Fishing Your Way to Happiness


Fishing on the BosphorusFishing on the Bosphorus

Fishing on the banks

Our son, aged 12, loves watching a TV show called Extreme Fishing featuring the UK TV and stage actor (and onetime singer) Robson Green. Fishing is a funny thing. In the UK it’s predominately a male endeavor. Here I’ve never ever seen a woman fishing although this may not be the case elsewhere in the world. Women rarely make an appearance on this show either, unless as the clichéd attractive sidekick to the adventurous male lead.

Unless your friends are keen on fishing, I bet it’s not something you ever talk about. With prior apologies to any fishing fans, it’s often considered a wholeheartedly dull activity. You get kitted up in various shades of green, gray, or camouflage, patiently wait for hours on the riverbank for a fish to bite, and while doing that, you contemplate life, the universe, and everything. That’s it. For many people, going fishing is about as appealing as watching paint dry.

That’s how I used to think about fishing, but Extreme Fishing got me thinking about how hobbies and pastimes contribute so much more to our happiness and well-being. Perhaps they even make us the people we are. I bet when Robson Green started out as an actor in the late 1980s, he never imagined he’d be paid well to travel the world presenting a show about a hobby that he loves more than anything.

We can use a simple model like Seligman’s PERMA to think about the value of hobbies and pastimes and the part they play in our happiness.

P – Positive Emotions

Being a leisure activity that Robson Green freely chooses, you might imagine that fishing is non-stop whirl of positivity for him. Watching the show makes you realize that this is clearly not the case. What’s interesting about Extreme Fishing, and something that makes it so appealing to watch, is the huge roller coaster of both positive and negative emotions displayed in every show.

Catch of the DayCatch of the Day

   Catch of the day

He tries out fishing techniques, such as grabbling, a method of catching catfish by grabbing hold of the lower jaw with both hands, that he’s not familiar with and often not very good at. As you’d imagine, this causes some stress and anxiety. On top of this he’s usually required to do something much more physically challenging than just sitting on the riverbank, such as free diving or white water rafting. Most of the time he’s not looking forward to it, not expecting it, and finds it stressful and sometimes even frightening. That’s a combination that you wouldn’t think leads to greater well-being.

Of course, when the fish eventually bites and he lands his catch, he’s euphoric. Nobody does excitement, enthusiasm, and exhilaration quite like Robson Green. If he weren’t proudly clutching the mega monster he’s just caught to display it to the camera, he’d be bouncing around like Tigger, punching the air with both fists. The pent-up joy and jubilation jumps out in his voice instead. “Wow man, that’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught/best fishing experience of my life!!” There’s absolutely no doubt that this really is one of the best things that has ever happened to him.

E – Engagement

Clearly extreme fishing is a flow experience for Robson Green. He’s pitting his wits against the fish, learning new angling techniques, trying new tackle, using his strengths, skills, and talents to catch the fish and convey the magnificence of the experience to viewers at home. There are times when it’s frustrating, when nothing goes according to plan, and he doesn’t land the fish he’s been trying so hard and waiting so long to catch. But he gets immediate feedback on what’s working or not working, so he can always try something new. Hope is never completely lost. Even when he’s not successful, he knows he gave it his best shot and can try again tomorrow.

Not a solitary endeavorNot a solitary endeavor

Not a solitary endeavor

R – Relationships

It’s a step too far to say that Robson Green develops a relationship with the fish he catches. If it’s not thrown back in straightaway, it gets dished up with chili and lime later in the day, accompanied by a glass of chilled chardonnay. But it’s clear that he has a deep respect for the sea and all sea-life.

When fishing off the Azores in one episode, he finally catches a beautiful blue marlin. It weighs around 400-500 pounds so it’s a team effort to haul it in, not the job of a sole fisherman. It’s the prize catch, the best of his life he says, and there’s no doubting that he means it sincerely.

So Extreme Fishing isn’t about an individual activity. There’s at least one other angler (and often a small group) showing him the ropes and introducing him to new landscapes, tackle, and species. With fish often well over 50 pounds, you need the combined muscle power of several people to land your catch.

The aptitudes that make him a good actor come into play here: his empathy, emotional intelligence, and rapport-building skills are very handy when spending whole days stuck on a small boat with people he’s only just met.

M – Meaning

You get the feeling that fishing provides a sense of meaning and purpose for Robson Green though it’s difficult for us as mere viewers to say with certainty what that is. Earning a good living doing what you love doing may contribute to it. The show makes it evident that he feels a real connection with the wider world, the wonder of nature, and the beauty of the sea and sea-life. We learn in one episode that his grandfather taught him to fish, so it’s obviously an activity that carries a lot of emotional significance for him. But without being able to ask him, we just have to speculate about this PERMA element.

A – Achievement

Fishing the Bighorn River, MTFishing the Bighorn River, MT

   Catch on the Bighorn River

You only have to witness the proud ‘Display of The Catch’ and the accompanying whooping and hollering at the end of each conquest to know that extreme fishing is very much about achieving the challenge. Not getting a bite or even losing a fish from the line is a frustration that sometimes beleaguers Robson Green until the following morning, when a fresh opportunity presents itself. Ever the optimist though, each new day is filled with hope.

You can easily see how a pastime like fishing can become much more than a way to relax and unwind at the end of a busy week. Sitting on the riverbank with a rod and box of bait for days at a time will eventually lead you to become fairly knowledgeable about fish and fishing, but it’s only by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and into new realms that you’ll develop deep expertise.

Try fly fishingTry fly fishing

Try fly fishing

You could, for example, use a fishing trip as an opportunity to learn and practice new techniques, such as fly fishing or casting with your left hand as easily as you can with your right. You could try new bait and getting comfortable with new tackle. This would be a great example of what psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice, in other words, not just repeating what you already know how to do quite well, but setting yourself new challenges which stretch you and enable you to improve. It’s this type of practice that is essential if you want to develop expertise in a subject.

Over to You

After watching another entertaining episode of Extreme Fishing, I’m wondering whether you’ve considered all the ways in which your own hobbies contribute to your happiness, other than just giving you the opportunity to feel good. The chances are that they also tick several PERMA boxes.

You could also use another model, such as NEF’s 5 Ways to Well-being : Connect, Be active, Take notice, Keep learning, Give, to count the ways. Finally consider how you could stretch yourself a little further, by introducing something new and previously untried. You don’t have to go as far as Robson Green in Extreme Fishing, but looking for new and interesting ways to develop your skills will keep the passion for your pastime alive for many years to come.



Anders Ericsson, K., Krampe, R.T., Tesche-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Dik, B.J. Hansen, J.C. (2008). Following passionate interests to well-being. Journal of Career Assessment, 16(1), 86-100. Abstract.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

nef’s 5 Ways to Well-being

In case you want to watch catfish grabbling, here’s a clip from Extreme Fishing:


Fishing the Bighorn River, MT courtesy of  Loren Kerns
Not a solitary endeavor courtesy of Pandora’s Perspective
Fly fishing courtesy of Lee Carson
Other images are author’s own and are used with permission.