I wrote earlier about the 11 things I’ve learned from traveling. It was fun to write. I got to include some things that I learned on fun trips and a few not so fun ones. For the most part, it was pretty light-hearted, I think. That was deliberate. Who wants to read a blog where the blogger pontificates all the time? Not me. My kids tell me I tend to lecture, so I try to avoid lecturing when I write. After all, you aren’t one of my kids (if any of my kids are reading this, you still get lectures). All that said, there is one thing I’ve learned from traveling that isn’t all that lighthearted. That’s what this post is about. The single most important thing travel has taught me is that life is not about how much stuff you can accumulate. As one much wiser than I noted, “life is not measured by how much you own.”
In my previous post I mentioned that I’ve moved a lot. In spite of the distinction I made on the “About Ken” page, moving is a form of travel. It’s just travel with the specific goal of relocation. Because we moved so much, my family often had very little money, though my parents, like most Depression era folks, worked hard, really hard (far harder than the hardest working people I know today). We just didn’t stay in one place long enough to accumulate much. A lot of what we did accumulate would get lost or damaged in a move.
I’ve met a lot of people, traveling around. Some of them have a lot; some have very little and most fall somewhere in-between. What I’ve learned is that none of them seem to be happy or sad based upon what they have. I’ve seen plenty of happy, and sad, people in all three groups. That’s what I want to dig into for a bit.
We have some funny ideas in America, when it comes to money and possessions. On the one hand, we have this tendency to think we’d be happy if only we had X (pick the possession or possessions of your choice). And yet, we also tend to look at those with a lot whose lives fall apart or end in despair and say “see, money can’t buy happiness” with an almost gleeful sort of relish. Here’s what I’ve come to realize. From wealthy people who are still pursuing more and more to the poor who look at them jealously and long to be wealthy under the belief that then they’ll be happy, we have largely accepted a lie. Both fail to understand that if we depend on things for happiness, there is no end of chasing after stuff. I get stuff. I feel happy for a bit and then life happens. How can I regain my happiness? I know. I’ll go get more stuff! But then, life happens again. So, I go get some more stuff. Then, life happens…
We have accepted, almost without question, the idiocy of “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” As I said above, it’s a lie. Stuff doesn’t bring happiness. Things don’t provide a rich and fulfilling life. To think they do is foolish. Think about this: Biographies of the great and respected people of the past spend little or no time talking about what they had. Instead, they spend time talking about what those people did, what they accomplished and how they impacted others. Broadly speaking, happiness (especially in the sense of joy and contentment) is about experiences, both alone and with others.
I’m self-employed these days. I haven’t always been. Between my military career and time in the corporate world, I have about 40 years of trying to find happiness with the wrong formula. I grew up accepting the formula that our culture says brings about both success and happiness. That formula has been characterized as “study hard so you can get good grades so you can get a good job with good benefits and a good salary.” This has been touted as the formula for a successful and happy life for longer than any of us have been alive. More than that, it and the ability to acquire stuff, has almost become what our culture accepts as the purpose of life. The result, I believe, has been a society of people who are increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Before I go any further, let me say that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with earning a significant income (however much that might be to you) or with having nice things. Nor do I think there is anything wrong with planning or plans. In fact, in spite of the romance of a life spent in perpetual rambling with no specific goal, the old saying “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there” is still very true. What I am saying is that we have largely not only accepted the wrong plan and goal, but we’ve done so because we’ve accepted the wrong definition of a happy and fulfilling life. A happy and fulfilling life isn’t lived because of what we have. It’s lived because of what we do, what we experience and the lives we touch and that touch us.
Travel offers us the opportunity to do more, experience more and touch and be touched by more people than almost anything else. When you are in your later years, sitting with those you love and who love you, it is almost a guarantee that you’ll reminisce about the things you and they did, together and individually. Likewise, unless it’s connected in some way to your experiences, it’s also almost the same guarantee that you won’t reminisce about that car you drooled over and eventually bought. You aren’t likely to speak fondly and at length of the Rolex on your wrist, though you might talk about the person who gave it to you. You probably won’t talk about flying first class…except in terms of what it was like. It’s all about experiences and people, not stuff. The stuff is incidental. The experiences (including relationships with people) are the story.
Travel isn’t magic. It’s just that it if we travel and do more than stay in insulated places that are as much like home as possible, it forces us to experience more. It exposes us to real people who aren’t simply faceless staff members at an over-priced resort*. Travel, in a real sense, exposes us to life the way others live and experience it. How cool is that?
Travel a bit. Experience more. Meet people. Touch lives and let other people touch yours. In the process, you just might find yourself living that rich and fulfilling life you’ve dreamed of for so long.
*NOTE: Resorts aren’t inherently bad. They’re just artificial. They give the illusion of having experienced a place while insulating guests from a significant part of the local culture. Does anyone seriously believe you can “experience the islands” (or anywhere else) at a resort that’s too expensive for the vast majority of the locals to visit?