My dog, Nessie, is a rescued mini-pinscher/chihuahua cross from Valencia. On a ‘good’ day, she runs and yips and plays like a puppy. On a not-so-‘good’ day she creaks and groans and grumbles unless there’s food around and then she reverts to puppyhood again. “I’d guess she’s about 15 or 16” said the kind vet as he gently checked her gallopy heart, cataracty eyes and gappy teeth.
Nessie came into my life exactly a decade ago. In 2008, we flew back to my home in the Tyne Valley from our life in Barcelona, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. When we first returned, she’d accompany me on my morning runs near Aydon Castle. Six daily miles at sunrise, followed by another brisk walk before lunch. She still runs now – short little bursts of puppy-like excitement, but most of the time she mooches along behind me on our walks, trotting along at her own gentle pace. Those morning runs have turned into gentle strolls over the years, ambling by the river at Warden before breakfast. Welly walks through the trees in Target Woods. Pottering along the streets of Corbridge (she makes a bee-line for the shops which have doggy treats behind the counter), and, Nessie’s favourite, sitting eating scones in the village’s dog-friendly coffee shops. It’s a far cry from when she was found starving, pregnant and terrified on a motorway roundabout in Spain all those years ago. When I met Nessie, as a volunteer at a rescue shelter outside Barcelona, I vowed to try to give this gentle, beautiful, fragile little creature the happiest, most joyful life I could give her. What I didn’t envisage, is that this little dog would end up showing me just what happiness and joy really are.
Although I’ve spent the last twenty years studying, researching and working in the field of mental health and wellbeing, I think I’d always thought of happiness as something either ‘out there’ to be discovered or ‘inside me’ to be activated through putting myself in the ‘right’ context or frame of mind. Something that perhaps needed practice (cue daily meditation) or the reading of many, many books on the subject. Through my research, I came to see hedonic wellbeing – pleasure and instant gratification – as a rather shallow, fleeting thing; something almost to be sneered at academically. Three years of a doctorate led me to (perhaps prematurely) conclude that in order to be really happy I should concentrate on eudemonia – living a life with meaning, purpose and in accordance with my values. Yet, that only made me over-analyse my chosen career and way of living and castigate myself that they perhaps didn’t quite tick all the right boxes from an ethical and values perspective. I’ve come to realise, however, that there’s probably a lot of value in both hedonic and eudemonic approaches to living a ‘good life’, and moreover, that in the end, all this philosophising doesn’t really matter past a certain point. And it is Nessie, who has shown me, where that point is and the magic that lies beyond it.
Through spending more time with Nessie as she has got older, I’ve come to realise that all the actions, goals, intentions, desires and ways we live our daily lives to make ourselves feel ‘happy’ are, in human terms, not happiness in themselves, but more often than not, a means to an end. As Mark Rowlands notes in his philosophical musings on meaning, mortality and running, most of the things we do in life we do for the sake of something else. The purpose of the activity is rarely found in the activity itself, but only in the ‘something else’ that the activity allows us to obtain. Yet, this means that the value of the activity is not to be found in the activity itself, but rather in this other thing that the activity affords us. When I was running those six daily miles, the value of my running was to get fit and feel (and hopefully look) good. The value was in meeting my goals, getting good run times, the music I was listening to, uploading my run online and, obviously, improving my health, both physically and psychologically. I was never a very good runner. I was a heavy footed, clumsy simian, huffing and puffing alongside my little lupine companion who, in comparison, made those 6 daily miles look effortless. I enjoyed getting outside, but the enjoyment lay more in the satisfaction after my run, when I was home and warm and uploading my mileage and time onto the laptop. The value, therefore, lay predominantly in those other things the running allowed me to get. Philosophers call this ‘instrumental value’ - the value of the activity or thing is their worth as an instrument to get something else. In contrast, an activity is ‘intrinsically valuable’ if it has value in itself, independently of anything else it might allow us to obtain. The philosopher, Schlick, argued that if we do something only for the sake of something else, what we are doing is a form of work. Conversely, Schlick continues, instrinsically valuable activity is a form of play. Play is something done for its own sake and therefore, by definition, has value in itself:
“The greatest gospel of our industrial age has been exposed as idolatry. The greater part of our existence, filled as it is with goal-seeking work at the behest of others, has no value in itself, but obtains this only by reference to the festive hours of play, for which work provides merely the means and preconditions.”
