The Secret to Happiness: Savor the Small Stuff

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.

“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.

Something small we’re grateful for: puppies!

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.

We'll always be grateful for the wonders of the ocean, large and small
We’ll always be grateful for the wonders of the ocean, large and small

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.

Tibetan Momos
Tibetan Momos

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.

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32 comments Leave a comment

  1. I think it’s always the little things, isn’t it? Grateful.

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 6:57 am
    1. Gillian @GlobalBookshelf author

      Yes, the more I see, the more places I visit, the more I grow, the more the little things matter. Glad you see it too.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 4:20 am
  2. Bear

    I’m grateful for the opportunity to share your journey vicariously and for having a small window with a view provided by some of the most amazing photographs of anyone’s travels that I’ve seen. Thanks, Steph and Tony! Hope you feel better soon.

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 8:15 am
    1. Bear author

      Bear, thank you so much for this incredibly kind comment! It truly means so much to us to know that you are enjoying our journey and the tales and photos it has resulted in so much.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:17 am
  3. Steph, that was SO beautifully written. I, too, have been thinking a lot lately of what I”m grateful for and you hit the nail on the head! In our memories of our time on the road, the things we gravitate too are NOT things like walking the Great Wall of China, but of enjoying an evening on the sofabed in the home of our rickshaw driver in India. Here at home, I say a prayer of gratitude EVERY SINGLE DAY for being able to step into a hot shower, because I went for 14 months without that luxury. If we all spent more time living in the moment and appreciating it for what it is, so many would not spend their time chasing that which doesn’t make them happy in the end. Love it!

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 12:15 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      Yes, I think it is really important to dream big and chase after those dreams, but at the same time the road to them will be paved with small moments and it would be a shame to rush blindly by them. I have definitely found that travel has taught me to appreciate these small things and also that in appreciating them I am better able to ground myself in the present moment. It sounds like you also understand the beauty of this as well. Thank you so much for sharing with us!

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:20 am
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about stoicism (I highly recommend The Art of Stoic Joy by Irvine) recently and it seems to have many similarities with your post on gratitude. It basically recommends appreciating what you have by thinking about what would happen if you lost it. You can go one step further and go without certain things for awhile so you appreciate them when you get them back.(eg go camping and you really appreciate your house you’ve found a flushing toilet!!) I’ve found myself to be much happier since I started thinking that way – appreciating what I have and not craving new things. It is great to hear that you are happy where you are now. Long may it continue!

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 1:10 pm
    1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) author

      Thank you for the book recommendation! I haven’t heard about it, but I’ll certainly look into it.

      I think it can be really hard to realize the importance of small things (like a flush toilet!) because of how we take them for granted, but it doesn’t take very long without them to realize how much simple overlooked happiness they can bring to our life. Once you get in the habit, however, it’s easy to see potential sources for joy everywhere. Like you, I’ve also found that learning to be be happy with what I have has been really fulfilling and has definitely made me want for far less (which is pretty incredible because in many ways I am living the most basic life I ever have!).

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:23 am
  5. Beautiful post. It’s amazing how many things we can truly be grateful for once we slow down enough to think about it. I am certainly guilty of comparing our lives to the lives of others, and that tends to be when all the negativity and unhappiness creeps in. Having a positive outlook and reminding ourselves of all the little gratitudes we’re blessed with isn’t always easy, but it is certainly worth it!

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 2:33 pm
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      Thanks, Casey. I have definitely found that I am happiest when I am just focusing on living my own best life. Christine over at C’est Christine wrote this amazing post called “Comparison is the Thief of Joy” and she is 100% right. Focus on the good things in your own life, not how they look relative to others. That way is an uphill battle you’ll never win.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:29 am
  6. agreed!

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 3:05 pm
    1. Hogga author

      Glad to hear it!

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:31 am
  7. It is strange how verbally confirming something increases its meaning. By telling each other every night something you are grateful for, it gives you both a shared moment to truly appreciate it, outside of the moment it occurred. I think one of the best ways of staying positive in life and in long-term travel is never forgetting or ignoring when good things happen, even when they are outweighed by the bad.

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 4:35 pm
    1. Mike author

      Yes, I think saying things aloud allows us to reinforce them to ourselves and perhaps process them more deeply than if we just run through them mentally. We have to actually take the time to express them. And you’re right that even on days when something really bad happens or lots of little bad things happen, it’s even more important to take stock of the things that went right. Plus, as you say, it’s so nice to share happy thoughts with your partner and create a shared moment.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:35 am
  8. I have the same level of gratitude… I appreciate the toilets and the warm showers too. I like this post, because it speaks realistically and practically. And even people who don’t travel can relate, or should be able to, I’d think. I don’t think you need to back peddle and defend your lifestyle either, in saying that people think you are living in some sort of fantasy land, living the dream. Only people who have never travelled would say this. Travel is not easy. It is a stripped back, more rudimentary form of living. Where is my next meal coming from? Am I safe here? Where am I sleeping? Who am I traveling with? Do I trust this person? Can I afford this? Should I let this person help me? What if I get lost?
    Further to this, I think that happiness is a choice. And mental health aside (because I have my own demons), I stand by this statement. It is a choice, and it is hard work. Happiness does not just happen. But we can choose to let it into our lives, even in slivers, or we can choose to shut the door.

