“Kiters really have an inside line on true happiness”




Interview: Bernd Zerelles Photos: Toby Bromwich


Dr Peter Lensker

The 54-year-old scientist and consultant has been researching the subject of happiness for over 20 years, and takes a unique  approach to his work. He takes into account the importance and  characteristics of various factors to measure people’s feelings of  happiness. At the heart of it all is this question: why do we experience  things in a positive way? How can the power of emotions, as an important driver of human actions, be converted into productive energy?  And how does performance become top performance?

Dr Lensker, what is happiness?

As a happiness researcher, I have a some-what ambivalent relationship with the term happiness. The term happiness literally incorporates two very different concepts. First is 'being lucky': a lottery win or catching the train just before it leaves. This is a random construct that does not actually increase one's self-worth. The other aspect of happiness is the one that I focus on. The subject of joy. Experiences. Where you yourself can 'create your own happiness' through positive activation. You could also say it's about managing happiness, and consciously entering into a state of changeability. This is because people experience joy when they experience their own self-worth. The great thing about this is that you can shape your own self-efficacy.

So is there a 'happiness formula' for how to be happy?

Yes. Go kitesurfing... (laughs). You have to look at the internal structure of experiences to understand how happiness develops. For  a high emotional quality experience, like kite-surfing, you need to consider three aspects.  Firstly: people. The question is: Am I feeling human closeness? When you kite, you be-come part of a community, experiencing the wind, the water, and the beach within this context. It's a pleasant environment, people  greet you warmly, and often offer to help you.  We chat and we share experiences. There's a connection. The group is a soul community.


But on the water, kitesurfing is a sport  for individuals.

That's the second aspect: individuality. You're able to enjoy life through this sport, and to grow. You earn recognition and your individuality is accorded value. Each kiter is an individual who authentically represents him / herself. The soul community and individuality are opposites that complement each other and which lead to human closeness.

And what is the third area you use to define emotional quality of an experience?

This is based on the gear / product you are using, but in the way of it being a solution that goes beyond the gear itself. An overall solution which is so great that it inspires you. Again, there are two key aspects: the gear needs to be high quality; the aesthetics, the design, the construction must appeal to all my senses, it must be something extraordinary. But it also must offer simplicity and alleviation - this is becoming increasingly important in the modern day where everything is so complex. Things shouldn't be intricate. My gear must make it easy for me to experience a great sports adventure. I want to enjoy it, after all, not have to  think about a thousand technical things. This is Steve Jobs' formula from Apple. Simple, with total desirability. A simplicity that can inspire. The Click Bar from Duotone is a great example of that.


What does this quality of experience lead to in the end?

Community and simplicity means security. I'm interacting with people who are helping me, and my equipment is easy to use, I've got it under control. I feel safe. Individuality and enjoyment means that I feel stronger as a person. Personal development means inspiration. Kiters experience the  power of nature, which moves and accelerates you, with every session on the water. Each session is a mini adventure. You become almost like a plaything of nature, with the risk of never quite knowing what's going to happen. You have to be brave. It's exciting, and you feel the strength you gain when you're playing with nature.

Does this feeling release any particular energy?

Nature is unpredictable and powerful. The fact that I'm exposing myself to this  risk ultimately leads to development, and to me gaining strength as a person. A special flow develops when my abilities match precisely what I'm doing, I am taken up in doing it with 100 percent concentration. I mustn't be over-challenged, but I mustn't be under-taxed either. Through my activity, I get a little bit better every time, and by doing so I shift the challenge a little bit. When you engage in this type of sport, you find yourself in a constant, positive spiral of development. The continual improvement, the constant development; it creates more than just happiness. You are also able to develop potential that you otherwise might not even be aware you had. This is ultimately experiencing your self-worth. Self-worth creates joy. And associated with joy is the positive activation of the body and mind. It is a positive experience, I'm excited by it. You could also call it stoke, the highest form of  joy and excitement.


Lots of kiters get off the water and are literally inspired. Does stoke have a particular effect on people, or is it just a feeling of happiness?

