Travel has the power to make you full of energy and wonder — for a few hours, days or even weeks. But then you get habituated to your new lifestyle — and become your everyday self again.
If you feel less than joyful while traveling, you may also feel guilty for “wasting” your amazing surroundings. But it’s the most natural thing on earth — and even the most consciously cheery people have down days. Ask me how I know.
I don’t wanna
Today, I really did not feel like moving across town to a new place. I was in a low-energy mood. I didn’t want to pack or figure out how to get across town. I didn’t want to meet new housemates. I didn’t want to leave my bathtub or my awesome neighborhood behind. I just didn’t wanna.
Life is full of things you don’t want to do, of course. Before I became a nomad, there were days I had to go to traffic court, or to the dentist, or to my son’s school to discuss his behavior with a principal. On those days, you never could have convinced me that I’d be in Kuala Lumpur, feeling the same way about moving from a hotel to an Airbnb room. Yet here I am! Those “dark cloud” days can show up any time, anywhere.
Emotional set points
I have a core belief that people have emotional “set points.” If you think about the people you’ve known for a long time, they’ve probably hovered around a certain emotional “temperature” the whole time you’ve known them. One is always furious at someone, another is anxious and worried. One might be in the dumps all the time, while another is always laughing. Your friends probably blame their moods on a current situation, but if you’ve known them long, you’ve seen their moods prevail through different jobs, relationships, and living situations. I think of this as their emotional “set point.” It can be changed, but not without a lot of conscious effort over a long period of time.
I know because I changed mine. (Although obviously I’m still a work in progress).
A role model for joy
Becoming happy was a conscious choice for me, and several things helped me on that path, including yoga, meditation, reading, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I was also very lucky to be exposed every day to one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met. Her name is Dian, and she was my “Office Princess” (I let my staff choose their own titles) for years. Dian could find a bright side in a dark room, and her gratitude was boundless. Every day at some random moment she would yell over the cubicle wall “Have I mentioned today that I love my job?” She was serious.
She also loves her family, her church, her community, her friends, her dog, and her home. Dian was self-trained in the art of finding the bright side, and she is great at it. It’s a deliberate choice that has become an ingrained habit for her. For example, when her car was in the shop she was given a craptastic loaner to drive. When she got it up to 55mph, the car started shaking. Dian told herself, “OK, it’s… like a free chair massage,” and tried to enjoy it. At 60mph, the car shimmied dangerously and threatened to explode. “OK, good.” Dian told herself. “I won’t get any speeding tickets in this car!” (Note that Dian turned the car in the next day and asked for another one. She’s happy, not stupid.)
Dian’s example, combined with meditation training that taught me how to manage my thoughts, has changed my life completely. Finding that bright side was a deliberate act for me for a long time, but is now automatic.
Last month in Indonesia, an immigration official’s dishonesty forced me to make a visa run to Singapore, costing me hundreds of dollars and several days of my time. There was nothing I could do about it except manage my emotional experience by choosing my narrative. I chose this one: “I was bound to have immigration troubles sooner or later. It’s all part of the traveling experience, isn’t it? Might as well enjoy my weekend trip to Singapore!”
When I fell through the sidewalk and bruised my entire leg, I thought “Wow, if I’d snapped my ankle I’d be in real trouble. I’m so lucky I didn’t get cut or infected! Now I’m forced to spend more time in the hammock.”
Those experiences, and many others, could have ruined my trip a hundred times in the past year. I could dwell on them, I could rage at people, I could feel sorry for myself. Or I can take them in stride and look for things to be happy about. We always have a buffet of emotions to choose from. The one that seems “right” to you is the one you’re used to. Choosing something new — consistently — takes effort at first.
Did you know that neurons will grow more receptors for whichever neurotransmitters they encounter most, at the expense of other receptors? If you repeatedly flood your brain with anger, sadness, or fear your neurons will grow more receptors for those neurotransmitters, and fewer receptors for, say, joy. In other words, your habitual emotions literally hardwire your brain for more of the same. I Gratitude journaling, meditation, yoga, running, music and dance are all great methods to flood your brain regularly with feelings of well-being so it can rewire itself for happiness.
Of course, this assumes your brain is functioning properly. People with serious depression or anxiety issues may need medication and other treatments to correct brain chemistry, and help from a professional to break cycles of negative thought. And when you’re going through dark times, sometimes it’s all you can do to survive each day. “Find a bright side” is meaningless advice when you’re grieving, or dealing with health issues, or just found out your spouse is cheating on you (although once you’ve developed a higher emotional set point, you will find that you weather those storms more easily).
Taking your show on the road
If you’re unhappy, a short vacation might give you a nice break. But if you’re thinking about long-term travel, you should know that you’re taking your personal show on the road, not changing the content of the show. If anything, the stress of travel will intensify your usual collection of moods. If those are negative, the result could be disastrous.
I’ve had the surrealistic experience of sitting in a hotel restaurant in absolute bliss with a friend — while listening to another guest rant about how horrible the very same hotel is and how his vacation was RUINED by the same experience I was enjoying. That guy got to feel righteous, I suppose, but I’d rather be blissed out.
The rest of my “don’t wanna” day
So how did my day turn out? I pushed past my resistance and did what I had to do to get to my new home. It wasn’t easy (four cab drivers refused to take me, and I wound up with the only taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur who doesn’t speak English!). But soon it was done. Then my dark cloud lifted.
My new rented room is amazing. My hosts are travelers themselves, and very nice people. I have my own bathroom. There’s an infinity pool with a jacuzzi on the roof, and a glass-enclosed fitness center where I can hop on a treadmill and go for a walk in the sky!
I think I’m going to be happy here. 😉