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. 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.”

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’re Nicholas Cage). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel frustrated or have negative emotions, but we shouldn’t 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 which 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 irritations?

You burst beyond the bogs of insecurity to take a big risk, gratifying the creature of hope and anticipation that viciously burrowed into the cavity of your heart and made a nest.

slowlorisBut as you see it there glinting on the horizon, your ship of dreams sinks deep before your eyes, down into a lake of smurf blood and unicorn tears.

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 with 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 Dad’s face lights up when he walks in the door. This is the marigold quintessence of life.

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Alas, as we grow older, we develop an alternate state of being –– an unreality –– the land of critical thinking. It’s the state of mind where we make major life decisions, learn, and growing as intellectual 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 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.

How do we get back to living free and in the moment? Living to live? The one remaining link between adulthood 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; it lies at the heart of all discovery, invention, creativity and intellectualism. Travelers and expatriates are practice “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 a host city, the existential magic ebbs away and we’re left with the doldrums of everyday existence. We begin to take the spectacularity 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 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 embracing the present moment:

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.

Expatriotism: A risk lover’s dream come true


There’s no greater feeling in life than the reward of a risk taken and well achieved.

Travelers are by nature, life’s greatest gamblers. We are always searching for the next challenge, feeding off the electric pulse of constant uncertainty. Scaling mountains, trekking to the planets extremities, and leaping off just about anything they’ll let us.

With every risk rewarded, the addiction digs its talons deeper into my gut. As Truman Capote writes, you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get.

A way of life

But what kind of risk are you running when instead of leaping off the cliff, you build a house at the edge of it and pull out a pair of binoculars?

Vacationing is one thing, while expatriotism is quite another. For many of us, the kinetic inconsistency of travel becomes a way of life. Once caught in the matrix of periphery encounters, poetic solitude, and adrenalin-pumping exploits, you’re lost forever in an ocean of uncharted potential.

The way you see the world shifts the tapestry of meaning formed from a new sense of experiential awareness polarizes your sense personal identity. Suddenly, home is not just the place you live. Home is the piece of your soul that finds its counterpoint in the intoxication of cultural reciprocity.

The risk of cultural investment

According to DW Dilauro’s article Using Neuroscience to Understand Risk, culture is defined as “a lens through which risks are interpreted”.

This is the idea that risk perceptions are a social construct designed to reinforce the institutional framework within a given community. The idea of acceptable behavior changes in every culture, based on how that society measures risk.

So what happens when you drop a risk-loving expat into a web of entirely new sociological characteristics? A whole lot of adventure. Without even realizing it, expats are taking risks and defying normality at every turn. Most of us don’t fit in. Many of us struggle to find a job. A few of us offend everyone we meet before even drawing a breath. These is are typical trepidations of an expatriate life.

The challenge of adapting to foreign customs and standards is personal growth at its best. The cycle continues as the more we invest and facilitate cultural exchange, the greater the risk –– and the greater the reward.

Reciprocity rewarded

If every expat in every nation around the world got together to form a new country, it would be the 5th most populous nation in the world.

As such a formidable group, we have a responsibility to establish standards of reciprocity for future, more mobile generations and inspire a climate of cultural awareness, tolerance, and global understanding. The inspiration that comes from investing in a foreign culture fills gaps in your soul that you never knew existed.

While reason is often at odds with reflexive behavior, curiosity is the spark to the flame of erudition.

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.

Females flying solo: A guide to empowerment


“66% of fourth grade girls say they like science and math. But only 18% of all college engineering majors are female.”

Verizon’s 2014 commercial raises some very good points. Women in America are victims of extreme gender stereotyping and it largely affects the choices we make later in life – including whether or not to travel.

Culturally, women are treated as precious snowflakes; sweet, delicate, and disastrously ill equipped to contend with the meatier struggles of life.

Whether a woman is walking on to a used car lot, pursuing an engineering degree, or planning a trek across southeastern Columbia, the reaction is always the same:

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

An article on Forbes.com tracked the public outcry prompted by the death of a 33-year-old woman traveling in Turkey:

  • “A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish.”
  • “A woman has no business traveling alone.”
  • “No WAY I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone.”

It’s a sad fact that things like this happen, but bottling women up is not the answer. Terrible things are likely to happen anywhere, even at home. According to the FBI, 80% of violent crime victims know their attackers personally.

When I was a child, one of my classmates bragged about an amazing weekend in NYC. Inspired, I went home and asked my mother if she could take me the following weekend.

She let out a small sigh and said, “Your father is busy, but maybe some other weekend.”

“But why can’t we go just the two of us?” I asked.

“It’s much too dangerous for us to travel to a big city like New York on our own,” she said.

This is the viewpoint that many of my friends and I grew up with; an opinion still institutionalized within my home community.

Every day, concerned friends furrow their brows and ask my mother how on earth she can cope with me living in rural Guatemala.

I am lucky to have so many amazing people in my life who care. But in a more perfect world, people would have confidence in my pursuits and not see every travel excursion as an opportunity for the real-life enactment of Little Red Riding Hood.

Recently, Ohio State’s Women in Engineering (WIE) has taken amazing strides in combating these restrictive stereotypes.

After hearing of the extremely low ranking Guatemala received on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, the group is preparing to launch an annual woman-centered engineering expedition in conjunction with NGO Mayan Families.

For three months each summer, students will travel to Guatemala to utilize special engineering strategies to empower women and deliver long-term industrial solutions.

The project will give female students the opportunity to travel, experience a new culture, and contend with gender inequality issues both at home and abroad.

At just 18 years old, electrical and computer engineering major Mary Scherer is the pilot representative for the initiative, gathering all the information to approve funding for the trip while pioneering the educational practices that future students will employ.

She’s optimistic that the program will not only benefit the indigenous communities, but will also stand as a champion initiative for equal rights and the empowerment of women everywhere:

“Experiencing volcanic hikes, flooding rains, and an earthquake after only three weeks in Guatemala, I have realized that the world is constantly changing. But while teaching here in Panajachel, I have also realized that as a woman in engineering, I too am changing the world.”

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.

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.