Has Travel Made Me Happier?

Taking a picture of Buddhist monks praying in Vietnam

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
– Abraham Lincoln

I was sat in a pool of my own tears. I had just had an argument with Ankit over nothing in particular, and for some reason my stomach was full of anxiety. It was a familiar feeling – one that creeps in quietly without me even realising, like a mosquito that somehow makes it inside unnoticed, sucks your blood, then flies off well before you even notice the bite. It’s like an itch I cannot quite scratch, but which lingers more regularly than I’d care to admit. It’s a feeling of vast emptiness that has no particular explanation. It’s an absence and a longing for something that doesn’t even exist.

It’s a feeling that I had hoped I’d left behind me when we flew out of Dubai in August.

And yet here I was, on a heavenly Thai island, supposed to be living the dream, and I was sat crying and feeling miserable over nothing. If you asked me what was making me unhappy, I wouldn’t have been able to give you a straight answer.

This has to stop, I told myself.

This really has to stop.

Beauty is everywhere. You just have to see it.

Beauty is everywhere. You just have to see it.

***

I’ve spent most of my life pursuing something – a university degree, my first car, my first job, my first decent salary, a toned body, my first real boyfriend, a freelance career, full-time travel. While I was running after each one of these things, big dreams swimming in my head, I always convinced myself that the minute I attained them my life would be transformed.

I was merely 15 years of age when I first started believing that changing my circumstances would make me feel better within. We were living in Ora, Cyprus – a small village with a population of 250. I was a dreamer from a young age, and as such, I had already began formulating images of me living in a big city, having a big figure job, and enjoying a big life. I hated living in Ora – I found it to be small, mundane and lifeless. The key to my happiness was to be found somewhere busier; somewhere full of opportunities. Not like Ora, where the only source of entertainment was a room of arcade games and a partly ripped volleyball net.

Then we moved back to the UK and I was ecstatic.

I finally got to live in a bigger town – somewhere where I could dream up even bigger plans. I set out to get the best grades I could possibly achieve in order to go to any university that I wanted. This involved doing my GCSE’s in one year instead of the two years that it usually takes. It also involved spending most of my time studying, but I didn’t care. I had a job to do, and I was going to do it damn well.

While overall I had a happy childhood that was full of love, once I hit the difficult teenager years, my relationship with my mum became one that was fraught with arguments. As a teenager, I didn’t find it easy. The incessant fights drove me insane and all I was longing for was my own space – space that would be found at university.

I passed my A’Levels with flying colours and headed away from home for the first time.

I was ecstatically happy. For a while.

And this was a pattern that I’ve lived through most of my life: achieve something, feel momentarily happy, and then start feeling restless and empty the minute that happiness subsides. I believed that in order to stay happy, I had to change something in my external environment – whether that was by getting a new job, buying a new car, getting a boyfriend. So whenever I was feeling miserable, I was looking to see what could change in order for me to be happy again.

But the older I got, the less effect the happiness had. The feeling would subside quicker than it would when I was younger, and would leave me feeling empty and restless, even when there was no problem in sight.

While achieving each one of these things made me momentarily happier, they could not sustain that feeling.

Is this a pattern that would be repeated now that I was travelling?

Me graduating from the University of Leicester. One of my proudest moments.

Me graduating from the University of Leicester. One of my proudest moments.

***

Long-term travel has been a dream of mine for as long as I remember. When I was a teenager, I used to print pictures of the New York City skyline from the internet and plaster them all over my walls. I spent my spare time dreaming up big trips. Even in my not so spare time at work I’d be googling far off destinations, combing through travellers’ envy-inducing photos, and reading travel blogs.

In 2012, I finally got over the ‘women cannot travel long-term solo’ fear that was instilled in me by my Cypriot family, and decided I was going to see the world. I sold all my belongings and was ready to go. I then met Ankit, moved back to Dubai, and somehow two years later we’ve ended up living our dream together. We’ve now been on the road for almost four months.

Long-term travel is my life dream – alongside writing a book. It’s like a lighthouse that I’ve been somehow coming back to over and over again throughout the years. Whenever times get rough, I look towards it – the perfect beacon of escapism.

It’s only now that I realise that perhaps I’ve been running away from myself for all these years.

