all physically injured—on emotional strategies for maintaining motivation and equilibrium in precarious times.

Smack in the middle of Wade’s article is the advice to “Relinquish Control.” Lack of control seems to me to be the key similarity between being injured and waiting out social distancing. And, while relinquishing control is no doubt wise and necessary, it is far easier said than done. The ability to control our lives is critical to our happiness, indeed, a part of being human.

“The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way,” psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness. “And research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed.”

That pretty well sums it up for me.

Gilbert’s book, however, does more than explain these emotions. It explores how we, as humans, try to know the future so that we may exert control in order to avoid dangers and to try to steer our lives toward a desired future. While avoiding pitfalls is a fairly straightforward function, Gilbert reveals that, despite our efforts, we all have difficulty imagining the future and even more trouble imagining how we’ll feel when we get there. And this creates problems.

Among the many reasons for these difficulties in perception, one that seems to shed light on how we feel at this point in time is “Presentism: the tendency for current experience to influence one’s views of the past and the future.”

Gilbert writes, “Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.”

We adapt remarkably quickly. A few weeks ago we couldn’t imagine the Boston Marathon being canceled. Now, we have trouble imagining it happening, even in September. So it feels much like it does when we’re injured: as if the runner we were and the world he or she lived in is gone, and this new reality will last forever.

Even when we cognitively know that the world will change, our emotions often stay glued to our present situation. “We find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now,” Gilbert writes.

This isn’t just a lack of imagination. Our minds can create emotions based on either the reality of the current situation or from extrapolating our memory into the future, but reality always predominates so that current feelings color our projection of future ones, even without us knowing it.

Gilbert cites one study where researchers telephoned people in different parts of the country and asked them how satisfied they were with their lives. In cities that happened to be having nice weather that day, people reported that their lives were relatively happy; but in cities with bad weather that day, they reported that their lives were relatively unhappy. “These people tried to answer the researcher’s question by imagining their lives and then asking themselves how they felt when they did so. Their brains enforced the Reality First policy and insisted on reacting to real weather instead of imaginary lives,” Gilbert writes.

“We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present,” Gilbert sums up. “When we try to overlook, ignore, or set aside our current gloomy state and make a forecast about how we will feel tomorrow, we find that it’s a lot like trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver.”

This emotional manipulation affects me as a runner by removing many of my motivators. I love each daily run, but I still often need a push to get out the door. When I woke up on a Sunday morning to sub-freezing temps and snow on the ground—in April—I needed a future race on my calendar to provide the extra push to eschew the comfort of my covers, put on winter clothes again and get out for a long run. Yet there is no future race, and I find it hard to ignore my current ennui to muster the emotion of caring for an event that may someday come to pass.

winter run
photo: TLB

Our current reality also tells us to be moderate, not overdo anything, not push the boundaries—anywhere. Yet pushing the boundaries is what we as runners do. We relish testing limits and blowing past them. We like going farther than people think is necessary or reasonable. We enjoy the soreness and exhaustion following a particularly long or hard workout. We take pride in puking as we cross a finish line. I miss puking, or at least the possibility of pushing hard enough to threaten it without feeling guilty about reducing my immunity or endangering others.

Gilbert doesn’t offer much hope in overcoming our inability to accurately imagine emotions about the future. What he advises instead is steering ourselves toward things that are proven to make us feel better, even if we can’t imagine those feelings at the present.

This strategy works for running. Even if I don’t feel the urgency of getting fitter for a race or anticipate the promise of being able to push the boundaries, even if I can’t meet a training partner or yet foresee when I might be able to, I know that running will improve my mood.

And so I get out, I follow the routine and I trust the process—all those clichés—and it works, and I feel better. And as those feelings color my imagination of the future, I believe again that we’ll get through this and the dawn will rise on a bright new day. When that day comes, I’ll be ready to once again to lay it down, and I’ll be happy that I didn’t obey the brooding emotions that said it didn’t matter any more.