July 13th, 2011
07:19 AM ET
Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of Seeking serenity: The quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.
Happiness - or rather, the quest for happiness - was in the air at this year’s Aspen Ideas Fest as the topic was examined rather earnestly from every angle: the history of happiness, its psychology, neuroscience, economics and geography.
There was even a session on how to recognize happiness, though fairly certain of my abilities on that front, I played hooky in favor of pedaling around town on a bicycle.
And truth be told, Aspen in the summertime is rather easy to be happy in: 360 degrees of opulent white-flecked mountains covered with shocks of gorgeous green in at least a dozen shades, vast sweeps of vivid wildflowers swaggering on every corner, the freshest air completely devoid of frizz-inducing humidity and rather frequent sightings of chipmunks and celebrity types.
It was to the latter group that I posed the same series of questions about stress, serenity and happiness. Here’s what they had to say:
Lance Armstrong, bicyclist and cancer activist
What do you do? I’m the father of five kids, founder of Livestrong, and a retired athlete who probably still trains like an active athlete.
Where do you live? In Austin, Texas, most of the year, and we live here in Aspen in the summer. I also travel a great deal. I’m probably on the road 100 days of the year.
What causes the most stress in your life? Well, my current situation (a former teammate's allegations of doping), but things like that come and go. The biggest stress for me is the responsibility of making sure that my five kids grow up to be normal, healthy, respectable, smart, grounded people.
How do you cope with stress? Exercise. For me, it’s a form of therapy — emotional and mental therapy. Especially if you can control the environment and the company. Imagine five hours on a bike ride in the Rockies all alone with yourself: talking, thinking, singing, suffering. Gotta suffer!
What is your definition of serenity? My life does not have very much serenity, which isn’t a bad thing. I like it the way it is. I sleep a lot. I sleep the moment my head hits the pillow and I sleep for long hours. But when I get up, I’m sprinting. It’s off or on for me. The two things that keep me serene are sleep and exercise.
How close have you gotten to finding it? When my head hits the pillow. Because in my life, I thrive on a little bit of commotion and action (though I could do with a little less stress than I have right now). And regardless of external stuff, I’m an extremely happy person.
Khaled Hosseini, best-selling author of "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"
What do you do? I’m a writer.
Where do you live? San Jose, California.
What causes the most stress in your life? Illness of a family member.
How do you cope with stress? The last two to three years I’ve gotten into exercising and I exercise regularly. I find that to be a tremendous release. I try to do it both when I’m traveling or home. I run and I bike.
What is your definition of serenity? It’s those small periods when suddenly everything seems to click into place and the world seems to be a nice place and there’s a surge of euphoria. And you try to hang on to it, and feel happy and positive.
How close have you gotten to finding it? It happens now and then. Sometimes it’s random and sometimes it has to do with achieving something or seeing somebody.
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter
What do you do? I do nothing and everything. I work at an internet company.
Where do you live? In Marin County, Corte Madera, California.
What causes the most stress in your life? Right now I’m pretty anxious because my wife’s having a baby. I’m worried about all the things that could go wrong. I had no idea how many things could go wrong. Other than that, I’m always worried about whether my wife is happy because if she’s happy, I’m happy and if she’s not, well, I’m not.
How do you cope with stress? I’ve taken up long-distance running. Not to compete or lose weight, but for the meditative quality of it. Just to clear my head. Sometimes I put one issue in my head and let it knock around in there while I run. I don’t sit down to meditate so I guess that’s my version of meditation.
What is your definition of serenity? Having family time, walking the dog together. We have this rescue dog and we take her out together for an hour each weekend day.
How close have you gotten to finding it? I don’t think I had ever found serenity until recently. I had a rough childhood and was never in pursuit of happiness. I was just always after getting ahead, doing better, establishing a strong base of operations. Lately I look around at my life and think that happiness has finally caught up with me. It found me, I guess, since I wasn’t looking for it.