***

Happy to be happy

Happy to be happy

Following my outburst of tears over nothing a week or so ago, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my pattern of constantly looking outside for happiness. Here I am on a journey of a lifetime, and yet I’ve still found reasons to feel discontent – lack of cash, lack of home comforts etc, etc, etc. And yet again, I found myself looking for something that would make me feel happy again – should we have never left? Should we settle down somewhere? Should I even be a freelance writer?

If it can be remedied,
Why get into a foul mood over something?
And if it can’t be remedied,
What help is it to get into a foul mood over it?

I’ve found myself increasingly turning to Buddhism for answers. I cannot claim to be an expert in the teachings of Buddha, but from what I understand, one of the truths that he taught is that suffering in life can be overcome and happiness can be attained – true happiness – if we give up useless cravings and learn to live presently in the moment.

While I have known this for a while, it’s only now that I’m learning how true it is. You can be in the most amazing place in the world, looking at the most impressive sight of your life, and you can still be unhappy – if you look for the negatives, they’re to be found everywhere.

Similarly, the positives are everywhere. And the main positive is that we’re alive, right here and now, and can enjoy this moment.

Travel can leave you somewhat raw and exposed. You’re no longer surrounded by your creature comforts – your house where you can retreat to when you’re feeling miserable, the friends you rely on when you’re feeling down, the coffee shop that serves the latte that cheers you up after a crappy day.

Yes, you get to witness the most amazing things, but you also get pushed to your very limits. It’s hard to stay calm and happy while you’re on the road, despite the fact you’re getting to live your dream and see the world. You will be tested pretty much every day by external forces that are beyond your control.

Travel has made me realise that I have an insatiable appetite for something that does not exist – and that’s perfection. My life won’t magically become better when I achieve my goals – if I get a book published, if I live in my dream home, if I own my dream wardrobe.

This doesn’t mean I plan on stopping to aspire to achieve things. To the contrary. But it does mean that I’m going to focus more on the present moment than ever before, without thinking too much about how I can change my life.

So while travel hasn’t directly made me happier, it’s brought to the surface issues that I’ve been battling for years but never really realised. Namely that I’ve always assumed that the key to happiness is to change things the minute they make you feel uncomfortable.

I now realise that real happiness has to come from within – and you can achieve that anywhere in the world.

My relationship with Ankit keeps me grounded. He's like my anchor.

My relationship with Ankit keeps me grounded. He’s like my anchor.

Any thoughts to share on the topic of happiness? Has travel made you happier?

  • jannie

    “But it does mean that I’m going to focus more on the present moment than ever before, without thinking too much about how I can change my life.” -> very nice statement. I’m trying to do that. And that make me feel happier.

    I’m exactly in the same situation as yours, which is before your world travel. I’m on way to pursuit the achievements you mentioned. and there are many times I feel tired, lonely,…but if I stop doing it, i don’t have anything and don’t know what to do.I love travel, see the world and always use any chance to do it , but I know it’s not my big dream.
    I have just get an offer for a new position, a chance to help me escape my current job that I think an dead -end job. I’m kind of happy but i think this is also an temporary happiness when I achieve something.

    I probably go back home and go to Bangkok before joining the new position hand hope to find something new or just relieve myself and your earlier posts must help a lot.

    Good luck to you!

    • Andrea

      Hello and thank you for reading our blog!

      I’m definitely starting to believe more and more that true happiness is to be found within us – from feeling at peace with the present moment and our circumstances. But it’s also important to pursue things that are important to us, without ever losing sense of the ‘present’ because at the end of the day, isn’t the fact that we’re alive reason enough to be content?

      I hope you reach the decision that’s right for you 🙂 Let us know how everything goes. Best of luck!

  • Freddie Sumption

    Hey Angie, all so true. I’ve often felt that way and tried to analyse what was going on. A real life-changer book for me was Alain de Boton’s book ‘The Art of Travel’. It talks a lot about the anticipation vs the reality of travel. More analytical/philosophical than spiritual but if you’ve not read it already I think you’d really enjoy it.

    A few quotes (apologies for the indulgence!):

    “when we look at pictures of places we want to go and see (and imagine how happy we would be if only we were there), we are prone to forget one crucial thing: that we will have to take ourselves along with us.”

