I was at my happiest when. . .

The other day I was asked to name the 3 countries that I most enjoyed cycling through on my way to Bhutan.

I can name 2 without any hesitation at all: India and Mexico. Both have a particularly special place in my heart – and it was mostly because of the people I met there. Barely a day passed in India when I didn’t get invited to take a tea at the side of the road and to share something of my story whilst sometimes dozens of curious eyes looked on. In Mexico, I was invited into people’s lives with a care and grace that touched and inspired me.

Yet naming that 3rd country wasn’t as easy. I wasn’t really that sure of the answer. And there was also a small part of me that didn’t want to admit the country that came to mind.

But my happiness scores said…

It was at the end of a talk I gave last Wednesday (link to a video of the talk here) that this question about the countries I most enjoyed cycling through came. I couldn’t side-step the answer easily.

happiness-graph-yes-talk.jpgThe best part of the talk was when I showed the graph of my happiness levels over the course of my journey. Who doesn’t love a graph? There was a fine ripple of laughter in the audience as I explained how on each day of my journey I’d recorded different aspects of my happiness (see this post for more). With my credibility as a happiness aficionado firmly established from that graph I had virtually no option but use my happiness scores to answer the country that was the 3rd most enjoyable to cycle in…

The real surprise

Memory can be a hazy thing at the very best of times – perhaps India was such a favourite because it was more recent, and maybe when I think of Mexico I can’t help but focus only on the generosity of its people rather than the struggles I had with the heat.

As it turned out according to my happiness scores India was indeed where I felt the most fulfilled. It was where my days were the most satisfying and worthwhile and where I felt the most moment to moment happiness. Mexico, on the other hand, came in fifth according to my happiness scores. I had a pretty amazing time in Argentina too. But the real surprise to me was just how great I felt in the USA.

When I think back to my time in the USA I sometimes can’t help but think of the awful time I had in Las Vegas or the crushing loneliness I felt riding up the west coast in Washington. These were the two worst places on my entire journey according to my happiness scores. When I exclude both Nevada (NV) and Washington (WA) from the country averages the USA bumps up to 2nd place (though previously still 4th).

Satisfaction Happiness Anxiety Worthwhile
India 8.8 8.0 3.5 9.6
USA (excl. NV & WA) 8.8 8.5 3.7 9.1
Bhutan 8.0 7.7 3.0 9.2
Argentina 8.6 7.7 3.6 8.9
Mexico 8.4 7.4 3.6 8.6

Why a reluctant confession?

I’m sort of puzzled that my time on the bicycle was so amazing in the USA. But then I am also aware that I look at the USA through a certain lens of judgement. The USA epitomises much of what I was rallying against as an academic happiness and well-being researcher. There is perhaps no place in the world where people are so readily sacrificed for the sake of the economy than in the USA. Material standards of living may be extraordinarily high in the USA but well-being somewhat languishes relative to other countries that have comparable material standards of living, such as just next door in Canada. Even Costa Rica, which has substantially lower material standards of living, outperforms the USA when it comes to life expectancy and happiness.

Thus I was not supposed to be happy in the USA, yet I was. So why was I?

Well, there is actually a fairly neat explanation. As well as noting my happiness scores I also took note of other things such as where I slept that night, whether it be in a tent or it the home of someone I knew or even didn’t, and how far I cycled that day. I found deep fulfilment through either camping freely in my tent or experiencing people’s hospitality. And my happiness scores can confirm that.  

Not about the country but what one does there

Throughout my trip I was often tempted to stay in hotels rather than camp. In some countries where hotels were relatively inexpensive that temptation was at its greatest. In the USA staying in accommodation was rarely a realistic option and so I had to do the things that brought me more happiness – though also being sometimes for me more immediately fear invoking – living humbly, touching nature, and reaching out to connect with people.

In the USA I camped 50% of the time (often with a magnificent view) and the rest of the time I stayed in the homes of people I made connection with through old and new friends and/or an online cycling and gifting network. In the USA I just participated more readily with the things that bring happiness no matter where a person is.

Sometimes when we have to find other ways of being we end up finding something much much richer.

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