“Follow your bliss,” wrote modern philosopher Joseph Campbell. And we do – big trip travelers know that our bliss is out there in the great big world and we travel to find it. There’s bliss residing just in the fact that we are out there and traveling. Our bliss is on the Andean mountaintops of Peru and along rivers in Laos; it’s on a chicken bus through Central America and over shared plates of kebabs in Turkey.
But what about those moments when things don’t go well or there’s a lull and we’re wondering, “what the heck are we doing out here?” Or the trip isn’t turning out like we imagined? Some brave bloggers like Where’s Sharon and Nomadic Matt have shared frustrating moments on the road when the experiences were blistering instead of blissful.
All moments can’t be exceptional, even during a big trip. I wondered – were there things we could do to make sure we had the most happiness on our trip? Or at least get what we most want from long-term travel? I felt this question was especially important because of the amount of investment travelers make in a long-term trip.
To answer this question, I turned to one person I know who has a very thorough view on human behavior. Kristen Berman is the co-founder of Irrational Labs, a non-profit dedicated to understanding human behavior. She’s a verifiable smarty-pants who helps Silicon Valley companies understand human behavior to make products better.
This article is her advice and answer to my question, “How to make the most of your trip?” I love her recommendations because it sets the big trip traveler up for success on how to have more blissful moments on a big trip than blistering ones.
Planning The Trip: Plan for the Most “Peak” Experiences
“If we think of happiness in general, there are peaks and valleys. The peaks are the memorable, joyous experiences and the valleys are not. If we think of a trip, no matter the length, we want to make sure we have the most peak experiences.” Her advice is to think of the trips as more than just the destination. Rather, we need to think of what our trip looks like with the most peak experiences. Kristen also recommends that it’s wise to think about the “Why” of a trip and then to find the experiences that illustrate the “why” we are traveling on our big trip.
When I traveled on my first big trip to India, I had one “why” of the trip – to open my heart. I decided to travel with intentions to make that happen. After talking with Kristen, I realized that I had been identifying my peak experiences. I volunteered at Mother Teresa’s Mission Charities, I took a class on Buddhism in Bodhgaya, and I let go of my marriage and gave myself forgiveness in Varanasi. These were my peak experiences. I found my heart opened with each one. It’s also why I treasure that trip to India so dearly. It was the trip of most of my peak experiences. Conversely, on other big trips, when I’ve just focused on going to a destination like Barcelona and Vietnam without that higher purpose or understanding what those peak experiences were, I had more valleys than summits on the trip.
Before the Trip: Let’s Get Excited
“Anticipation increases happiness,” Kristen shared. “If we know that we’ll kiss our favorite celebrity in a week, then in that week building up to it, we’ll be thinking about it and talking about it. It will make us happier” The question is, “How can we build up the anticipation for the trip?” She offers several tips:
- Make a visual – trace your trip out on a map and hang it up or find pictures that represent the trip and hang them up
- Make a countdown for your trip
- Buy and wrap gifts to yourself and open them in the days before leaving
My friend Jessie, veteran of several big trips, recommends making a sound track of the upcoming trip and then listening to it regularly before going.
For each of my big trips, I made a vision board, plucking pictures out of my favorite travel magazines (AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, and Conde Nast Traveler) and pasting them on a poster board. I looked at that trip board every day and felt so happy that I was going to realize all those images in my life. And wouldn’t you know? My trips had all the elements I mapped out on that board.
Before the Trip: Get Specific
In traveler Katie Aune’s post “Travel Didn’t Solve Anything” she writes, “I wanted to emerge from 13 months of traveling and volunteering around the world a better person – more patient and more open to taking risks. I hoped to find new, like-minded friends and develop new relationships. I secretly hoped I might finally solve my toxic relationship with food and return from my trip healthier and several pounds lighter. I wanted to discover my life’s purpose and emerge from my travels with a new direction for my career.” But, she continues, “I have been home almost 6 months and I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t accomplish what I set out to.”
I write this blog to inspire people to live their travel dreams. I would hate for someone to read that post and not travel on their big trip because they think that their life won’t be better. I brought up my concern to Kristen and she advised a few ways make sure a big trip helps you accomplish what you want and to feel satisfied after the trip. “Understand your desired outcome and visualize it.” She says to get specific. “If you want more patience, what does that patience look like? You don’t need to know exactly how to do it, but you need to tell if it actually happened.”
I think about her advice and how a traveler, using behavioral science, can get what they want out of their trip. The truth is, travel may not make your life better, but you can do a few things before the trip to identify what “better” means. With very much respect, I use a few of Katie’s goals as an example.
- Patience: What does patience look like? Is it not getting upset when there’s a long line? Or is it comfortable with no plans made for a few days? Or is it to speak kindly to someone who is upsetting?
- Open to taking risks: What are some ‘risky’ experiences that this traveler could have on the trip that, if conquered, would signify ‘open to taking risks?” If the big trip is not risky enough, what are some experiences that, if accomplished, can signify “open to risks?”
- Find a new career direction: Kristen had very specific advice for making the most out of your trip to find a career direction. If we know what we’re interested in, then for each country visited, we can ask the question on “how do they do it there?” Kristen shared that when she worked for Intuit, she went to South America on vacation and asked, “What can I learn about small businesses in this destination?” Study a culture like an anthropologist – come in with questions and observe to answer them. These answers may reveal something that leads to an answer about “What do I want to do with my career?”
I had the goal of “opening my heart,” on my trip to India and I thought that it was helping others. Imagine my surprise, when I had a little “aha” moment in 100 degree heat of Agra, India, in the middle of the night. On my second day in India, I spent waaaaay to much money getting a part of my trip organized and started to really beat myself up over it for about 24 hours. It was in the middle of a brutal internal dialogue that I just stopped and realized that I needed to open my heart to myself. I had made a mistake and I needed to accept that and be kind to myself. I was new to this type of travel and no one died. With that kindness, I soothed myself a bit and was able to creak open my heart that was closed to myself and I put the bat down.
During the Trip: Make The “After” Better
Kristen advises that we want to optimize the “after” of our trip to make sure the happiness we felt while traveling continues once we return. To do so, we need to do a few things on our trip that makes our return home happy. I can attest that coming home after a big trip is like breaking up with a lover – we miss everything about it, but know we can’t go back. She recommends:
- Taking pictures at the same time every day on our trip – for example, take a picture of every breakfast. Then, after our trip, we’ll have 50+ pictures of our breakfasts. These images will bring us to those quiet moments that sustained our days.
- Send ourselves postcards while on the road. Wen we get home, we’ll have a collection of memories and postcards.
- Create videos of our favorite moments so that we can watch them over and over when we get home.
I blogged during each one of my trips and continue to blog, going back over those posts fill me with joy each time.
There are many memories that I treasure in my travels, including traveling into the Sahara desert. It was here that I called upon the desert to give me strength to go forward on my next journey – find a home.
My travel memories continue to fill me with bliss while I’m home in San Francisco and energized by the long-term travel community. I share Kristen’s advice on how to make the most of your trip because I want your trips to be filled with all the bliss that they can be.
A big Thank You to Kristen for sharing her insights with the travel community.