Seeking serenity: How high-achievers chill
July 13th, 2011
07:19 AM ET

Seeking serenity: How high-achievers chill

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.
What is your definition of serenity? It’s being fully present in the moment, where I’m not thinking about anything else except for whatever’s happening right now. Being fully present and engaged.

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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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Dr Bill Toth

    Readers might also benefit from reading "Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner as well as his latest book; "Finding Happiness the Blue zones Way". Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    July 13, 2011 at 07:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Steve

    "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."? That's as far as I got. I expect writers of articles to be literate. I'm just funny that way.

    July 13, 2011 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lina

      365 degrees? I didn't get that part. I full circle has only 360 degrees. 365 degrees is equivalent to 5 degrees. 🙂

      July 13, 2011 at 08:47 | Report abuse |
  3. kelliepoulos

    popular websites like Printapon and retail me not has coupons for pretty much any shopping site I've gone to most of the coupons are valid drops down with coupons without me having to search for them

    July 13, 2011 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. boka

    Seems like they interviewed the ugliest people. Damn I guess you would have to be happy if you are this ugly. How about the girl (or is that a guy) with the dread locks?

    July 13, 2011 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Knucklehead

      Bro, I literally can't even look at Erica the feminist. She hurts my eyes.

      August 5, 2011 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
  5. DiamondSky

    False serenity is a slow-killing cancer. Every human needs to admit one's own sinfulness before the Creator God and realize how evil we are for seeking serenity on a planet of 2 billion suffering humans and of a suffering creation world. Present era is NOT the time to feel serenity by the well-fed, not until every creature is liberated.

    July 13, 2011 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Keloi Saw

    What relevance does this article have to the average reader. You apparently believe that the world only employs artists and entertainers (5 of the 6 individuals you profile). Of these very few would qualify as being involved in high stress high achiever occupations. I enjoy reading CNN for a window into the liberal mind. Unfortunately it has very little in common with the average person who goes out and makes the world run.

    July 13, 2011 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Quantum Fireball

      KELOI is correct. Of what interest is this to the average reader? One other link goes to a family that just lost both their bread-winner jobs because of state layoffs. How do you achieve peace with that? There are millions of people out of work and losing their homes. How do you achieve peace with that? Young men are coming back from Afghanistan crippled and maimed. How do you achieve peace with that? I think this article is biased toward the very people who are most NOT likely to lose their jobs. Aspen. Right. One of the most wealthy areas of the country...I'll meditate on that.

      July 13, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse |
    • D

      Even though I am a liberal and open minded, I actually agree with you. Useless article.

      July 13, 2011 at 18:33 | Report abuse |
    • Jas

      These comments are strange. They're really cynical and negative. What were you expecting? I appreciated that it wasn't your usual inane celebrity fare and I did think it was interesting.

      July 13, 2011 at 21:15 | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      I'm just an average middle class guy, but this article does raise a couple of interesting questions about one's definition of serenity and how one can find it. Even though it should not be tied to your monetary situation, realistically your answer would be different if you had more money. I'll contend that trying to find those moments of peace during a stressful day is more relevant for people going through rough times. Read with an open mind. Even though this article is about celebrities, there are questions here that each one of us can answer for our own situations and apply those answers to make our individual lives better.

      July 14, 2011 at 15:23 | Report abuse |
    • AZShawn

      Keloi and others,

      "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."

      Gosh, that doesn't have any meaning for "average" readers? So you get nothing from the idea that so much joy and happiness can be attained from small moments in life, even for well-known artists and entertainers? Personally, I find that statement from Hosseini quite uplifting.

      July 17, 2011 at 00:56 | Report abuse |
  7. WellnessDrive

    Of all the people interviewed, one thing is certain...if you don't have your health, then nothing else really matters. True?

    Sleep, Exercise, mediation, prayer, laughter, ... all good stuff to help you keep you smiling. But what also helps me is natural supplements. It's not until I started eating healthy and taking my Isotonix did I really feel good and happy. 🙂

    Go on a WellnessDrive. Complete your health by optimizing it.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Benjamin

    Hmph. I don't usually like celebrity-driven news, but I actually respect a lot of these folks and thought each interview had an interesting "nugget" of info. Matisyahu seems like a fascinating guy – a curious blend of spirituality and mindfulness and amazing singing and writing talent. What a trip. I also find it fascinating that Lance Armstrong sleeps for "long hours," peacefully. I don't know that I would be able to do so with the intensity of what's going right now in his life. Maybe that's what he's so successful – because he can compartmentalize. And for whatever reason, I found it surprising that Biz Stone had a rough childhood – makes me respect his achievements more...

    July 13, 2011 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Cliff Notes

    Long story short: "We asked a small group of people, 'How do you cope with stress?' They responded, 'We exercise.'"

    July 13, 2011 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      Thank you. Like I said, useless article.

      July 13, 2011 at 18:35 | Report abuse |
  10. likmisweaties

    Don't forget drugs and alcohol, yo!

    July 13, 2011 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. randi clarkson

    hey hon, this was interesting....hope you enjoy it.....love me

    July 13, 2011 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Gen

    someone seriously needs to do a study about the types of people who leave comments.

    July 13, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. DiamondSky

    Serenity for the rich. They will be burned down, every single one of them. Read the Book of James for true serenity.

    July 13, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Knucklehead

    @Boka, Bro, I literally can't even look at Erica the feminist. She hurts my eyes.

    August 5, 2011 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
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