When we play, we do not chase value – for the value of play does not lie outside itself – we are immersed in it. Perhaps the real value of my runs, the intrinsic value, were the fleeting moments when I slowed and walked a few paces, or stopped in awe of an orange sunrise or beautiful fox that had crossed my path. Perhaps it was only for those few seconds that I stopped seeking a goal, stopped ‘working’ and experienced a glimpse of ‘play’.
This became more apparent to me as Nessie started to get older. Our runs got shorter and then we began to walk. We have got older together. My back won’t let me run 1 mile every day now, let alone six. Yet, I have learned something over this time that I didn’t learn in the thousands of hours spent studying, researching and pondering questions about what makes us feel happy: What makes me feel happy is, like Nessie, when I do something intrinsically valuable: when I play. For us, our walks are play. We walk, because we value the activity for exactly what it is. Although I walk Nessie for her health, and there are days when it’s cold and rainy when I really don’t think you could call our quick-once-around-the-block type walks ‘play’, there are, on an increasing number of occasions, times when we walk simply because we value the activity for what it is. We lose ourselves in the moments there on the riverbank. I laugh as Nessie plays with a leaf. We watch the birds overhead. We listen to the water lapping and bubbling over stones. We stop and sniff and raise our heads up and breathe in everything around us for no other reason other than we value this for exactly what it is. There are no clocks to beat. No miles to count. No personal goals to seek. We are there, in the moment. Listening, seeing, feeling, hearing and sensing the earth upon which we stand for no other purpose than to be present, right there and enjoy the moment of our walk for exactly what it is.
We live, as Rowland notes, in a narrowly instrumental age, and the idea of something that is done for its own sake is one received only with great difficulty. Even games, we often assume, have some instrumental purpose. Animals play, we are told, to acquire predatory or evasive skills that will be useful later in life. Children play as a form of ‘socialisation’; an important tool for growing up. The message in each case is the same: play is not really play, it is work. This is not to deny that what seems like play can really be work. Conversely, many things that seem like work can really be play. As Rowlands underlines, however, the difference between work and play does not lie in what you do, but why you do it.
“Human action is work, not because it bears fruit, but only when it proceeds from, and is governed by, the thought of its fruit.”
I once thought that I would be ‘truly’ happy if I found meaning and purpose in life, and sought such instrumental value in my career and what I ‘did’. I put eudemonic wellbeing high up on a pedestal and thought that I’d be truly happy, would truly flourish, if I could live my life in accordance with my values and find deep meaning in all I did. And this, to a degree, is still true. But, as Nessie has got older, I’ve come to spend less time ‘working’ and aiming for a life with purpose and meaning, and instead, I’ve just enjoyed spending more time with her. I’ve found that our lives have become peacefully entwined, our life’s run has slowed to a gentle, contented beat; a rhythmic, steady tread, paw in front of paw, step by step. Our time together will not go on forever. This is the bittersweet truth you know from the moment you give your heart to a dog. But I hope the happiness Nessie has shown me will be with me now for all my days. Nessie has shown me joy. Joy is the experience of intrinsic value in life. Joy is the recognition of the things in life that possess value in themselves: the things that are worthy of love. Nessie has shown me how to love and to love life through every day simple joy – the recognition of the places in life where all points and purposes stop.
Nessie walks a little in front of me. We are returning back to the car. Back home to warmth, bed, hot tea and toast. She stops suddenly to watch a duck on the water, then she breaks into a scamper, four paws carrying her old little body over earth and leaves and cold, damp grass. She stops again. Turns her head, as she always does, just to check I’m still there. And what I see there, in that moment,is pure joy. The transformation of inner to outer lasts a few seconds and then it has passed. But it was there. And there will be more. This transformation in joy is love showing herself. As Rowlands eloquently concludes, love may last a lifetime – but she shows herself most completely only in moments. Nessie, thank you for letting this human into your life and for showing her the joy of living and loving in each moment. Thank you for helping me to see the intrinsic value of what we do. For valuing the little things in life for exactly what they are, rather than what they can do for us. For showing me that joy can be found here, on a riverbank. By sniffing the air, sensing a breeze, listening to the leaves under our feet as we tread gently and quietly through each moment in this life together.
Thank you to Garreth for gifting me the books that inspired this article:
This article was first published in the March/April 2018 edition of the Tyne Valley Express magazine: http://www.tynevalleyexpress.co.uk/magazine/