Here's Why Running Makes Me Happy - A Data-Driven Essay
Updated 14 August 2019
by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.
Ever since I started running as a hobby, I've noticed how much it influenced my happiness. Busy day at work? Go for a run. Feeling bored? Go for a run! Simply put, running has an amazing influence on my happiness.
But how much does running influence happiness? After analyzing 562 days of running spread out over a period of >5 years, I can say that running increases my happiness with 0.2 points. This is measured on my happiness scale from 1 to 10. Those 562 days of running contain 4.802 kilometers, 5 marathons and countless afternoon running logs. This is the data analysis that I've been really looking forward to.
This may sound extremely abstract, but all will be explained in this data-driven essay. I will show you step-by-step how I analyzed my running data in order to come to this conclusion.
- How much does running increase my happiness?
- My love for running
- Combining running data with my happiness data
- Data results
- Specific examples of when running made me happier
- More proof that running makes me happy
- Closing words
How much does running increase my happiness?
For those of you who are only interested in the results of this study, here is how much running has increased my happiness over the last >5 years:
Let me explain what this column chart is presenting:
- There were 1.409 days in which I didn't log a run. My average happiness rating on these days was 7,74.
- There were 101 days in which I ran a very short distance of less than 5K. My average happiness rating on these days was 7,83 (+0,09).
- There were 315 days in which I ran between 5K and 10K. My average happiness rating on these days was 7,94 (+0,20).
- There were 128 days in which I ran more than 10K. My average happiness rating on these days was 7,93 (+0,19).
In total, I ran on 562 of the 1971 days that are in this analysis. During these running days, my happiness rating was 7,93 on average, which is 0,19 higher than the days in which I didn't run.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg! I want to show you which data I've used to come to these conclusions. In this data-driven happiness essay, I'm going to dive right into the things that make me happy while running. How do these 562 days of running translate to this weird conclusion that running makes me 0,19 happier?
Let's find out.
My love for running
Back when I was 16 years old (that's 10 years ago) I found myself quite bored one evening. I didn't have soccer practice, and the internet was probably out, so I somehow decided to go for a run.
I wouldn't call it love at first sight, but there was something I really liked about running. Here's a short version of what happened in the last 10 years.
- I somehow made a small habit out of running, by going maybe once a week
- I didn't have a watch or smartphone at the time, so I kept track of my time by counting the number of songs that would play on my MP3 player. Yes, that's how I tried to track if I was improving. I literally pressed play on Radiohead's "OK Computer" and would go running. After my run, I wrote down how many minutes into which song I finished, and that's how I knew if I was getting faster.
- My love for soccer slowly started to fade, mostly due to injuries and because all my friends stopped one by one.
- My love for running increased steadily
- After a year (age 17 or something), my sister showed me an app on her smartphone that could track your speed. Mind=blown. I was instantly hooked on the data collection, which added another dimension to my already new favorite hobby. Unfortunately, these tracks were not yet saved on the cloud so are gone forever. 🙁
- At the age of 20, I ran my first real race. A 10-mile race in which I made the classic noobie mistake: I started WAY too fast. You can see that I started with a pace of ~4:20/km and finished with ~6:00/km. Ouch!
- I still really liked running and continued nonetheless. Approximately at this time, I started to track my happiness.
- When my girlfriend and I were in a terrible long-distance relationship, I discovered how relaxing long-distance running is. This was love at first sight.
- Shortly after, I signed up for my first marathon ever. Even though I was severely underprepared, I still absolutely loved it. I finished my first marathon on the 11th of October 2015.
- Even though my relationship survived this long-distance period, I still continued to run longer distances.
- 3 weeks ago, on the 7th of April 2019, I finished my 5th marathon.
- At the time of writing, I have now logged a total of 4,802 kilometers. I consider running to be my biggest passion.
That's quite a lot for a "short version". Here's a chart showing a visualization of my love for running:
This chart only shows my running data from the 1st of December 2013, which is the date on which I started to track my happiness. This happiness essay is about running and happiness, so I am only looking at running data that can be correlated to my happiness journal!
Here is a column chart showing my monthly running distances. There are unfortunately still some running logs that I managed to lose. I would pay serious money to get those logs back, but I've given up by now. 🙁
What kind of runner am I?