Matisyahu, Hasidic singer and rapper
What do you do? A singer, I guess. When I go through customs and they ask my profession, I say I’m a singer.
Where do you live? I live in Brooklyn Heights, New York.
What causes the most stress in your life? Right now I’m on tour and the biggest stress on tour is worrying about getting sick. I have six shows a week and if I get a cold, my vocal cords swell up. Then I’ll start using muscles that I shouldn’t be using and it’s a downward spiral from there. So I guess what stresses me out the most is my voice and keeping it in good shape.
How do you cope with stress? I do everything I can not to get sick and if I get sick, I try to accept that that’s the way the universe is unraveling and I have to fight to get back on top of things. I don’t eat or go out after the show. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t go to the scene. I really like pay attention to what I eat. I juice and I eat healthy foods. I pray three times a day and I meditate before I pray. Sometimes I do walking meditations for a half-hour to an hour. I do my vocal warm-ups, which is all about breath. I also jog, stretch and try to do yoga.
What is your definition of serenity? Acceptance. I would also say joy. And humility. Through humility and accepting things as they come, and then appreciating and being thankful for what I have. That brings me joy and peace and serenity.
How close have you gotten to finding it? It’s a lifelong thing. I’m a struggler by nature, but I’ve come a long way since I was an adolescent. I’ve made huge strides. I still stress out and struggle, though.
Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine
What do you do? I edit Tin House magazine, and I’m executive editor of Tin House Books.
Where do you live? I live in Brooklyn, New York, and part of the summer I live in Portland, Oregon.
What causes the most stress in your life? Trying to find balance between all the different aspects of my life: personal time, domestic time, professional time. Trying to balance my many obligations. Being fully present with my kids. And trying to come up with a way to give full attention to each. It’s taken me many years to figure it out and I still struggle with it all the time. I’m constantly bombarded with e-mail. I always have something I should be reading or need to read. I could be working 24 hours a day.
How do you cope with stress? I was a distance athlete - a runner - in college. Now I bike. I take my bicycle wherever I go, even to literary conferences in Russia and Australia and Chile. And I ride every day. I like to explore places on bike. I saw more of Russia on bike than any other way. Riding forces me to be immediate and in the moment, because you can’t multitask when you’re on a bike. You have to concentrate on what’s in front of you or you will crash. It’s repetitive, rhythmic meditation.
How close have you gotten to finding it? I think I have extended periods of serenity, but usually on bicycle or with my kids. I‘ve had moments of it while doing things with my kids. I love thrift shopping with my daughter and rock climbing with my son. And those have been some of my happiest moments. Everything else falls away.
Nikky Finney, award-winning poet
What do you do? I’m a poet and I teach creative writing at the University of Kentucky.
Where do you live? Lexington, Kentucky.
What causes the most stress in your life? Imbalance. Not being able to do all the things I have to do, along with take care of myself in the ways I know I have to take care of myself.
How do you cope with stress? Two ways: I wake up really early in the morning — at 4 a.m. — and I have convinced myself I’m the only one up. It’s very quiet and it’s a kind of meditation time for me. Sometimes I’m just thinking and ordering my thoughts. And sometimes I’m writing, which to me is incredibly relaxing. I also walk. I walk a lot. I don’t care where I am, I have to move. There’s something about me and my physical body that has to be moving in order for me to organize all the things I have both in my head and in my life.
What is your definition of serenity? Good laughter with good friends.
How close have you gotten to finding it? Often. Often. I not only find it, I search for it when I’ve been away from it for too long. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Erica Jong, iconic feminist writer
What do you do? I’m a writer.
Where do you live? New York City and Connecticut
What causes the most stress in your life? Publishing a book.
How do you cope with stress? Yoga, deep breathing, remembering that nothing is eternal.
What is your definition of serenity? Being able to sleep a blissful eight hours, like a baby.
How close have you gotten to finding it? I’m very privileged to be able to do that every night.
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