One of the most rewarding lessons you can learn while traveling is the strength and beauty of friendships. Geography is no barrier to a bond between two people, be they friends, family or significant others. You’ll also learn when on the road how small this world really is. I was reminded of this recently when not one, but two people I met back in the Florida Keys pegged Alaska on their summer travel map, conveniently and coincidentally colliding with my Alaskan RV trip and now extended stay in the tundra wilderness.
Yesterday, I reunited with a past co-worker who has become a dear friend. He was in Anchorage for the day before leaving the following morning to begin a tour throughout this arctic landscape with his mom. Our initial greeting was filled with bear hugs, spazzing, playful punches and weird accents. What I love most about Raj is that, in addition to spawning spontaneous dance parties on the sidewalk or in art galleries, he also has deep, reflective moments in which he engages in meaningful conversation (albeit with his normal boring American accent).
While enjoying lunch at the acclaimed Snow City Café on the corner of 4th and L, Raj casually yet intentionally asked me to define happiness.
“Do you mean what does happiness mean to me, or what makes a person happy?” I said.
“Both,” he responded. “But more so a universal definition of the term.”
I chewed on an ice cube while marinating on the question for a minute.
“Happiness is,” I started, “enjoying the little things in life.” Then I corrected myself. “Well, maybe that only shows me that I’m happy, when I enjoy the little things in life.” Ruminating a bit longer, I continued. “It is a state of euphoria brought on by joyful events or moments in a person’s life.”
Raj has been asking his friends randomly to define this word, this feeling, this state of being. Initially, I thought the answer was simple. But as soon as I started with “happiness is…,” I knew I wouldn’t be content with the answer. Because happiness appears to be experienced differently by individuals. Certain things make one person happy but not another, and everyone responds to this emotion in a unique way. So how can there be an all-encompassing definition for this seemingly unique state of mind? We decided to consult Webster’s.
“Happiness is a state of being,” Raj read, “brought on by a positive, pleasurable or satisfying experience.”
“Hmm,” we murmured simultaneously. Neither of us was completely satisfied with Mr. Webster.
While trying to make a dent in his 10-inch blueberry pancakes, Raj piped in again. “I don’t think happiness can be achieved without friendships, or other people involved in your life. I don’t think you can be truly happy all alone.”
Even as a solo traveler, finding countless moments of pure bliss when it is just me and the sea, I agreed with him. While I often trot the globe by myself, I meet other people along the way. I talk to strangers on the bus, meet foreigners at the hostel, make new travel buddies on group tours. Are we ever fully, truly, completely alone? As social beings, wouldn’t we go crazy if we never ever interacted with a single person once we became capable of fending for ourselves? Extrovert or introvert, Raj and I were both in agreement that you need at least one other person in your life to experience this “happiness” state of being. It doesn’t have to be at that current moment you are feeling incredibly, immeasurably, ungodly happy, but I’m sure at least one person had a hand in helping you get to this gleeful stage in some way, somehow. Maybe that’s why we’re so drawn to love when evolution strictly says humans need only to reproduce to survive. (Raj and I are both zoologists. Science often gets the best of us.) So we added socialization to our definition of happiness.
Then I expanded upon the idea by returning to my life adage: simplicity is the key to happiness. Prior to immersing myself in a primitive living environment among the Quechua tribe (read more about this here), I had believed this to be true. I have been a nature-and-earth lover basically since I exited the womb, and technology often bogs me down. When I emerged from the Amazon in 2009, I left my heart behind. Eating dinner by candlelight, singing songs to combat the iTunes-barren workplace, and cooking with vegetables grown by the indigenous folk across the river, I felt free, relaxed and dare I say happy.
I also shared with Raj a story of my weeks building a school in Brazil. My team was there to offer an extra hand to the locals, not to question the way that they knew and had always done things. These Brazilians still mix cement by hand (a task I sweated over for hours causing me to milk sore biceps afterward). They stand on rickety chairs to lay bricks. (I have a scar on my leg to prove it.) But my goodness, are they happy. One member of our team was bothered by their slow, outdated methods of construction and his frustration came through. It made all of us uneasy. Why do we feel that those of us in the modern world have to impose our contemporary ways on others? Why are the indigenous viewed as lesser and uneducated? Maybe they’re the ones who have it all right.
Raj and I agreed that if you live in a civilized world, it is impossible—yes, impossible—to escape from society. You can try to avert your eyes from magazine racks telling you how to look, or cover your ears from news stories that tell you the world is a dangerous place, or ignore those work emails that keep flooding in. I have never owned a TV and I have often lived without Internet, yet I have felt society creeping in on me. I have felt it pulling me away and I have feared drowning in it. When I don’t listen to society, I am at my happiest.
We decided that modern society sets impeccably high expectations for us to reach, and try as we might to ignore them, we can’t escape them, leaving a small void where complete happiness is difficult to attain. No, not impossible, because of course we have all been happy in this day and age. But maybe we could achieve an indelible joyful state of being if we took pleasure in the simplicities of life.
What is the difference between happiness and pleasure and success? They’re not interchangeable, but sometimes people like them to be. Raj and I like the idea that happiness is the little things in life, and friendships are important, and simplicity is key. It’s not the most succinct definition and I think we would be hard-pressed to come up with a universal definition that fit nicely on a page in Webster’s dictionary. But we’re working on it.