I'd call myself a passionate hobbyist. I don't really care about racing and being the fastest, because I'm obviously not able to compete on that level. I mean, I have a friend who runs 15K in under an hour and I still find it hard to believe that such speeds are possible. I run purely because it allows me to do one of the following:
- Feel good about myself
- Challenge my body
- To blow off steam when stressed
- To burn calories (I would probably be obese if I didn't run, considering the amount of food I consume)
I think that covers the topic of why I even run.
Oh, wait! I forgot the biggest reason:
- Because I am a data nerd and like to correlate running to all kinds of silly variables in scatter plots.
Now, if you're a competitive runner and wondering how
fast slow I really am, then here are my humble records for you to compare.
My humble personal records and achievements
Here are the things I'm most proud of:
- Ran 5 marathons (as of 7 April 2019)
- 5K in 19:54 (as of 20 May 2017)
- 10K in 42:42 (as of 28 January 2017)
- Half Marathon in 1:39:37 (as of 25 July 2016)
- Full marathon in 3:59:58 (as of 25 September 2016)
Yes, I finished a marathon in 4 hours with 2 seconds left on the clock (more on that later).
I've not been able to improve any of my records. That's because late 2016 and early 2017 were my fittest months. At the moment, I dropped quite a bit of stamina and overall fitness since these days.
Hell, I went for a 5K run yesterday and had trouble staying under 25 minutes. And now my feet are sore.
Yup, I'm not as fit as I used to be. Am I growing old? I won't answer that question in this post. Let's not turn this into a personal running diary filled with boring anecdotes. Let's get back to the data instead!
Animating my runs in a map of my hometown
At the start of 2018, I moved into a new city. This marked a new chapter for my running career since I now had an entire city to explore.
With the use of RunParticles, I managed to create an animation that shows how I explored my new city during every single run there. I like seeing how I slowly found routes that I liked.
I really like a couple of things here:
- You can easily distinguish where I live. The first one to guess my address wins a prize!
- There's one run which was only 300m long or something, and you can see the animated track go like: "Yes, let's do this thi... NOPE, heading back now....." (my stomach was very upset suddenly, I still remember that one).
- I've found a very nice and short 5,5K route that I stick to at least once a week by the looks of it.
- I really like running through the "Mastbos", a beautiful forest that's located to the south of where I live.
Enough goofing around! Let's get down to the real subject of this post now, which is happiness vs. running data.
Combining running data with my happiness data
So I know exactly how much I ran on which day. How the hell am I able to define how much happier this amount of running made me?
To answer this question, I need to explain a little about my happiness tracking journal. I've been tracking my happiness for over 5 years now. What does this mean? It means I spend 2 minutes every day to reflect on my day:
- How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
- What factors had a significant effect on my rating?
- I clear my head by jotting down all my thoughts in my happiness journal.
This allows me to constantly learn from my evolving life. It's how I purposefully steer my life in the best direction possible.
In this case, it allows me to correlate my passion for running to my happiness.
Here's the scatter chart that I've wanted to create as soon as I started tracking my happiness.
This shows the 562 days of running. The X-axis shows the total amount of kilometers I ran that day, while the Y-Axis shows my happiness rating for that given day. You can spot the 5 marathons I ran on the far-right there, see?
Can you spot the positive correlation as well? It might be difficult to see, but there's a small positive correlation in this data. What I mean by this, is that my happiness is at least slightly correlated to how much I ran.
I'm less happy when I don't run at all
What this scatter shows me - without a doubt - is that I tend to less happy when I don't run at all. You can see the 1,409 days in which I didn't run on the far left. Since a lot of points (especially the days in which I didn't run) are overlapping, it's hard to see the true magnitude of this conclusion.
This bar chart does a better job of showing this simple observation.
Please note that the Y-Axis is scaled in order to magnify the results! I've done this in order to better present this conclusion. (I'm sorry if this offends you)
Running increases my happiness ratings with 0,19 on average. While that may not sound like a lot, I think this is very big. You see, my happiness ratings are improved by a virtually infinite number of factors. Not only running is correlated to my happiness, but so are:
- My relationship
- My job as an engineer
- My sleeping habits
- Hell, even how I spend my money is correlated to my happiness!
All those factors are distorting the analysis of this happiness essay.
