It’s not about luck: How traveling makes us happier people


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A wise person once told me that luck is when opportunities present themselves and you’re ready to take them.

I think this is the most realistic view of life we can have. It explains why some people seem to have it all figured out, while others repeat the same mistakes over and over again. You’re not unlucky; the common denominator in your failures is you.

I’ve never been someone who believed in fate or destiny, but I do think there is some kind of science to the crazy patchwork of decisions that navigate us through life. As I stumble my way from one serendipitous exploit to another, there’s one thing that consistently drives me toward the right path – and that’s perspective.

Perspective is the key to happiness

Happiness has a lot less to do with what actually occurs in our lives, and a lot more to do with the discrete inner workings of our mind. American motivational speaker and writer Denis Waitley says this means striking a balance between finding value within yourself and expanding your horizons for a greater understanding of the world.

monkeyMany of us are so preoccupied with our individual struggles and relationships that we don’t factor in the monkeysphere (The idea that our brains are only capable of seeing 150 people or less as real people). We don’t recognize ourselves in terms of a global collective of loving, feeling individuals – we think only in limited, localized terms. I’m fatter than the girl next door. I earn less money than my coworker.

When we have a terrible day it can feel like we have the worst life in the world. But that’s generally an unfair conclusion, unless you are Nicholas Cage. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel frustrated or have negative emotions, but we should never let these feelings effect our general happiness in the long-term.

This is why according to the 2013 World Happiness Report, expats and people who travel generally report higher levels of happiness. Because of their lifestyle, travelers are forced to develop a more solid relationship to reality. Cut off from their native support system, they learn to handle the swing of the luck-pendulum better than others, while investing in other cultures expands their frame of reference. As a result, travelers can more realistically weight their failures and are less likely to get swept away by false hopes.

Overcoming struggle

But what if your dealing with something worse than the usual tempest of daily disappointments and #firstworldproblems?

Perhaps, you burst beyond the bogs of insecurity to take a big risk. You shake the surrealist snow globe and chase something you soul screams for; to gratify the creature of hope and anticipation that viciously burrowed into the cavity of your heart and made a nest.

slowlorisThen, as you see it there glinting on the horizon, your ship of dreams crash-lands in a blue lake of smurff blood and unicorn tears…surrounded by windmills full of fairy godmother corpses built from the brick and mortar of childhood nightmares.

At one time or another, we’ve all known what it feels like to watch the thing you want most evaporate in a gut wrenching fog of disappointment and regret. But in the end, it’s not how you deal with painful situations – it’s how you collect the broken shards of yourself and what glue you use to mosaic a reflection.

As human beings, we are the most adaptable creatures on earth. We can get through any pain, and we can acclimatize to any reality. We use perspective the way a lion uses its sense of smell to hunt prey. It’s this skill that’s the key to staying happy, healthy, and inspired in the face of life’s greatest challenges.

Adopting a realist view can change your life

realistsssNo matter how hard you work in life, there is always someone who achieves greater things. And there is always someone who manages, somehow, to accomplish less. Crappy things could always be worse, and great things could always be better.

We are given a choice every day to assess the world and our place in it. It’s those of us that chase imaginary hopes or wallow in misappropriated grief that stand to repeat history’s failures.

As Ingrid Michelson points out, you can live forever inside of a moment. But we have the power to choose which moment, so I challenge you to make it a good one.

How becoming an expat helped me meet life goals


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Moving to a foreign country is a lot like writing a book. It’s something 80% of people would like to do but most never will. It’s challenging, inspiring, scary as hell, and requires the loyal grit and determination of a cat chasing a laser beam.

You can be the most beautiful, emotive writer, spinning streams of golden prose that dance gracefully across a page – and yet, in the same moment, be a terrible storyteller with no sense of character development, plot, or narrative structure. Then, there are born storytellers. People gifted at crafting tales that intoxicate readers with just the right amount of complexity, soul, and intrigue. A twist here, a turn there. Literary origami. More often than not, these people are not great writers.

Then, there are the experts – we cannot forget factual accuracy. So many specialists, historians, sci-fi nerds, and PHD’s attempt to write books leaning on the near-religious grasp they have of a subject matter—but again, gripping facts and accurate situational dialogue do not, alone, make a good book. It’s incredibly rare to find that all the qualities of true authorship embodied by a single person. What being an expat has taught me is, it’s a game of playing your strengths.