    “Another great problem of vacations is that they rob us of one of the important comforts of daily life: the expectation that things won’t be perfect. In daily life, we are not supposed to be happy, we are allowed – even encouraged – to be generally dissatisfied and sad. But vacations give us no such grace. They are one time when it seems that we have failed if we cannot be happy. We are therefore prone to be not only miserable on our travels – but miserable about the fact that we are miserable. I remember a trip to a hotel in France with my girlfriend. The setting was sublime, the room flawless – and yet we managed to have a row which started with who had forgotten the key in the room and extended to cover the whole of our relationship. The row was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods seem subject – and which we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful country or hotel and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence… If we are surprised by the power of, for example, a single sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods. We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on holiday in a nice place we learn that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery.”

    “The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present. A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties resolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain. A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window. We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back at the field. It continues to rain. At last, the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon’. A storyteller who provides us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening. Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetitions, misleading emphases[,] and inconsequential plot lines. It insists on showing us Burdak Electronics, the safety handle in the car, a stray dog, a Christmas card[,] and a fly that lands first on the rim and then the centre of a laden ashtray.”

    • Andrea

      Wow, I love this! Thanks for sharing the excerpts with me – I definitely think I need to read this book.

      I particularly like this:

      “If we are surprised by the power of, for example, a single sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods. We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on holiday in a nice place we learn that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery.”

      This trip is an extremely good lesson for me. I’ve seriously spent most of my life looking for happiness everywhere but from within. Sounds a bit new age but it’s the truth. You really have to learn to be content with whatever the present is at any given time. I’m starting to think that’s the real route to happiness.

  • Just this was just what I needed. I’m also traveling long-term and I’ve been struggling with the same issues. I remember at this time last year, I was sitting in my office thinking I would be so much happier a year from now because I would be on the road. I think I’ve always had the tendency to believe if I change my situation, I’ll be happier. But as you said, the real happiness has to come from within. The interesting thing about travel is that now that I’m doing what I want and all of those external circumstances that I thought were making me unhappy are removed (job, normal life), I don’t feel any happier, per se. Anyway, I just loved reading this and knowing I’m not the only one going through this. There were so many sentences you wrote and I was just nodding my head, saying “yes.” Thank you for your honesty.

    • Andrea

      Hey Emiko,

      Thank you for your kind words. I aim to be as honest as I can about this trip, so that means I’ll regularly be writing about the less than idyllic aspects of the whole experience!

      I think that travel definitely opens your eyes to a lot; if you’re anything like me, you will spend a lot of time turning inward, reflecting on everything. Once you remove a full-time job from the picture, you’re left with a lot of spare time on your hands! I think that it’s a good thing, though, as you come out of zombie mode (aka, working 9-5 and living for your weekends) and really have the time to figure things out and, should you desire to, work on yourself and the things that matter to you most. Sometimes we won’t like what we see at the beginning, but I think it’s up to us to ultimately turn it into a positive and see life from a new perspective.

  • Leanne Perrier

    I am about to spend two weeks in Thailand volunteering,….the longest and least comfy trip I’ve ever taken (2015 is about conquering fears!). During my research for this trip, I have stumbled across several blogs of couples travelling long-term. It has awakened a desire in me to sell my belongings and do the same with my partner. Then I happened upon your blog today. I too feel like I have been chasing happiness. Perhaps this latest desire is just more of the same, always trying to find that “thing” that will make you happy but never really healing the wound. I can definitely relate to you life journey and thank you for sharing. So…..at the end of the day, do you think travelling is a must-do for people like us or can the meaning be found else where?

    • Andrea

      You must be really excited about your trip!

      The question that you ask is a very good one, and it’s one that I’ve been asking myself while we’ve been on this journey. I think if you love to travel, you should always find as many opportunities as you can to do so. There’s so much of the world to see and so little time, so it’s a good thing to get out there and see it all! But I think that it’s also important not to see travel as a ‘cure.’ What I mean by this is, your life won’t magically be transformed the minute you quit your job and head out on the road. Any issues you may have (for me, it’s the fact I am always chasing happiness instead of feeling happy within) will not magically disappear. It’s something that I realise now, but I definitely don’t regret our decision to travel this way.