It's amazing to see that running still has a measurable influence on my happiness at the end of the day. 0,19 points might sound small, but knowing that this happiness rating is influenced by so many other factors makes this much more impressive in my opinion.
Am I happier when I run further?
So running makes my day better. We've established that.
The next logical question would be: does running more make me even happier?
According to my data, the answer to this question is: yes, running further does make me even happier, but the effect of the distance wears off after 5K. According to my data, I shouldn't really run any more than 10K, because, at that point, my happiness ratings not really increase relative to other distances.
Now, is that a fair conclusion?
No, because these variables only correlate. That doesn't mean there's actual causation happening here. Maybe I'm only running shorter distances on the days that are less "happy" anyway. Maybe I'm only in the mood to go for longer distances when I'm feeling happy?
Come to think of it, maybe I've got the point of this whole article backward. Maybe I'm only running because I'm in a happy position. Maybe I decide to not go for a run because I feel like shit. I have to be careful with my wording here. Yes, I'm generally happier on days that I go for a run, but that does not necessarily mean that running actually makes me happier. The two variables are only correlated.
With that out of the way, let's continue and find more potential correlations.
Here's how much my speed decreases as I go for longer distances. You can see how much I seem to enjoy running 5,5K and 7K. Those were my usual runs in the places that I've lived in the longest, one of which is clearly visible in the animation that you saw earlier.
Am I happier when I run faster?
Since the distance influences my average speed, I was wondering if my average running speed showed any correlation to my daily happiness ratings. This is the result:
The result? As you can see, the influence on my speed barely correlates with my happiness ratings.
Am I happier when I push it harder (increased heart rate)?
Over the last 5+ years, my fitness has obviously fluctuated. Running 20 kilometers at 11 km/h in 2016 took me much less effort compared to right now. Therefore, I wanted to see how my level of true effort impacted my happiness. This might show a different result, as the speed does not necessarily transfer to my level of effort.
This chart shows my average heart rate per run to the daily happiness rating.
The number of factors that could be distorting this graph is even bigger than the previous graphs since I've noticed sometimes my Garmin heart rate monitor just glitches and shows me numbers that are completely unrealistic. I've done nothing to correct this, as this would be futile anyway. I'm just presenting the data as it is recorded.
This shows me that my level of effort shows no correlation to my happiness ratings.
This observation implies that it doesn't matter if I push myself or just take it easy, it won't affect how much the run will influence my happiness anyway. This would obviously be quite a dumb conclusion as well since everybody knows that pushing yourself towards a goal, pace or finish line can result in a tremendous feeling of excitement and happiness.
I'm not going to use this scatter plot to convince my friends and colleagues that I'm running fast again.
Specific examples of when running made me happier
According to my analysis, running further (>10K) does not make me happier compared to short distances.
So, if I had a robot advisor, it would be calling me a fool because I'd be wasting time running any longer than 10 kilometers.
However, running long distances gives me much more than just short-term happiness. It gives me a bigger sense of accomplishment and prestige. I am extremely proud of finishing 5 marathons, and that feeling cannot directly be traced back to my daily happiness ratings. Its effect is much more subtle and long-lasting.
It contributes to my long-term happiness much more than my short-term happiness. This is something that I've discussed in-depth in my essay about what is happiness precisely?
How running improves my happiness when I feel like shit
On the 21st of September 2015, I was in a long-distance relationship. I had to adjust to a new life, in which my relationship would negatively affect my happiness more often than not. On another boring, dull and stressful day, I decided to go for a long-distance run. This is what I wrote about it in my happiness journal:
I just ran 25K! WTF. It was almost magical. I feel great. I didn't have to stop (which is a miracle by itself) and the last 10K were extremely relaxing. I was experiencing some kind of runner's high. What a feeling! It took me 2:33:00, which I'm happy with considering my recent injuries. It's more about the distance than the pace for me anyway. I gotta take 5 days rest now, or else I will destroy my feet and legs.
What the fuck. What a magical feeling. I felt like I was flying the last 5K. I was actually cheering out loud during these minutes. No one was around to hear me anyway. I LOVE IT. Bring it on, you damn marathon! Here I come.
I wrote this after a day that was pretty shitty up to the moment I went for a long run. This was also during a period where I just signed up for my first full marathon! This run is a great example of how running has a huge influence on my happiness. It made a relatively crappy day so much better.