Many people, myself included, dream of writing a book. Like living abroad, where does one even begin to prepare? What does it even mean to be prepared? What if I don’t have the tools I need to do this right? The key is, don’t think—just do. In the expat life, this mentality has led me through painful challenges, up volcanoes, across deserts, and through a tempest of soul-quaking adventures. Why should life goals be any different? Only creative expression can transport you from the passive condition of thought to the active condition of sensation and there is nothing more creatively inspiring than experiencing another culture.

The expatriate life has given me freedom to know what I want, and the visceral stimulation to deliver it into reality.

How to see the world with the eyes of a child


There’s nothing on earth more here-and-now than the undiluted enthusiasm of a child.

They observe the world around them with fearless, unadulterated amazement. Days are spent drinking in every visceral joy, basking in a sensual utopia of buttercream and moon shadows.

Children have no scars or wounds, no specters of alternate realities unrealized to choke their relationship to visceral perfection. They have an honest curiosity for existence that percolates more with every fresh second that ticks by.

The smell of wild strawberries growing in the field down the lane. Ladybugs and laughter. A terrycloth towel on smooth skin and the way daddy’s face lights up when he walks in the door. This is the marigold quintessence of being alive.

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Alas, as we grow older, we develop an alternate state of being – an unreality. This is the land of critical thinking. It is a presence of mind rather than body, a state where we make major life decisions, learning and growing as intellectual, emotionally cognizant beings.

With each passing year, we spend more and more time locked in our cerebral prisons, evolving into the people we are to become. It’s a critical and unique marvel of the human condition. However, before long, we forget entirely how to commune with an uncharted moment. We forget what ‘uncharted’ means altogether.

We stop noticing the plushness of the terrycloth in our rush to get dressed, get out the door, get to work, get home, get to sleep. Life is no longer an experience – it’s something to get through. Just a few more minutes until…

How do we get back to living free and in the moment? Living to live? The one link between self-actualized adulthood and our long-lost childhood selves is curiosity.

Living the Curious Life

The dictionary defines curiosity as a desire to learn or know about anything.

This is the key to life because it lies at the heart of all discovery, invention, creativity and intellectualism. What would the world be like without it?

Travelers and expatriates are practiced in conscious curiosity. We are forced to entertain a deeper existential awareness as a byproduct of the adventurous lifestyle. However, many of us don’t exercise this knowledge actively outside of the experiential haze of backpacking life.

As soon as we settle back into the routine of our host city, the existential magic ebbs away and we’re left with the doldrums of everyday existence. We begin to take the specatularity of our surroundings for granted.

We slip silently back inside of ourselves as the silt of boredom and responsibility blankets our mental repositories.

Getting the Magic Back

The first step to breaking this cycle is awareness. How many times a day do you catch yourself wallowing in unconstructive thoughts?

Fear, regret, anxiety, self-pity, self-doubt.

Whether you’re drifting to sleep at night or in the busiest part of your workday, escaping toxic thought patterns can seem impossible. And in a weird way, they’re addictive. The would-haves, should-haves, mights and maybes that lead us to construct grand romantic narratives in our head; playing out a kind of trick-fulfillment that’s ephemerally gratifying at best.

Dear brain, this is how it should have gone…yes to Fritos, no to Ho Ho’s.

Do you ever stop to think about how much of the day you’re wasting by living forever in the stagnant recesses of unreality?

Luckily, there are several tricks to keeping the magic alive and embracing the present moment with the joy and reckless enthusiasm of a child:

Creative Expression: Art, literature, music, theater, dancing, singing. Whether you’re watching, participating, or creating, there is no better way to enjoy the present – even if it’s just grabbing the soap-mic to belt out “Let it Go” In the shower. According to the University of Washington’s Arts in Healing Program, engaging in creative activities or viewing art releases endorphins, reduces stress and boosts self-esteem. You’re transported from the passive condition of thought to an active condition of sensation and desire via the aesthetic form. When you truly throw yourself into the act of expression, there is no room in your head for anything else but the symphony of inspiration swelling inside you like a circus balloon. It’s rousing, tactile engagement that sweeps you into the here and now.

Meditation: Another great way to open your mind to the present is through meditation. Easy enough to work into any schedule, meditating allows you to halt destructive thought patters and reconnect with the simplicity of your inner self. According to the Brainwave Research Institute, meditation increases production of serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, all of which are directly related to positive moods, happiness and relaxation. By doing just a few simple exercises, you are given an opportunity to reawaken the part of your soul that appreciates the details of living minute to minute. You will be surprised at how much lighter you feel.

