Running in circles really does have a higher purpose

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

When I go out for runs, I always track my distance with a GPS watch that downloads my miles to a software app on my phone.  Recently, the app put together my year’s worth of runs and gave me the option to publicly post my mileage tally for the entire year, so I decided to do that with the personal notation, “productive year.”

A friend came back with, “Productive? Didn’t you almost always end up right back where you started?” In other words, he was implying I spent 2018 running in circles.

I knew the friend was being humorous as he is somewhat of a contrarian. When we were younger, during the occasional times a group of us got together after participating in athletic contests, the two of us would sometimes debate politics while others were socializing. That was a time when you could argue issues instead of resorting to name-calling or personal attacks without someone questioning your character, patriotism or intelligence if you held an opposing position.

Although he was poking fun at me, not trying to start a new debate, I still feel the need to respond to the accusation that I spent most of my time last year running in circles.

First, though, I’m going to admit that, in hindsight, my running experience in 2018 could be summed up as mostly running in circles.

I could go with the defense “life is a journey, not a destination,” often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist who was part of the transcendentalist philosophical movement in 19th century America. It has a nice ring to it and could be used to justify a lot of things we do in life.

However, running — and life in general — has taken me to some great destinations that I much prefer to the journey I took to get to them. I wouldn’t be content to spend my entire life on an endless journey running around in the same circles year after year without exploring new destinations.

Still, I realize that much of my life really is running around in circles day after day, whether by choice or because of circumstances. There may be some great moments each year, but the majority of my time is spent on repetitive tasks that are often forgettable.

I also realize that most people think running is one of the most boring things to do in life so they wonder why I would add to the everyday routine by creating another repetitive task to my schedule.

Running is more than exercise to me, though. It’s a stress reliever as I can get away from electronics, responsibilities, noise and everyday chaos to let my mind wander. Sometimes I have a hard time starting, but I usually end up glad I did, even if it is a route I’ve taken hundreds of times.

The one benefit I never thought about before, though, is that these repetitive tasks, whether by choice or by necessity, provide meaning to our lives. At least that is the conclusion of a study reported in Scientific American a few years ago.

It’s a given that most people would say things such as their wedding, a trip to the Grand Canyon or the thrill of skydiving would be their most meaningful experiences in life. Yet the study showed that the mundane regularities of life also contribute to an overall sense of meaning, which is important to our well-being, including good mental health, success at work and longevity. 

Psychologists have proposed three components of meaning in life: significance, purpose and coherence. In other words, the Scientific American article notes, life is meaningful when it feels important, when it seems to have a point and when it makes sense.

The first two aspects have been widely studied, but coherence in life was not directly tested until 2013 when University of Missouri psychologists showed that even a simple, orderly visual pattern can engender larger meaning. A later study showed that people going through various mazes with similar solutions reported greater meaning in life compared to the people who went through mazes with random solutions.

Those scientists also reported they found that people who said they do “pretty much the same things every day,” according to a survey of daily routines, found life more meaningful, even after the researchers controlled for mindfulness, positivity and religiousness, the Scientific American article noted.

The scientists were surprised that meaning can be found in mundane habits and practices. The article concludes that the “coherence of an ordered life also lays the groundwork for pursuit of larger goals — and thus the equally important aspects of purpose and significance.”

So it appears my friend and I can have it both ways. I had a productive, perhaps even purposeful, year spent running in circles. He may not buy my defense, but I accomplished another repetitive task in life — writing a column — that perhaps is providing even more meaning to my life.

Then again, he might say I am merely writing in circles.