It goes way beyond that. Of course, the ego is positively activated. The challenge when kiting is immense - the nature, the wind, the waves. You need total concentration on the moment, and you can't start thinking about projects to do with your work, arguments with friends, or what you're planning on doing tonight. Studies show that positively activated people are not only happier, but they also get ill less often and they perform better in their jobs. If someone comes home positively activated, then they infect their family, friends, and surroundings with this positivity. 

Everyone is familiar with the saying 'little bit of what you fancy does you good'. But people who are good also try to do good for their community. Kiters who collect rubbish on beaches, for example, are interested in wider contexts and share this interest beyond their community and take it to the wider public.

Isn't the search for joy a little selfish?

On an everyday basis, you often get discouraged, you get repeated crises of confidence, the feeling that you can't create anything of value for anyone else. I can't do what I want to do at work, my work isn't valued. I might be working for the good of the company, but that doesn't satisfy me. I can't enjoy myself there. You need time out from something like that. Whether it's biking, swimming, or kiting, the motivation is the same: I need to recharge myself as a person and regroup my strength. In these modern times especially, where the degree of complexity is so great and the number of stress-related conditions is growing, everyone is searching for a place to unwind.

"With kiteboarding, we’re talking about a level of excitement of 70 or 80, almost the top of the scale, and this is what gives people this really incredible kick.”


The ideal experience involves being active, not relaxing lazily in front of the TV. Physicality allows joy and happiness to develop. The body acts on the mind. If you're physically active and mentally agile, then you're naturally happier. If you have the courage to try something new, something that goes beyond the everyday small stuff, you strengthen your resolve and shift the perspective from 'Where do I want to go?' to 'Who do I want to be?'.

Are there different degrees of  happiness? Do kitesurfers experience happiness in a different way to marathon runners, for example?

Definitely. Kiters have a higher experience of self-worth than marathon runners. Marathon runners measure themselves against their race time. For the quality of the experience, however, performance is irrelevant. Marathon running is also relatively simple. You simply run as straight as possible without exchanging experiences within a group. Kiting is much more challenging and complex, you're part of a community that takes you forward, with adventure and risk. It's a very different level of excitement. It's an excitement that you don't get with normal types of sport, in normal interactions with people. This is the first time in my 20 years of research that I've faced this extreme amplitude. In my research, we measure excitement on a scale from - 100 to + 100. Normally, people are somewhere on the border of satisfaction and the first level of excitement with a touch of joy, between 20 and 40. With kiteboarding, we're talking about a level of excitement of 70 or 80, almost the top of the scale, and this is what gives people this really incredible kick.




And this incredible kick leads to a special feeling of happiness?

An ideal experience that leads to a feeling of happiness is more than just this one moment on the water. It's a process. The anticipation builds: chatting with friends on the beach, planning a trip, which kite do I go for, which board do I choose, looking forward to it all. Then comes the joy of the experience that you get when you're enjoying nature, the fantastic experience you're having. Part of that is the joy of the element of surprise in what you're doing. I'm surprised in a good way when things happen that I didn't anticipate: the sun breaking through the clouds, there's an unexpected surge of waves, or I successfully perform a trick I've been practising for so long. And finally comes the afterglow, the enjoyment you feel after a session, talking within your soul community, and letting the experience slowly subside.

Is it a different feeling whether I'm just cruising pleasurably ahead, riding a huge wave, or finally accomplishing a difficult freestyle trick after a long time practising?

It doesn't matter whether I'm an extrovert performer type who likes to show off his tricks to others, or an introvert kiter who prefers to enjoy the surroundings and gets his enjoyment on the water. Something only becomes important to us if it is associated with a feeling. A feeling of joy and excitement. If everything comes together, if I’m feeling great when I’m riding, if I’m improving, if I’m in a wonderful place experiencing the force of nature and then talking to people, then that’s when I get the ideal overall experience, emotional activation – a feeling of stoke. Kiters are also totally privileged from this point of view: the pure force of the experience means that they don’t generally need the other showy pleasures that many people get from luxury, such as posh hotels or flash cars. Anyone who tries to achieve happiness through consumption will fail. Kiters, on the other hand, have an inside line on true happiness.