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 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.

Spectatorship: Seeking the sunrise beyond the sunrise


Quincy MA, at dawn

As I travel, I become more and more aware of the power of spectatorship and the impact it has on experiences.

Communing with an uncharted moment

Imagine that you are standing on the precipice of a great cliff, watching the golden fingers of morning slowly creep across an empty riverbed. The heather dances scarlet on the horizon while somewhere far off, a lonely swallow croons.

Now, imagine experiencing this exact same scene with 30 other strangers by your side. Scratching, grumbling, giggling – gobbling up the essence of the moment with their intrusive presence. Iphones and irritation ground your spirit to mundane reality and the sacred splendor is shattered.

Spectatorship in all it’s glory

Instead, imagine you are present in the final moment of the final match of the World Cup.

Fifty thousand people are hanging on the edges of their chairs. The vivacious energy of the day is glowing pink in the faces of everyone around you, bouncing off the walls like daybreak through a prism.

The cheerful comradery inspires a unique kind of intoxicated bliss. For this single moment in time, you and everyone in the stadium are linked by the felicitation of the moment. Strangers are your best friends as you coalesce to make ONE GIANT FAN.

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But what if the stadium was empty and the only person there to see that final play was…just you?

Spectatorship is entirely conditional and too many times in the sweep of the tourist trajectory, the distinction between solitude and conviviality is sorely disrespected.

My manufactured moment 

On my recent adventure to Tikal, I was profoundly disenchanted by the way this line was crossed over and over. On the second day of my trip, I booked the sunrise tour, a 4am trek to the top of the highest temple.

Unfortunately, I was not the only one with this idea. By 5:05, the temple steps were staggered with 45 other tourists, cackling and canoodling in the early morning fog. As the girl in front of me cracked open her pack fiesta Doritos, my sense of glory evaporated entirely.

Cause, effect, and traveling true

The cause of this betrayal is largely monetary. Tour groups will market anything as a ‘unique experience’ and then turn around and sell the same manufactured moment to 20 thousand other tourists.

For travelers, this abuse of spectatorship means that we have a responsibility to engineer these moments ourselves, and think outside the box of ‘conventional tourism’. I urge my travel hungry amigos to seek the sunrise beyond the sunrise, a commitment to chase the genuine experience whenever possible.

Do we dream differently on the trail?


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According to the Dream Dictionary, travel plays a significant role in our dreams. Places we’ve been, places we’d love to go, and places we’ll never go. But what if we are already out there traveling?

Three weeks before leaving Sydney, my dreams took a sharp turn. Waking drenched in sweat, I would feel the passionate, mind-bending visions coiling around me.

Radioactive monkey-spiders. A talking dog, that also plays the harmonica. Jimmy Fallon trapped inside the body of a mongoose.

After 2 years living abroad, I was preparing to quit my job, pack up my life, say goodbye to a continent of friends, and take off on a grand Trans-Siberian journey. Outwardly, I was tranquil, collected, primed. Inside, my soul was screaming out like a canary snatched from a windowsill and sling-shot into Narnia.

Traveling brings thrill, passion, adventure, romance, and inspiration into our lives – but it also brings risk and uncertainty. Fortunately, we have dreams that allow us to process the complex emotions and disabling fears that we’re unable or unwilling to contend with in our waking lives.

For me, interpreting my dreams in those precarious weeks before and during my travels enabled me to process the colossal changes and uncertainty. I found that ‘angry monkey spiders’ turned out to mean-I don’t like packing. But should stop avoiding it.

Then mongoose Jimmy Fallon actually had a lot of useful information on how to make friends in Russia.

Some scientists believe that dreaming is the same state of mind that schizophrenics experience. It’s an environment where all our wildest passions can explode to extremes we would never conceive of in reality; and it feels great.

By this logic, our “nightly madness” clears the cobwebs of doubt that inhibit us from expressing ourselves fully and listening to our souls guidance. Tally ho!

 

Friendly strangers are…not strange!


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My friends often make fun of me because I have a habit of making friends in very strange places.

I’ll go to the bathroom for 5 minutes and come out arm and arm with a girl I never saw before in my life. Usually that’s because I’ve embarrassed myself somehow, and we both shared a laugh at my expense. It’s an interesting way to go through life. When I travel, it seems that  both the likelihood of fail and the likelihood of spontaneous friendship increase exponentially. I should make a bar graph.

There were a few points during my Trans-Siberian journey when I found trouble, and suddenly, a friend was there. My night train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow turned out to be one of these occasions.

It’s a good thing that I don’t speak Russian – I would have probably been very offended to hear the sneers of disgruntled passengers who put up with me staggering from one wrong seat to the next. And the next. It was pitch dark, I was the last to board, and all of the seat numbers, (and my ticket) were in Russian. OH fail.

trainIt wasn’t the volume or their tone that made me uncomfortable….maybe it was the laughter. Yeah, that was it. And the way they pierced me with their pitiless gazes, as though I was naked on the first day of primary school.

