Before I began my cycle trip to Bhutan I was an “expert” on happiness and well-being. An “expert” from an academic perspective, that is.
Yet the academic perspective is just one perspective; an extremely useful but often limiting perspective. There are many things that cannot be understood through academic debate. And even if we do come to some academic understanding, which in my experience is often unlikely, many people just might not seem to care.
That’s why I got on my bicycle and cycled to Bhutan. I wanted to honour myself with a different perspective. As it turned out it is a fairly unique perspective because I don’t think anyone else has made this particular journey before. In this post, I want to share the 3 most important things that I learnt about happiness along the way.
i) The best gift is to allow others to give
One of the things that surprised me the most on my journey was people’s generosity. At first I struggled to understand why people, even when their own resources were severely limited, were so willing to help out a passing stranger. I would often feel awkward when offered things I had a relative abundance of, such as food or money, but as my journey progressed I began to appreciate just how important it was for me to accept these gifts. People want to help; people like to give, and allowing others to do so can often be a tremendous gift in itself.
It was when I received what was offered, without hesitation, without fear, that I witnessed the biggest smiles on my journey – on my own face and the faces of others. Connection with others is an important human need, which is why it is our relationships that are the single most important contributor to our happiness and well-being, and gifts seem to be a catalyst for stronger and deeper connections.
Some cultures, my own included, may appear less generous. Though, since connection with others is a core human need, I don’t think that this is because people like to give less. My sense is that there are not only seemingly less obvious opportunities to give in some cultures, but that when there is emphasis on individualism and independence a gift might be more likely to be rejected. Thus a gift may be much less likely offered in the first place.
I thought it was only in other countries that people were so overtly generous to strangers, but since returning to the UK I have experienced generosity here in a way I had not before I left. I don’t think I experienced such generosity in the UK before because I just hadn’t fully recognised the importance of giving, nor did I leave myself very open to receiving generosity from strangers.ii) Anxiety, which may not necessarily be our own anxiety, encroaches on happiness in a myriad of ways
Throughout my journey I often felt anxious. In those moments of anxiety there was, perhaps obviously, less happiness. However, the anxiety I felt would also influence my present decisions in a way that would affect my happiness much later.
For example, despite having pitched my tent in literally hundreds of spots across the world I often noticed myself worrying about where to put my tent many hours before dark and when I finally pitched my tent I worried about being found by someone and about what the consequences might be. Though I never failed to find somewhere for the night, nor did I experience anything particularly untoward from pitching my tent some place, the anxiety I habitually felt affected my enjoyment of where I was.
Sometimes I felt so anxious that I’d decide to not stay in my tent at all, even though part of me really wanted to. Instead I stayed in a hotel, even though I would have likely been happier overall from staying in the tent despite the anxiety I would have felt there.
This is not to say anxiety should just be ignored. On the contrary. On my trip I gained a couple of important insights from dispassionately watching my thoughts during the hours and days I spent on the bicycle.
What I first noticed was that many of my worries are not really mine. Often my anxieties have their origins in conversations with others. To keep with the camping example, I noticed one day that I was particularly worried about pitching my tent. Objectively it didn’t seem like there was any real reason for this extra anxiety but then all of a sudden I recalled a conversation I had had with someone I had stopped to talk with only 30 minutes earlier. For the most part it was a very pleasant connecting conversation but at the very end as I was about to leave they told me to be careful because there were lots of bad people in the world. It struck me that this was their anxiety about the world and in hearing it I had unconsciously taken some of that anxiety with me. As soon as I realised this my anxiety softened considerably and I camped that night. There were of course no problems.
Another good example of this is that upon returning a few people I have re-connected with have said they were surprised I managed to come back alive. If enough people had said something about the likelihood of me returning alive before I left, then perhaps I may never have even left because of anxieties I had taken on from others. The learning that has helped with my happiness is being able to separate and acknowledge other people’s fears and understand that they don’t have to be my fears too.
There was another important thing I learnt from watching my anxious thoughts. It concerned how I sometimes deal with anxiety and is closely related to my third key learning about happiness below.
iii) Action without awareness rarely improves anything
The world is constantly in flux; some might even say that at present the world is in deep turmoil. Challenges abound and I often experience sadness, anxiety, frustration, and anger in relation to what I observe outside of me. I often wish things were different, and so rather than sit with these uncomfortably heavy emotions for too long I have put energy into trying to change what is difficult to see, with the intention of making things better. However, what I am just starting to appreciate is that much of the time I act without enough awareness of the situation I am concerned about, nor how other issues might be related.
“As muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best possible contributions to a world in turmoil”
As I’ve ridden my bicycle through various parts of the world I’ve seen some things that have deeply troubled me concerning, for example, animal rights abuses, threats to biodiversity, unnecessary consumption and waste, and so forth. However, what I have sometimes seen that has concerned me I have no deep understanding of. Though I often want to do something it is not clear what I can actually do. I sense that much of my action in life has come as a way of distracting me from my own unpleasant reactions rather than coming from a place of deeper knowing.
My response to feeling anxious is a case in point and I’ll leave you with a personal example that I am trying to deal with right now. Since coming back I have been feeling very anxious about what direction I now want to take my life. What I notice is that the unpleasantness of feeling anxious seems to be driving a desire to a make a decision as to what to do next. I have many ideas as to the direction I could take, and I could expend much energy exploring all these ideas simultaneously. Yet I’d prefer to take action when I have more clarity, through observation, conversation, and introspection, about the value of each of these ideas and how I can interlink them.
Thus in the meantime I am sitting here quietly and watching the chaos inside and out. In the long run I think taking my time will be a better use of me and probably result in much more happiness; for everybody, I hope.