Laughter: As E. E. Cummings once said, “the most wasted of all days is one without laugher.” Laugh long, hard, and often because it just feels awesome. According to a recent article on stress relief by the Mayo Clinic, laughter not only rockets you’re brain into the present, but it also stimulates your organs, soothes tension, relieves pain, and releases endorphins into your system. Attitude and perspective are 90% of any battle so if you have the choice to chuckle, don’t, hold back. .

Do less: One of the best ways to re-engage with your casually curious side is to simply, do nothing. In the feverish onslaught of meetings, deadlines, and to-do lists, we can forget how important it is to take a time-out. And with technology at our fingertips, we are so accustomed to filling small gaps of time with checking emails, replying to texts, or browsing Facebook – but none of these things allow our brains to fully disengage from unreality and appreciate the present. According to an article in Reader’s Digest, doing 5 minutes of nothing per day can wildly transform your outlook on life.

Give Yourself a Break: For most of us, the mental to-do list never ends. There is always the next thing after the next thing, after the next thing. So…in the words of Idina Menzel, “let it go! It’s good to have goals, plans and agendas for what you need to done, but don’t let it get out of control. It’s not healthy to constantly harp on yourself for things you haven’t had a chance to get to. This email, that phone call, a bill, an errand, a meeting. Eventually it will all get done so don’t compromise more of yourself than you have to in order to get there.

No matter what is going on in your life, make a commitment to curiosity – cast off the shackles of un-actualized intent and live for today! Because life is what happens while your making other plans.

Expat Resolutions: 6 ways to get inspired in the new year


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If you only attempt what you know you can do, you’re never going to do much of anything. But reach too high and you’re doomed to fail from the start. Where’s the balance?

This is why setting a New Year’s resolution is such a blind hamster marathon. You never really know if you’re setting off in the right direction.

Expats living thousands of miles from the support of friends and family have the hardest struggle of all to set and achieve New Year’s goals. This is compounded by the fact that the number one fear of those living abroad is not safety, homesickness, or culture shock; it’s the fear of not fitting in.

We’re terrified of not being accepted – not finding our place in natural the order of things. Is there anything worse than a life “on the outside”?

This leads many expats to indulge in a hurricane of social activity as a way to compensate – we want to feel like a part of the local community. We want friends!!! Unfortunately, this leaves typical resolutions like exercise, alcohol detox, and weight loss to fall by the wayside quicker than you can say Margarita Monday.

So what’s the secret to getting inspired in your expat life of 2015? Here are 6 tips to help you to target your resolutions and overcome your deepest expatriate fears:

Choose goals that work with your lifestyle:

One of the biggest mistakes expat resolutionists make is setting goals that grind harshly against the grain of their lifestyle.

For example, if you live in a city like Amsterdam that gets a daily dump of  snow this time of year, don’t set your weight-loss goal around jogging. If you live in a city like Rome where decadence is institutionalized and every dish is loaded with carby, caloric deliciousness, don’t pin your diet plans on avoiding fatty foods. Because you won’t.

Instead, mold your resolution to your city: What do the locals do for exercise? Are there a ton of bike trails nearby or a beach to run along? In Buenos Aires, the “thing to do” is roller blading. Locals gather in groups of 20+ and zoom their way from one suburb to the next with the grace of ballerinas and the attitude of 1980’s street thugs. It’s a great way for expats to bond with the community, make friends, AND keep weight resolutions!

Narrow your focus:

Another classic mistake is making too many goals spread over too many sections of your life; it’s like not having enough butter for your toast. I was never very good at juggling so I always find it to be a safe analogy – you can hold two balls in your hand securely, but as soon as you start to juggle more you’re likely to drop them all! Picking one or two goals your really comfortable and inspired about will make it easy to keep them.

Have confidence in yourself:

According to research by professor of psychology ALbert Bandura, a person’s level of motivation is directly proportional to what they believe they are capable of. People will only take you as seriously as you take yourself so the first step to keeping any New Year’s resolution is to have confidence that you can do it. If you’re doubting yourself, it’s probably not a great choice. I’d love to learn calculous sometime, but that’s just reaching for the stars.

Sorry, that’s a lie – I don’t want to learn calculous even a little.