When running makes an already good day even better
Running also has a tendency to make an already good day much better. Here's another good example of that. I wrote this on the 19th of August 2018:
This was a lovely last day of the weekend. It was exactly what I needed. Did all my daily chores in the morning. Vacuumed the apartment, got all the groceries and worked on my website. I also enjoyed a perfect breakfast with great coffee. I love these Sundays.
Right after my chores, I went for a run. I wanted to run at least 10K but it went fucking great, so I ended up running 16,5K. It was the first time in months that I went for such a long distance again and it felt fantatsic. I ran through the entire forest and it was great.
Another example of how running can improve my day
When digging further through my happiness journal, I stumbled upon this interesting entry. While it's just another ordinary journal entry, it beautifully shows how running has a positive influence on my life. I wrote the following on the 11th of April 2015:
Went for a long run: 11,7K which took me 1:02:00. I'm still in a little discomfort due to my injury, but that's also likely caused by the fact that I'm not used to these distances... Just when I was excited to go for a run, the weather turned to SHIT. It started raining and the wind was constantly slapping me in the face. I thought I was going crazy. At some point, I was screaming and cursing to the shitty weather like a maniac.
But I am still happy that I did it. Even though running sucked, I'm still happier now because I feel like my day has been so much more productive. I hope I can get back to my usual running schedule soon.
More proof that running makes me happy
Are you still skeptical about this entire article? You've made it all the way down here, and these scatter plots have done nothing to convince you that running makes me happier? "Why is this idiot showing me his personal journal?" If these thoughts are still on your mind by now, let me try to convince you once more that running makes me happier.
By showing you pictures of me during races. I've collected pictures of myself while running races (5K's, 10K's and Marathons). I specifically selected pictures that do the best job of translating my happiness. If this doesn't show you how happy I am when running, then I give up.
Pictures of my happy smile when running
Maybe showing pictures of me running a marathon is not the best tactic here. In fact, I'm pretty sure I feel absolutely miserable on all these pictures. I especially like the third picture from left, since this was taken about 100m before the finish line on my 3rd marathon. I desperately wanted to finish under 4 hours and had only seconds left. I pushed it HARD, which you can probably read from my face (it screams terror and panic).
But I still finished in 3:59:58! 🙂
Running has a long-lasting effect on happiness
You know what? Running improves the happiness in my life in ways that I can't even begin to measure. Marathons are a great example of what I'm trying to say here.
I've finished 5 marathons now, and the process of running them has been the same every single time. The last 5-10K's of the race are probably the most miserable moments of my entire life. Yes, it's that bad. Yet, I'm still planning to sign up for my 6th marathon soon.
Another example: I sometimes get caught in terrible weather on my runs, which ruins the entire experience for me. As a result, I start screaming and cursing towards the sky, as if the weather is the sole cause of all my sadness. The truth is, I'm not always looking forward to my runs. In fact, I sometimes really HATE running. I'm sure everybody can relate here.
But the funny thing about running is that it almost never ceases to improve my happiness after having done it.
- Even though the last part of a marathon is fucking terrible, I still experience extreme happiness after having crossed the finish line (this goes for any race).
- Even though I may feel hungover and tired during a small 5K run, I will still feel better afterward.
- Even when the weather is terrible, I'm always happy to have gone out and pushed through another run.
The thing is, running makes me feel awesome. I feel proud to be a runner, and looking at the pictures of my marathons - specifically, the heaps of terror on my facial expression - I can't help but smile. To this day, I am extremely proud of my running achievements, however small or big they might be to you. It's a part of who I am and it's a part of me that I am extremely happy with.
If there's only one takeaway from this happiness essay, I hope it's this: no matter what any data analysis might tell me, running is a part of who I am and what makes me happy. This goes beyond any scatter plot or animation. When I think of running, I think of happiness.
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So there it is. Running makes me 0,2 happier on average. But the amount of influence that running has on my happiness goes far beyond a simple scatter plot. Running is a part of me and I'm planning to keep it this way for the rest of my life. I hope this article inspires you to head out and go for a run for yourself! Make sure you track it on your smartphone and make sufficient backups of your data!
Now I want to hear from you. What is your connection with running? Was it love at first sight, or do you hate every step you take when running? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments below!
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