“Remember that happiness is a way of travel—not a destination.” ~Roy M. Goodman
After graduating from college I took off to explore Europe for four months with one of my best friends.
We backpacked through fourteen different countries and learned things about the world and ourselves that we never expected. We often joked that we learned more about life and ourselves traveling abroad for four months than we did going to school for four years in college.
Still infected with the travel bug, I decided last year to spend six weeks with a good friend in China. In the land of Buddhas, bikes, and chopsticks, I remembered three important lessons that have helped me find happiness and fulfillment in everyday life.
1. Great things can happen when you’re flexible.
When you’re traveling, you expect there to be bumps in the road or unexpected surprises, and that’s what makes it so exciting. If everything went as planned, you wouldn’t have a story to tell other than “I saw the Great Wall of China and it was large.”
If you’re being flexible, you open yourself up to opportunities that sometimes can stem from a single moment gone wrong.
My friend and I booked a few nights in a hostel in Yangshuo a week ahead of time with plans to stay in the same room together. Things didn’t quite work out as we planned. The management gave our room away, which meant we'd need to stay in separate rooms for a few nights. So we did, without complaint.
This is how we met Ping Ping, who worked at the hostel front desk. Because we were flexible, understanding, and patient, Ping Ping took to us and gave us an authentic experience we wouldn’t have had otherwise. She became our friend, confidant, and tour guide.
We spent several nights in her father’s house in her hometown, where we cooked with her family and shared the meal. We played basketball with local kids at a nearby school and toured a sacred Buddhist temple with her brother.
Ping Ping gave us the opportunity to see life in China well off the tourist grid—and she also gave us the chance to really know her. Not just as the person who checked us into our hostel, but as a genuine friend. It all happened because we were willing and happy to go with the flow.
It’s not always easy to be flexible in life. We sometimes get attached to rigid ideas of how things should work out, personally or professionally, but this can backfire and end up limiting us. When you’re adaptable, you open yourself up to possibilities that you might not even know are available to you.
2. Life is a lot more beautiful and manageable when you proactively create moments of awe.
One of my favorite things about traveling is when I experience a moment of awe.
In Yangshuo, I biked through a fairytale land, full of water buffaloes and small villages, surrounded by mountains curved like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It was truly breathtaking.
However, the most amazing moment happened when I put my bike on the back of a bamboo raft and sailed down the river back to Yangshuo. The light from the day was fading away, and all that was left was the sound of nature and the stirring reflection of the Karst Mountain peaks on the water.
It was then that a feeling of calm came over me. My thoughts were pure. I felt fortunate to have this experience, and at the same time I felt so small. I couldn’t help but feel unbridled joy and freedom. Everything in life seemed so easy—and, for a moment, I was problem-less.
It doesn’t take something as grand as the Lijiang River, but for me, this feeling often comes from nature. Maybe it’s a beautiful setting that does it for you. Or an intimate, meaningful conversation with someone else—someone who is going through something just like you are, who makes you realize you are not alone.
These moments, when you remember you’re part of something much bigger than you, ignite a sense of awe. They’re humbling, and if you let them wash over you, you’ll feel a sense of connection and peace that makes all your problems seem manageable.
We need to choose to create those moments—to get out of homes, and out of our heads, and into the great, big world together.
3. You have to let go of where you were to get where you can be.
When I was young, my mother used to tell me and my brother to wave goodbye to places when we left them. If we were at the ocean, she would say, “Wave goodbye to the ocean!”
I remember waving goodbye and feeling the car rolling over the hill, and then it was gone. I didn’t know if I’d ever see it again.
After spending two days in Dunhuang, riding camels through the desert, savoring the culinary delight of another region, and exploring the Mogao Caves, we headed back to the train. It was a twenty-four-hour ride to our next destination.
As the train started to slowly move forward and gain speed, I looked out the window and waved goodbye (in my mind—didn’t want the Chinese family sharing a train cabin with me to think I was crazy).
I was there only two days. I had seen only a few of the 492 temples in the “Caves of the thousand Buddhas” and sampled only a few dishes of the local cuisine, yet I already had to move on.
As the train was leaving, a part of me wanted to stay. I knew that I would most likely never see the desert oasis town of Dunhuang again. But I also knew I was heading somewhere else equally amazing.
When you’re traveling, it’s easier to let go of a beautiful moment because you know the adventure continues. No matter what rolls by outside your window, there will inevitably be more to appreciate when you get off the train.
In everyday life, when you leave a moment you loved, it’s tempting to cling to it—particularly when you’re headed back to work or to a place you’ve been to many times before.
We forget sometimes that waving goodbye to one beauty allows us to wave hello to another. We may not know for sure what that might be, but there’s always something good ahead if you’re open to recognizing and appreciating it.
Benjamin Button said, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” He’s right—they don’t. But it doesn’t have to be a shame if we enjoy each moment while we have the chance and stay open to the next adventure.
It’s been over a year since I returned from my last journey abroad. Naturally, I’m itching to travel again. But the adventure continues nonetheless, and I am open to where it may lead.