September 1, 2016
I confess, I’m not interested in gear. When asked about what kind of bike I ride I reply “a two-wheeler.”
I’m also not that interested in monitoring peak performance. How fast do I ride or climb? Fast enough, I hope! My interest is elsewhere. My interest is what can be called “peak enjoyment.”
Looking for ways to enhance the experience is where my curiosity goes. Maybe that’s not so surprising once you know I’m a psychologist. And strange things do happen when a psychologist hops on a bike for Cycle Adirondacks, a week’s ride through Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. That ride led me to several mindset tweaks for how to get the most from a week on the saddle.
Who knows? Sharing these mindset tweaks might prove useful for other newcomers, and maybe even for some more experienced adventure cyclists.
Look for ways to feel good.
Positive feelings are one of the key components of well being. Having fun and enjoying oneself, in addition to feeling good, has also been associated with improved health, personal efficiency, and productivity, and a bunch of other good things like hopefulness and creativity. Plus, when you’re happily enjoying yourself, it makes it easier for other people to feel good.
But positive feelings don’t just magically happen. They come from deciding to do things that feel good and then mindfully savoring and cherishing all the dimensions of pleasure present. Lots of happiness is lost by simply not looking for it. And, well, don’t do that. Look for good feelings.
I have a great example of not doing that. After the first day of riding at last year’s Cycle Adirondacks, we pulled into Star Lake. Like all the towns we visited, they rolled out the red carpet for us. The people at Star Lake have this thing they do of cruising flat-bottomed boats and rafts out to a large sand bar where everyone frolics, drinks, and snacks in the shin deep water. The organizers were emphatic, “Don’t miss this. It’s going to be big fun.” And all the riders who went came back bubbling with good feelings.
But I missed it. I stayed back in camp to foam-roll and stretch to keep the machine (me!) in top working order: no time for fun, must prepare for next ride! Big mistake. I was simply not as mindful of having fun as I wished I had been. There would have been ample time to rest and recover after having had some fun in Star Lake.
This year I’m not going to miss out, at least not as much. Being mindful of opportunities to have fun and then mindfully enjoying oneself can only improve already terrific adventures.
Challenge yourself, but not too much.
People who bike know a truth it took psychologists a while to demonstrate: we’re happiest when we’re doing things. Doing nothing is not leisure; it’s boring.
But there are two sides to this: too much and not enough. The goal is to find that sweet spot right in between. And everyone will be different in where and how they find that sweet spot. One side is boring, dull, and monotonous. These routines require energy, but leave untouched imagination and attention. We all have those tasks, things we do because we have to. Biking should not be that.
On the other side are anxious-making challenges, novel experiences so far out of one’s comfort zone as to be too scary. Of course, pushing limits is great. It’s how we improve. But going too far into the red zone can turn chances for focused attention and flow into moments of naked terror — also not a good thing.
When I see my riding partner take off up the steep because, well, it’s just what he does, I no longer feel compelled to follow. I know I’ll catch him on the flats and gentle rollers. And if not, well, so be it. He’ll wait. In the Adirondacks last year, I fell in with a couple of guys who were slightly stronger riders than I was. Being relatively new to pace lines, I had to learn it was OK to take shorter turns as leader so I could flow in my sweet spot.
Good things happen on the bike by paying mindful attention to the sweet spot between not enough and too much (which is also good advice for the post-ride beer tent).
Celebrate your style of being social.
We are social creatures, even on bikes. Psychologists have been learning that social networks, inclusive of intimates and families all the way to accidental contact with strangers, can transmit feelings and behaviors. Our social connections can spread happiness and good cheer as well as motivation, and even healthy/unhealthy behaviors. It’s not unlike how WiFi networks transmit information.
Although I knew this in the abstract and from day-long club rides, I was unprepared for how influential the other riders were going to be on my overall experience. I really had no idea Cycle Adirondacks would turn out to be so enjoyably social. For last year’s ride, I made a point of packing some books and an iPhone full of podcasts, arming myself with all the entertainment I thought I might need. I figured I would ride, eat, read, rest, repeat. But I got that wrong. It turned out to be ride, eat, relate, rest, repeat.
Some people rode with groups of friends. There were some couples and families. Others, like me, rode solo. And everybody had their own personal take on how introverted or extroverted they were. But we really were all in it together in an infectiously enjoyable way. There was this one guy (hi Dan!) who kind of became the mayor of the beer tent: always a kind word; always a smile; and sometimes, but only sometimes, an interesting story or funny comment.
Set frequent reasonable goals and then relish their achievement.
No one likes a braggart. Some may vote for one, but no one really likes someone always trumpeting how wonderful they are. But that should not be confused with the deep satisfactions achievement brings. In fact, psychologists have amply documented the old saying: if you want to feel good about yourself, you have to do things you feel good feel about.
We know meeting goals can significantly improve happiness and well being. But that requires setting goals, and the more the better. Sure, logging 450 miles over seven days was a global goal worth setting, one whose achievement really did (and does) feel good. But don’t leave it there. There’s more enjoyment to be had by mindfully setting multiple goals throughout the day. One can set achievable goals like spinning up that hill or riding strong to the next rest stop. But goals do not have to be performance based. They can be experience based as well, like leaving time to stop at Donnelly’s Ice Cream on the way to Saranac Lake.
Get out of your own head to see the bigger picture.
It’s not just about you. Well-being — the genuine happiness whose pursuit is enshrined at the start of the Declaration of Independence — involves attention to causes and contexts larger than one’s self. A good life is more than just a lot of positive feelings, engaging activities, relationships, and achievement. A good life is also a meaningful life.
The same can be said for a good ride; a good ride is also a meaningful ride. Feeling part of something bigger makes for a more meaningful, richer experience.
Cycle Adirondacks was hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society. They programmed the ride so we could feel connected both to the communities we passed through and to the environment. These opportunities for meaningful connections to where we were meant that my week became more than merely a wonderful ride through the Adirondacks. It was a wonderful ride into the Adirondacks.
For example, every evening included local music, but what made the experience especially meaningful, at least for this rider, was the availability of WCS scientists and naturalists. Not only were they present in camp, they were also at rest stops during the ride, staffing displays rich with local information. One even went along on an occasional ride. Especially enriching were the evening Q&A sessions before the music started.
During one memorably evening, Jerry Jenkins, a WCS ecologist and author of Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability gave an inspiring talk. Combining data-rich yet accessible science with an enviable love of place, he shared a realistic vision of what can and cannot be done to save the wonders through which we rode from the devastating impacts of global climate change. He made the global meaningfully local by illustrating how sustainability needs people who can access both data and love of place.
The next day’s ride had a fullness of feeling felt by many. Meaning really does matter.
So, there we are. Five mindset tweaks that just may make it easier to seek out “peak enjoyment” from your next cycling adventure: look for ways to feel good; challenge yourself, but not too much; set frequent reasonable goals and then relish their achievement; celebrate your style of being social; and get out of your own head to see the bigger picture.
Now lets hit the road and have some fun.
Todd Essig, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City who also writes “Managing Mental Wealth” for Forbes. When he’s not in his office or at the keyboard he spends as much time as possible on a bike in his beloved Hudson Valley. Recently, as an enthusiastic participant in the Cycle Adirondacks bike tour, he’s started to explore the northern reaches of NY State.
Photos by the Wildlife Conversation Society and L.E. Baskow, used with permission.
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