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 6:51 pm
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      Well, to be fair, many people we meet are traveling for much shorter periods of time, holidays really, and so they are really treating themselves and living perhaps more extravagantly than they do back home. So they naturally think that this is what we’re doing too and if you have the freedom to just travel about, you must either have no responsibilities and are “living the dream”. It’s hard for them to understand that long-term travel, at least for us, is not really a long holiday at all but learning about the world and slowly discovering a new way of life and a new way of being.

      It’s funny because I both agree with you and I don’t about happiness being work. I do agree that it’s something we need to remain conscious of, but I’ve found that by being grateful, finding happiness has been actually really simple! I suppose I am active in my pursuit of happiness, which perhaps amounts to the same thing.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:38 am
  9. Love this! One of my hopes is that we don’t lose this appreciation of small things when we head home for good, I want to still love a comfortable bed or a fluffy towel. I was an incredibly negative person before travel and I don’t ever want to go back to that.

    Oct. 9 2013 @ 10:38 pm
    1. Maddie author

      Yes, I was in a very bad state as well, so I understand what you mean. It’s funny to think that now soft towels and a nice bed make me so happy when I had so many other material comforts before and was so very miserable. Just goes to show it’s all about state of mind and appreciating what you have!

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:43 am
  10. Very beautiful written Steph, loved it! It’s amazing how the smallest things can make you happy and I’m surely learning it more and more by traveling around the world.

    Oct. 10 2013 @ 6:30 am
    1. Franca author

      Definitely the best lessons I’ve learned while traveling have been the ones I didn’t anticipate! I guess they can be considered happy surprises! 😀

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:44 am
  11. Touching post Steph; I also find that it’s easy to become complacent when you travel and forget to feel truly grateful for what you’re experiencing (and I’ve only been going for seven months so far, not 14!). Usually if I remind myself of where I was this time last year that kicks me back into touch and I get a shock of gratitude for where I am now but I’m also going to try your trick of naming something I feel grateful for every day. I do find that travel has definitely made me grateful for the things I left behind back in the UK too, things that were so normal they had become invisible to me when I lived there and yes, they were mostly small things like familiar foods or being able to pick the phone up and call my mum without worrying about the time difference or connection problems. Hope you feel better soon 🙂

    Oct. 10 2013 @ 7:51 am
    1. Amy author

      Yes, travel has definitely taught me to be grateful for things in my “old life”, but rather than constantly living in a state of “grass is always greener”, I really want to learn to be happy with my life as it is. Because the truth is, I really love our traveling lifestyle, but I know that sometimes I don’t fully appreciate it just because it’s become the status quo. Actively prompting myself to name things that were great about my day for which I’m grateful has definitely helped remind me of what an awesome life we are living! 😀 I hope it does the same for you too.

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:49 am
  12. Beautiful post.

    Oct. 10 2013 @ 10:14 am
    1. Julia author

      Thanks, Julia! Glad you enjoyed it!

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:49 am
  13. I’m grateful for the life I’ve created (and somewhat successfully managed over the course of 27 years) and the people who are in it.

    Oct. 10 2013 @ 6:50 pm
    1. Nicole author

      That’s wonderful, Nicole. Thank you for sharing with us!

      Oct. 11 2013 @ 6:50 am
  14. I love this post, Steph, and I think saying what you’re most thankful for each day is a wonderful idea, and something that so many of us (including me) don’t do or forget to do. Today I’m thankful for the woman who made me an amazing burger, the sunset here in Belgrade, and the fact that the cafe I chose to do work in had functioning wifi so I could contact my friends and family when I wanted to.

    Oct. 11 2013 @ 11:52 am
    1. Tom @ Waegook Tom author

      Thanks for your comment, Tom! It’s been so nice to read the little things others have been grateful for—it’s definitely brought smiles to our faces. Also, I can’t even remember the last time I had a good burger… back in July maybe? I would be grateful for that too!

      Oct. 14 2013 @ 1:11 am
  15. What a lovely expression of your gratitude. We haven’t been openly expressing our gratitude to each other, but definitely trying to keep perspective through the hard times. When I get frustrated not understanding how to do things, I try to remember that back home, I was bored. So I’m grateful in my frustration for something new and challenging. It’s hard at times, but practicing gratitude and consciousness of the small stuff definitely pays off.

    Oct. 15 2013 @ 12:58 am
    1. Carmel author

      It’s really easy to get caught in the whole “grass is always greener” mentality and our daily expression of gratitude each day has done wonders to ward of the “travelers’ blahs” and stops us from feeling complacent. I’m glad that traveling has made us appreciate aspects from our old life more, but I want to make sure we can appreciate what we have in the here & now too!

      Oct. 16 2013 @ 11:18 am
  16. After moving back to the States from China, I am absurdly grateful for little things, like cheese, friendly service, clean bathrooms and soft beds. Every time I cross the streets I’m thankful that cars don’t try to hit me. I’m grateful for the friends and family who have welcomed me home with open arms. But most of all I’m grateful to have had an incredible expat experience which taught me about the world and my place in it. Great post!

    Oct. 18 2013 @ 7:34 pm
    1. Heather author

      Yes, I know that for Tony especially, traveling has really helped him appreciate things from the U.S. that I know he took for granted, and I know that in general he has a greater appreciation for his home country and the opportunities it has afforded him.

      I can definitely see how after years in China soft beds and cheese would seem like gifts from heaven! 😀

      Oct. 20 2013 @ 9:20 am

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