Sliding into the correct seat at last, I shmooshed my awkward tote under the table, smoothed my fluffed up curls, and let my heart beat settle into it’s natural rhythm. At least I had the seat across from me to myself.

But then, just as the train whistle blew, a wiry old man stumbled up the isle and slid into the seat I had been planning for a leg-rest.

It was a tiny one-person booth. He and I sat opposite, with a metal table between us. I was just settling into the awkward language-barrier silence, when he piped up; “Hi! How are you? My name is Zuzuka and I’d love to practice my English.” We chatted for a good while and I settled into a velvety relaxation.

When the conversation ended, I pulled out a sweater and settled in to sleep face-first on the table, like a catcatface. He called out to me, pointing to the bunk above us, and I said “That’s ok, you can have it!” After all, I had paid for a ‘seat’ only, not a bed. It was fair.

He started to make his bed and I clocked out again, only to wake to him saying “Hey! Let me help you!” I did not understand what he meant, so I told him that I was all set.

False!! At this point, he pulls my sweater-pillow away and says “Get up you poop!” So I did. Life-changing was the moment when I watched him macgyver this very fixed looking table upside-down, and then lower it snuggly into the space between the seats. Bed number two. My eyebrows actually launched off my face in surprise.

I went to lay down, when he said “No no no. Wrong again.”

This time, he made me move over while he whisked bedding out of thin air and made my entire bed for me. This is the point it dawned on me that I was about to make a poor old man scuttle up to a top bunk, while I sleep like a fat lazy beagle in my pre-made bed. I begged to switch, but he would not hear of it. The dear.

Snug as pie, I settled in to sleep. My last memory before drifting off to the narcotizing sway of the train car was of Zuzuka peering over the edge of his bunk and whispering “Goodnight Jessica!!!” with a massive grin, waving like a kindergartener fresh off the school bus.

I will never forget the super fun trajectory of fail that led me to such a good person. It seems that kindred spirits can be found anywhere.

Saying goodbye.


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The first thing we are taught in this world is how to say hello, but nobody ever teaches us how to say goodbye.

I am not talking about waving to your kindergarten teacher as you cross the hallway to the first grade classroom. Or the way you feel when your older brother goes off to college for the first time. I am referring to the soul shuddering farewells that shift the polarity of your known identity. The kind of partings that make you question all the decisions you’ve ever made in life.

Crouching beside my fourteen-year-old dog, her milky eyes teemed with liquid trust. Steeling me with her caramel gaze, she took no notice of the suitcase by the door. I cradled her silver muzzle between sweaty palms, trying to strike a balance between denial and an overwhelming appreciation for all that she is.

This is the kind of goodbye I’ve encountered from the moment I left for Australia, two and a half years ago.

Travel-hungry expats understand this kind of raw reality better than anyone, as by the nature of travel we find ourselves meeting and parting, perhaps forever, from a multitude of exceptional people. But what do you do when these periphery encounters become a significant part of your life?

After several years living and working abroad, I find that there is no such thing as goodbye. You can’t produce an equation or cook up a recipe to soothe an ethereal sense of loss. If you could, I feel that would be doing a great disservice to all you have known and experienced.

While time, space, and the waking world may separate us from the people and things that we have known and loved in the past, they are never truly dislodged from us once embedded.

Goodbye is a graveyard that I spend life speeding by, only glancing at from the heated seats of my volvo station wagon. But every now and then I have to pull the car over, stop the engine, and take a saunter through the old parts of myself.

Greeting others is one of the most beautiful tokens of social expression and the true goodbye is an eternity of hello’s to the past.

 

Inspiration attacks with Titanic force


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My favorite comedian Jack Handy once said, “I hope some animal never bores a hole in my head and lays it’s eggs in my brain, because later you might think you’re having a good idea but it’s just eggs hatching.

Good for you, Jack, for figuring out how to put what that feels like into words.

Have you ever walked into an art gallery or seen a really good film and thought “Why didn’t I think of that first?”

It’s the schizophrenic rush of inspiration, the feeling that the demonic heat of your own creative potential might actually set you on fire.

And then you see the gelato shop across the road and the idea that was so fresh and clear in your mind crawls back to the larval sack of ambivalence from whence it came.

For me, this moment came yesterday after watching Titanic for the 10,000 time.

Although many fans ‘abandoned ship’ in an effort to distance themselves from the poisonous haze of romantic stereotypes and pre-teen obsession, my loyalty has never wavered.

Before Titanic, nobody had the tools to communicate the shock, terror, and devastation of this infamous night. By definition, history is removed from our sense of reality and is therefore inaccessible.

Since April 14th 1912, people have relied on written accounts and imagination to connect with the horror of this legendary disaster.

Then came James Cameron’s Titanic, a sensual tsunami that allows people to experience the sinking for themselves through the eyes of authentic, relatable characters.

The story is communicated with such flawless accuracy, counting a plot laced with faithful depictions of true passengers.

The stark class differences and political dissension of the era are meticulously represented in every dialogue. The boundary between present and past is shattered for 194 minutes.

All I can think is, why didn’t I do it first? Never mind that I was 10.