“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.
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?
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.
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.