Travel: Everlasting Joy, Or Deceiving Happiness?

“You’re traveling like 80% of the time” someone told me yesterday. And while that’s not quite true, I have had the privilege to see much of the world and turn what could be someone’s honeymoon trip into one of my casual adventures.

But there are a few things that I’ve learned from living in a constant state of “Ooooo-Ahhhhh” for long stretches of time. The first is the realization and distinction between the physical sensations of seeing and doing something very adventurous and the deeper fulfillment of joy that brings true everlasting happiness.

Although there’s nothing wrong with indulging your senses, such as enjoying a nice meal or experiencing a culture that you’ve never been to before, this type of happiness is fleeting. And not only is it fleeting, but the dopamine high of constantly being on the road, turns traveling into an addiction. And just like all other addictions, when the high wears off, it leaves you feeling down and out. The result of returning home from a trip of a lifetime isn’t life-long joy, it’s yearning and craving for the adventure to continue on forever.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel lobby that looks all too familiar. It’s 5am in Uganda and I’m waiting for the sun to come up so that I can enjoy breakfast as it rises over the Nile river. Sitting next to me is “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and I’m reflecting on what traveling means to me.

Almost exactly one year ago I was returning home from a month long trip to Turkey, Egypt, and Uganda. It was my first time visiting any of these countries and the fast pace of the trip, plus the natural “balls to the walls”, “go big or go home” attitude that I have, made for the craziest adventure of my life. Every single day I wondered, “What is life right now?” because one day I’d be crawling through the Great Pyramid of Giza, the next I’d be scuba diving in the Red Sea, and the next I’d be on safari living my Lion King dream.

But this constant dopamine rush, the incessant high from traveling, eventually came to an end. And it ended not just for me but also for my travel companion. He went off to Spain and I lost contact with him for a bit, not because I stopped reaching out, but because there was a time when he felt that his life was falling apart and he wanted to isolate himself.

I don’t know whose return to sobriety was harder between the two of us, because we never talked much about his bout of sadness, but I can say that I was slapped in the face with reality so hard that I felt, not depressed, but certainly at an all time low. I had lost my work routine (and my workout routine) during that month, which are high values of mine, my relationship wasn’t in the best spot, and I found out that the people who I thought were going to be my roommates the following year, were actually splitting up and I had 30 days to find a new place to live. Life got real, fast.

But at the same time, my travels weren’t all spent in vain. One of my goals from this trip was to find someone to give a micro-loan to in Uganda. Instead I invested in and started a full-time operation that has now given out about a thousand loans over the last year.

Now that I’m back, seeing my business and my progress, and especially the people that I’ve helped and the lives that I’ve impacted, once again brings me into a state of sheer ecstasy, but the high is completely different. While the high of traveling last year was in vain, it was all about me and my experiences, with an intense focus on sensory pleasure, the high of being back this time brings me into a state of peaceful joy. It’s a profound, deeper, happiness, rather than the surface level rush of plunging through life with the pedal to the metal constantly anticipating the next great adventure.

Looking forward, I’ve come to realize that I need to make decisions not based off of what’s going to make me happy, but what’s going to create that deeper sense of joy and fulfillment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m reading literature by the Dalai Lama right now. I’m seeking that profound everlasting joy that stems from love, compassion, giving, and gratitude. Thankfully, my greatest mentor on the topic lives right here in Uganda.

My business partner, Moses, grew up as an orphan in Uganda, but was blessed with a sponsor that paid for him to go to school. He was so grateful for the opportunity he was given that he decided to pay it forward and what started as him simply sponsoring a few children turned into a full-fledged school for 700 underprivileged kids.

This man has a heart of gold and what I see in him is exactly what the Dalai Lama speaks about when he discusses how to achieve everlasting joy and fulfillment. Buddhism isn’t concerned with the origins of the world, they don’t believe there is a deity that created the heaven and the earth, the focus is simply on how can we create peace and joy in the one life that we are certain we have.

That said, a lot of the multiple millennium old wisdom of ancient Buddhism is often backed by real scientific evidence, one of my favorites being research done by psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky who studied that people have a “set-point” of happiness that they return back to, no matter what their life brings their way. For example, a 1978 study showed that people who won the lottery were not significantly happier than people who had been paralyzed in an accident. No matter what happens to us in life, our expectations change and then we return to a certain level of happiness when those expectations are met.

What Lyubomirsky found is that about 50% of this set-point is determined by things we can’t control (ie. our genes), but the other 50% can be changed by our daily practices and behaviors. These practices are: 1. Our ability to reframe situations to focus on the positive side of things, rather than the negative; 2. Our ability to experience gratitude; and 3. Our choice to be kind and generous.

These are all learned behaviors, which means they can be improved upon with practice, and if you want to live a happier, more fulfilling life, then you need to practice these three things daily. Moses is such a great mentor of mine because he already lives by these tenants and practices them every single day. He inspires me to focus on how I can achieve deep fulfillment rather than traveling for the high.

And now as I sit here waiting for the sun to rise, I’m pondering, by traveling all the time, what am I pursuing? Is is everlasting joy? Or am I getting deceived by  dopamine into pursuing fleeting highs and temporary happiness?

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