As I write this, I am overcome by euphoria.
Dazed with joy, I can’t do much else besides focus on this experience. This isn’t my first time with this feeling, though, despite my fixation. Its warm, enveloping bliss isn’t the result of any readily available drug, though the effect is much the same. It comes to me only after a long run, the painless opposite of the hours of prior perseverance.
My sport, distance running, takes the so-called “runner’s high” to its logical conclusion. There, the runner is deprived of reason, but an overflow of emotions fills the empty space and glows with arduous heat. Any semblance of anxiety disperses like ash above the sensory fire. Consequently, I become a different person, not at all like the quiet, reclusive soul that represents me in public. Even those closest to me could never imagine me so relaxed, wholly separated from my rigid, intrinsic focus.
Now, however, my image causes me no concern. Instead, I feel what it’s like to have no apprehension at all. I’m moved to tears of joy by any pleasantry, my eyes welling again and again. My pulse circulates an indescribable goodness with every beat, each breath amplifying the sensation. I love this feeling, and I love its past presence. Each resurgence creates a sense of homecoming, a fulfilment of nostalgia for the highest happiness I’ve ever known.
I know, however, that it won’t last.
This sweltering, intoxicating haze will soon give way to the miasma of sleep, and when I wake up, the precious feeling will be gone. By comparison, whatever awaits me in the morning will be much worse. I’ll be content for a while, merely grateful that I was able to experience that euphoria. After a few days, however, no pleasure will be the same. More than likely, it’ll be this way for a long time.
Now, in fact, surprise is foremost among my whirling sentiments because this beloved runner’s high had previously vanished for months. The search for it overcame me during this period. There were days when all I cared to focus on was reaching its rapture. Freedom from social responsibility meant only that I was slave to this quest. Its demands became progressively worse, leading to many pointless efforts and ridiculous practices I believed would herald the feeling’s return.
Superstition is nonsense until it becomes useful for your own pursuit. Then, you see the world anew, a vast landscape of correlations I was ready to chase to the ends of the earth. Getting the feeling back became an obsession, or perhaps more aptly, an addiction.
Surely, this can’t be a good way to live. What’s a life made of disparate, paradisiacal islands amidst drab normalcy? All my social leaders and good-natured role models disparage this myopic existence. My philosophy class tells me that great lust leads to parallel suffering. Francesca, in Dante’s “Inferno,” makes this painfully clear: “There is no greater pain to remember the happy time in wretchedness.”
And yet, I now find myself entranced in a brief happy time as an unintended result of my sport. Its return caught me off guard; my past pursuit had proved pointless. Perhaps I was just unlucky, but still, the feeling naturally finds me time and again, as I’m sure if often does others in their own way. How, then, am I supposed to escape its enticing, ever-demanding hold?
Certainly, I can’t renounce it. If it’s just going to happen, and I’ve got to let it pass, so be it. I’ve surely no objection.
The next, more difficult question: How do I prevent myself from chasing this feeling at all? In the past, I couldn’t, and that was fine. Now, however, the stakes are much higher. I know from my most miserable days, but a specter at present, that lasting happiness is crucial for my success in this stressful academic environment. The temporary satisfaction of euphoria could never yield such enduring contentment. Instead, it just increases the speed of the hedonic treadmill.
Escaping its allure demands a lifestyle that seems dry. To be sure, it’s one of genericity; it requires sustained, unchanging investment into one’s goals. But that’s exactly why it works. The further this current state is from that one, the harder it seems to reach.
Still, there’s something different about this dichotomy that renders the guidance of conventional wisdom useless. We can generally ward off daily, recurrent gluttony. Our struggle against it is timeless and often disappointing, but rarely does it lead to ruin. The passion for euphoria, however, awakens a demon as otherworldly as the very feeling. It possesses in a heartbeat, and then you must fight to exorcise it before it brings you into a high-chasing cycle.
Unfortunately, the discipline required for running isn’t enough here. My other facets of will have certainly improved since my last encounter, but is it enough to resist? I question whether or not this academic life and its intellectual transformation can help me triumph over such primitive passion. If not, I’m not sure if anything can.
There’s also the temptation of escapism. Preoccupation with your personal paradise drowns out adversity. You begin to care so little about what others think of your behavior that you can shrug off what would’ve otherwise been a grievous insult. Succumbing to the cycle releases you from another one of negativity and criticism. You have simply too little focus left to give it attention. However, it also means you’ve no more for what would otherwise be worthwhile.
There’s great danger in boundless happiness. We’re created, by Genesis or otherwise, with an inherent component of suffering. The curse of strife is the steep price for life, but unlike vitality, it is inexorable. What makes a high so divine is its ability to, for a short duration, cause complete dissociation from our inescapable human struggle.
Still the debt of creation remains, and its collection is inevitable. To try to cast off its burden is to relinquish an element of humanity. Spending all of your time high creates distance between the natural self. A dedication to it erases your social presence and, eventually, your genuine identity. Constant sacrifice is required to ensure regular encounter with the other side — and for what? The mortally grounded soul is merely toying with ideals beyond its capacity to ever truly reach. High-chasing can bring you briefly into heaven, but we’re bound to this world. Gravity will throw you back down to where you belong, every time. Is this crude version of divinity worth our humanity?
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.