“After all,” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.” – From Anne of Avonlea
Today marks 14 months on the road, and even if I’m marking the occasion curled up on a mercifully soft Nepali mattress battling a flu-turned-head-cold while a flock of pigeons coos lullabies outside our window, this still seems like something worth celebrating. In fact, if our time traveling has taught me anything, it’s that these are the moments that, whether through a whispered exhalation or a holler that shakes the skies above, deserve an offering of thanks.
Cooped up in our hotel room for days has been less than ideal, but the one thing all this bed rest is good for (if not much else) is that it has given me a lot of time to think. Dealing with fevers and congestion, not all of my musings have been coherent, but through the haze of it all, my mind keeps returning to one concept, rolling it over until I have become intimately familiar with it from all angles. It is an idea so simple yet so potent, it seems to have a gravity all of its own, which might explain why I can’t seem to escape its pull on me.
I am, of course, talking about gratitude.
It seems that everywhere I look lately, all I see are posts about the power of feeling and expressing gratitude, the transformative gift of incorporating a moment in which we consciously acknowledge the things in our life for which we are grateful into our daily routine. From this post about how making time for gratitude can change your life to this video that actually tries to bring science into the equation (Although, as an aside, what does it say about me that my two responses immediately upon finishing the video were: 1) Was that difference statistically significant?; and 2) Where was their control group? A lab coat does not a scientific study make! Clearly I was a graduate student for too long…), it’s felt like the universe has been sending me a coded message, albeit one that’s been fairly easy to decipher: spend some time every day appreciating the good stuff going on in your life and happiness will follow.
It’s not like this should be a revelation, really, but for me, it feels like the ground has shifted beneath my feet.
Although happiness seems like the simplest thing in the world, for me, it has proven frustratingly elusive. One of the many downsides to dealing with depression is that it warps your outlook and makes a fatalistic pessimist out of the best of us. For years I have struggled not to jump to conclusions in which I resolutely assume the worst or fixate on the negative aspects of any situation, no matter how slight or negligible they might be. Whereas most people seem to default to a state of happiness or contentment in the face of nothing bad happening, I would slide into an emotional mire because as far as I could see, nothing good had happened.
Now, obviously there were plenty of sources of potential happiness in my life—as my favorite font of wisdom Jon Kabat-Zinn has wisely said, “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you”—I was simply blind to them.
Of course, happiness is not like a light switch: you can’t just stop feeling sad and start feeling happy just because you want to or because other people tell you that you should. Instead, we grope about blindly in the dark, hoping that our inexpert fumblings will somehow result in a little light being cast into our life and chase the shadows away. I have found that gratitude can guide one’s hand and help bring the light back that much faster and that much stronger, too.
I know it’s easy for those of you sitting at home struggling with your own demons that seem dead-set against you finding joy to dismiss me out of hand as living in a fantasy land. After all, I’m out traveling the world and have been doing so for over a year—head colds aside, what possible complaints could I really have?
Let me explain: the thing about traveling as long as we have is that at some point this adventure stops being about travel and simply transitions into you living your life in various different settings. I want to stress, it’s not that the adventure ends, it simply shifts focus. Do anything for long enough and it doesn’t necessarily stop being good, but the novelty does wear off. After over a dozen countries, the one thing I know without question, is that the human race is united in our stalwart ability to adapt to whatever life sends our way. Things that were weird and terrifying months ago like squat toilets and cows wandering in the street, they barely register anymore.
But that goes for the good too: heading out for a plate of Tibetan momos and then gazing at the largest Buddhist pilgrimage site in the country is incredible, awesome even, but it’s also the version of Tony’s and my old Friday night “dinner & a movie” routine and it’s easy to forget how exquisite the experience is. An unfortunate flipside to our remarkable ability to normalize is that it can so effortlessly lead to complacency. If it’s so easy to stop appreciating the big experience, think about how easily we can turn a blind eye to the abundance of every-day beauty that surrounds us, to tune it out like white noise. All this traveling has taught me that we have to fight against our default setting in which we take things for granted, so that we can not only recognize all that is good in our lives but fully be able to appreciate it too. That’s where gratitude comes in.
I regularly say to Tony that although our travel fund could certainly afford us the luxury of staying in places far nicer than some of the dives we’ve wound up in as we traipse about Asia, I’m really glad we’ve roughed it. Stripping life back to the basics has helped me appreciate in the most visceral ways the things I never thought about before we left and still wouldn’t now if we were hopping from one 5-star (or even 3-star!) hotel to the next. It makes those occasions when we do splash out feel all the more special and helps us feel lucky that we can afford to have this luxury in our lives, even if it is the exception rather than the rule.
The key here is not to simply be able to feel the surge of happiness that comes from those epic “wish upon a star” experiences like climbing the Great Wall or swimming with manta rays or getting married or landing your dream job. Those are kind of a given. The irony of our larger-than-life adventure is that it’s taught me the value of appreciating the small things, the ones we easily overlook and that make up the bulk of our day. Out here on the road, gratitude can come in the form of a stranger offering you up a smile, or in successfully crossing an Asian street when the odds were 10:1 that you wouldn’t make it.
If you want to know the truth, when Tony & I pause each evening and prompt one another to outwardly express the one thing from the day for which we are most grateful, it’s probably not the stuff you would expect to hear. Since arriving in Kathmandu, we have expressed gratitude for soft beds (see my opening paragraph!), for waking up in a city that we love next to a person that we love, for lukewarm showers instead of ice cold ones, for ice cold Sprites instead of lukewarm ones, for fluffy towels, for our families and their continued support in this adventure, for a room that is basic but bright, for simple meals served on metal trays that delight our palates and fill our bellies for less than $1… for the both of us. Who amongst you guessed that in traveling half way around the world, one of our biggest takeaways is that a toilet we don’t have to flush with a bucket is a cause for joy?
All those things I listed above, they’re so small, so simple, but our happiness in them has, honest to god, been anything but. Your items of gratitude might be more enlightened than ours, but I wanted to share some of ours with you so that you can understand that they need not be lofty and you don’t have to travel the world to find them. Looking at the scope of our sources of gratitude, surely you can find and name one thing in your life for which you are grateful.
If you do, here’s something I have noticed and I bet you will too: open yourself up to the gift of gratitude and set yourself the task of naming just one thing for which you are grateful and inevitably, a river of thankfulness will flood from your lips. Because there are always things worth being thankful for—from your health to your family to water you can drink straight from the tap or clean sheets on the bed—and when you take the time to honor them, they only seem to grow in number and your happiness along with them.
Happiness may not come when we call it, but summon your gratitude and it will find you. When happiness is right at our fingertips (and it is, every day), with gratitude we can grasp it and hold it in our hands.
So, 14 months of travel behind me, this is what I sit here grateful for: Today I am grateful for the feeling that comes from knowing I am in exactly the right place, the place I am meant to be. I feel it deep in my bones and the contentment of it washes over me. I am grateful that health-wise, I feel better today than yesterday, well enough to walk to our favorite local restaurant where I loaded up on decadent, puffy fried Indian bread that I dipped into a rich dhal bhat, liberally garnished with onions. I am grateful that after days of struggling to write, today the words came easily, and that with them I have been able to express my bliss. More importantly, I am grateful that I found the courage and openness to fuel those words in the first place. And I am happy that I have had 14 months out in the world with my very best friend and that there are more to come and I will take them as they do.