Travelling to Happiness

Reasons to be cheerful by Thomas Power, Pura Aventura
Written by
Thomas Power

The month of May is a pretty upbeat time of the year in the UK. It’s usually pleasantly warm but not hot enough to complain yet. It’s inevitably very green in our gardens and parks but mowing the grass still feels like a privilege rather than a chore. Birdsong retains the power to make us pause with its novelty to our ears.  

May is also the time of year when the Organisation for National Statistics (ONS) releases its annual snapshot of the country’s wellbeing, our happiness. Unfortunately, the picture painted by the 2023 numbers really aren’t very merry.  

A few of the more notable statistics are that only 23% of adults report very high levels of life satisfaction (down from 30% pre-pandemic). The cost of living crisis has had physical consequences, with 30% reporting an impact on their health. That’s backed up by the decline in ‘healthy life’ expectancy, for men at least (just under 63 years since you ask…). Depression & Anxiety have, unsurprisingly, risen sharply and now apply to fully 24% of the population. You can read the core data here, it’s certainly not all depressing but there is a sense that the underlying direction of travel is a bit glum.  

Which is why I am so pleased to have come across James Wallman’s splendid little book, Time and How to Spend It. While I absolutely appreciate the depressing mood music of our times, this book made me feel that I can do something about it. Quite simple and obvious things in many cases.  

There are tools in there, such as how to reframe events as chapters in our own heroic journey through life. There are suggestions, like switching off our tech. There are exhortations, for instance, to spend more time outdoors. And there are reminders, mainly that buying stuff makes us less happy.  

The underlying assumptions in Wallman’s book seem to be reiterated by the methodology used by the ONS, amongst the 44 different measures used to assess wellbeing. Alongside the perhaps more obvious metrics relating to anxiety, health, crime and income you will find things like frequency of volunteering, access to nature and sense of belonging.  

But Wallman’s ultimate tip for how to spend our time, to make us happy, is to actively pursue transformational experiences. These are activities which make us feel the best version of ourselves, as though we’ve fulfilled our potential. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is referred to as self-actualization and sits at the top of the pyramid, the final piece required to complete us.  

Rather helpfully, for me in my line of work, Wallman holds up travel, holidays, to be the most powerful transformational experiences that most of us are lucky enough to have in our lives. Of course, there are different types of holidays and he’s certainly not saying that you need to sit on top of a Patagonian peak to be happy, but what he is saying is that a travel experience, created well, has more power to transform us than pretty much anything else we do. In doing so, it makes us happier people.  

I buy that.

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