Riding a Harley-Davidson—A “Vehicle” to Existential Joy?
What relationship does the experience of riding Harley Davidson-Motorcycles have to existentialism? A first response may be “Nothing!” Riding a Harley is a leisure activity—it is not related to existentialist philosophy or psychology at all. Because I have conducted extensive research on the meaning of riding a Harley for those who own them, I wondered if there were any elements of the Harley Phenomenon that related to New Existentialism.
Then I read Makenna Berry’s April 25th blog, “Considering Existential Joy”. Now Makenna may not have had the experience of riding a Harley in mind when she defined existential joy as “the moment of exaltation in which we are at one with the world and conscious of our being in a kind of illumination that carries a deep conviction with it”—but many Harley riders would say this is exactly how they feel when they ride a Harley.
At this point, I feel some explanation is in order. While I have been a passenger from time to time, my husband is the rider and owner of a Harley (a Road King Classic). My research focused on Harley owners because that’s the brand my husband owns, and I was interested in the Harley as an American icon. However, I believe much of what I learned about the experience of riding would hold true for riders of other bikes as well. Now, if riding a motorcycle may be the last thing you might like to do (believe me when I say I understand), you may want to consider what activities create “existential joy” for you.
So, what did I learn about the Harley experience that I can relate to existentialism? Data gathered from questionnaires, interviews, observations, experience, and Harley literature was very consistent—the Harley experience enables their riders to enjoy life! Riding provides a sense of vitality, freedom, and adventure that is what Csikszentmihalyi (1990), a creativity researcher, describes as a state of flow—“the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake” (p. 6). As Csikszentmihalyi (1997) says, “a typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background” (pp. 30-31).
Questionnaire respondents gave 92% favorable responses for the statements: “Riding a Harley allows me to escape every day cares and responsibilities” and “Riding enables me to clear my head and put things in perspective.” Flow experiences often involve risky and difficult activities that challenge a person’s ability and involve an element of novelty and discovery. Bikers gave high favorable responses indicating they agreed with the following: “When I am riding a Harley I feel a sense of vitality” (97%), “Riding a motorcycle shows I am alert,” (83%), “Taking risks which riding a Harley can involve enables me to feel fully alive” (60%), “Riding a Harley enables me to challenge myself in new ways” (69%), and “Riding a Harley enables me to be totally caught up in the moment” (74%).
Existentialist psychology encourages individuals to create their own identity. For many Harley owners, their bikes are a unique expression of who they are. Harley owners are very creative in making their bikes unique by customizing them and are quick to point out “no two bikes are alike.” At first, I thought this statement was an exaggeration; I then calculated the number of combinations of bikes considering the number of models, years, colors, and accessories—it added up to more than five million possibilities! Questionnaire respondents agreed (88%) with the statement, “I enjoy customizing my Harley to make it uniquely mine.”
When I attended Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach one year with my husband, I had an opportunity to see thousands of bikes and interview Harley riders. One biker, a grandmother and operations manager for a national insurance company, said as a woman, she found riding her bike an “empowering” experience. Her bike, “Evocat,” came from the leopard design she created and a vintage faux-fur coat, which she used to make the seat. When I looked at another bike design I found particularly impressive, I said, “It’s like art!” An observer who overheard the comment corrected, “It is art!”
Just as riders are encouraged to customize their bikes, they are prompted to make the journey “their own.” A page on the Harley-Davidson Motor Company website showing a woman biker simply states, “Your Life. Your Ride.” Another page says, “United by Independents. The refusal to conform both sets us apart and unites us.” For some riders, the Harley journey is a symbol for life. One rider I interviewed in his mid-60s commented, “I’m running out of road.” For others, riding a Harley is life. As another participant commented, “When I no longer can ride my Harley, I no longer want to live.”
Some bikers I talked to said riding a bike creates a state of consciousness where they can access creativity and go beyond themselves. A composer and classical guitarist said riding helped her creative process. Another said while he was riding his Harley, he invented a new guitar and held two patents on it—“The idea just came to me as I was riding around on my Harley.” When I asked if he thought riding his Harley enabled him to be creative, his response was, “The man upstairs is the one to get the credit. The Harley gives me time with him.”
Respondents gave a 75% favorable response to the statement, “Riding a Harley enables me to feel that I am part of something ‘bigger than myself.’” Ted Rafferty (1997), who has written several books about Harleys, states, “Riding motorcycles develops a higher level of consciousness. The result puts our minds and souls into their natural rhythms, which match the tempos of the planet. And the universe. It’s cosmic stuff” (p. 5). Jack Martin Rosenblum, PhD, Historian Emeritus of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and purveyor of motorcycle culture, suggests he probably meditates more in a 24-hour period than most holy men do—he just does it on a Harley! (Yates, 1999).
For those who ride, the Harley experience offers pleasure, enjoyment, freedom, adventure, focusing on the moment, enjoying the journey by oneself, and sharing it with others—all themes we find in existentialism. When considering the importance of meaning in one’s life, Joseph Campbell (1988) said, “What we are really seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive” (pp. 4-5). For those I interviewed, riding a Harley does give them the “rapture of being alive.” What produces that feeling for you?
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Anchor Books.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Rafferty, T. (1997). The complete catalog of Harley Davidson: A model-by-model history of the American motorcycle. Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers.
Yates, B. (1999). Outlaw machine: Harley-Davidson and the search for the American soul. New York: Broadway Books.
-- Christina Robertson