Travelling and Happiness

At one time in my life, I was homeless for nearly a half a year.

Not a sleeping-bag-under-an-overpass type of homeless, or a flecks-of-spittle-Tourette’s-syndrome type of homeless.

I was travelling.

Two years out of college, and despite a blooming career at a major newspaper, I wasn’t particularly happy.  This path seemed too safe, too obvious.  There were practical concerns too—the digital world was already beginning to massacre traditional journalism, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend the next ten years of my life watching the carnage.  Climbing the career ladder is less attractive when the is ladder is being washed away by the rising tide of democratization of information.

In this midst of this dark night of the soul … it occurred to me that I’d yet to visit the vast majority of our grand country.  And, of course, these fifty states weren’t going to present themselves to me.  The cliffside dwellings of Canyon de Chelly weren’t going to knock on my front door.  I wouldn’t wake up to find Devil’s Tower magically recreated in my backyard.  Even National Geographic photographers have to explore the back roads of Iowa to find the bridges of Madison County.

With some savings, and a dependable but ordinary four-door sedan, I recruited a friend who had a similar yearning.  We shucked everything – which wasn’t much, at that point – and spent the next five months, thirty-nine states, and fifteen thousand miles undertaking the Great American Road Trip.

You’ve seen it in a thousand movies.  A red convertible, a mutual distrust between fellow travelers that grows into a friendship.  A third traveler joins the journey, making the tension explicit.  A juke joint, a room of angry hillbillies, followed by gunshots.  Usually there’s a climax somewhere in California, usually at the ocean, at the blue limit of the unrealistic dream.  An inner conflict is resolved, the girl is won (or lost), and everything is made whole again.

It didn’t quite work out that tidily.  Still, I wouldn’t trade that half-year for anything.  We encountered wild javalinas in a Texas desert, interviewed a roadside preacher in Mississippi, ran out of cash in Amish country (they don’t take plastic, shockingly), and even executde an unbelievable skin-of-the-teeth escape from federal authorities on the Canadian border.  (One piece of advice: Never attempt an international border crossing with a highly self-destructive friend-of-a-friend who secretly hides a firearm in your jumper cable box.)

I would liken the entire experience to running on a moving walkway.  Once you reach the end, your equilibrium has changed, and you feel like life is meant to be lived at that pace, in that way, and the slowness of the concrete under your feet feels oddly irritating.  That’s why I kept going, alone, for another month after my fellow traveler bailed. 

The reason: It made me happy.

The Buddhists call this satori, or peak experience.  If you’ve had this, you know how vitalit is to leave our comfort zones, at least if we want to find happiness.

And now a recent article in Psychology Today supports this. 

It’s a good read.  Among other observations, the author points out that risk-taking, uncertainty, and discomfort are essential ingredients in the search for happiness. 

Consumer culture, you’ve been put on warning.  You can’t pull the wool over our eyes for too much longer.  For one, we aren’t making as much money as we used to.  Two, our needs aren’t solely material.  We have emotional and spiritual desires too.

And sometimes, as you’ve watched Ainsley Walker discover, the only way to fill these needs is through travelling.

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.