Plan for obstacles:

Don’t assume it will be easy. If you do, you are giving yourself an easy out. “It’s raining today? Oh, I didn’t plan for that, my run is cancelled”. False! Professor of psychology Peter Gollwitzer reports that people who mentally prepare for obstacles are more likely to stick with their goals than those who don’t. Make sure there is a plan b in your pocket for the likely hick-ups and distractions. If you give up at the first sign of trouble, you were never really in it to begin with. This goes for every relationship, including the one you have with yourself.

Play the tourist:

Nothing is more inspiring about the expat life than the rush of cultural reciprocity. Exploring your foreign oasis with the fresh eyes of a tourist can give boring, tired goals new life. No matter how long you’ve been living in your city, there’s always more mysteries to uncover! Make a healthy-eating goal fun by trying more local dishes or exploring a new restaurant scene. Take a jog to a part of the city you’ve never seen before.

Just do it:

People ask me all the time how I ended up in the expat life, and in reality it’s because I just…did it. Many expats will tell you they spent months or years planning their continental leap, researching every tiny detail and comparing one city to another. That doesn’t work for me. If I sit down and plan too much, I get totally overwhelmed. Before long, I’ve completely lost my ambition in a cloud of risk analysis and apprehensive confusion.

It’s much the same with New Year’s goals – it takes strength of character; you have to dive in with everything you have before you lose heart and direction.

At the end of the day, we only get one shot at living so follow the advice of Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Traveling True in the Developing World


Explaining a developing country to someone who has never seen one is like teaching a blind man to paint. He can hold the brush and imagine the colors, but the abstraction can never be actualized to intent.

It takes a certain level of visionary consciousness to confront the honesty that oozes from every cobble and crack. Quantifying impoverished localities means awareness—open eyes, open ears, and open heart. Awareness is not pity, sorrow, or sympathy. It’s an agreement to see and appreciate the world around you from outside the comparative lens. It’s quiet observation, nurtured by a respectful curiosity. It’s sharing in the enthusiasm, friendliness, and sociability expressed by those struggling under the poorest circumstances. Most of all, it’s feeling awed by a cultural community where poverty, trust, and goodwill thrive in tandem.

Unfortunately, this state of mind is not fundamental or inherent. It takes commitment and reflection, as well as a passionate respect for what lays beyond one’s understanding. It’s been my experience that most travelers remain disengaged, despite total immersion in a developing culture. They flit from one visceral encounter to the next with hasty unaccountability. Their days are scaffolded to fulfill one self-gratifying agenda or another; they do not hear, think, or see beyond the tragedy of foregoing first-world conveniences. Every exposure and observation, for them,is colored by their own perception of what’s right and normal.

Embracing twilight from a terrace in rural Guatemala, I witnessed one of the worst examples of the disenfranchised perspective. It was close to 9pm and most shopkeepers were rolling down their gates after a hard day of work. One booth remained open, manned by a girl about 12 or 13. Her frock, sandals, and emotive gaze were as downcast as they were colorful. As I studied her, a group of American tourists surged up the lane—three teenage boys ducked inside her booth and peevishly rummaged through her goods. They snickered, playing with their smartphones and shoving each other into her carefully arranged wares. None of the boys offered a glance her way, as her mouth sank into an expression of gritty fatigue.

Laughing, one of the boys stepped backward and tripped over a vase. The group turned to stare as hand-painted shards splintered across the pavement. For a moment, the boys just gaped in silence at the wasted terracotta. They looked at each other, then the girl. She didn’t make a movement. Her jaw quivered. Suddenly, one of the boys shrieked and took off down the street. The other two followed—they broke into peals of giggles, their voices echoing through the night air as they caught up with their group.

I dropped money on the table, grabbed the basket of rolls, and ran out of the restaurant. She was in the street, sweeping up the shards with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Let me pay,”I said, shoving a wad of bills into her tiny hands.

She tried not to accept it, but after a few moments she gave in and took the bills from me. I offered her the rolls from the restaurant and she gingerly accepted those as well. We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the moonlit tranquility. Her native language was Kaqchikel, a spoken language indigenous to the Mayan people, but eventually we were able to exchange a few ephemeral pleasantries in Spanish. I learned that she works every day from sunrise to sunset, earning money to care for seven younger siblings. Her one wish was to go to school, but for the time being her family needed her income to subsist. Despite it all, she was optimistic. Happiness isn’t conditional, it just is. In just a few minutes, she demonstrated more courage and heart than anyone I’ve ever met.

In this moment, all the tyrannical urgencies of life were extinguished and I could see things exactly as they were. For every act of blind disrespect, I hope that as we evolve as a people and a species, there is always someone watching. Someone who cares.