Happiness and well-being researcher and author of A Journey for Happiness: The Man Who Cycled to Bhutan Christopher Boyce spent years studying what makes people happy. However, he was still unsure of how to live a happy life himself, until he quit his decade-long career as a happiness academic to take an epic bike trip around the world to Bhutan.
Bhutan is a small Himalayan kingdom that is known for basing all its national policy decisions on happiness. On his trip, Boyce learned a lot about how to lead a happy life from direct experience, and below are some of the things he learned along the way.
For sustained happiness, go deep
When happiness is discussed, it is often disregarded as an unattainable societal objective because happiness policy is easily misunderstood as people smiling and laughing constantly.
As enjoyable as smiling and laughing are, doing so all of the time is neither realistic nor ideal. Difficult feelings are a normal part of life. Crying, for instance, provides a necessary release. And being open and curious about anxiousness is better than hiding from it.
Boyce’s definition of happiness is one that is founded in connection, purpose, and hope, while also allowing for sadness and fear. Bhutan aspires to this complexity of happiness.
Have goals, but prepare to let them go
Goals can be good in terms of providing direction in our daily lives. However, it’s easy to become caught up in the pursuit of a goal, believing that our pleasure is dependent on it.
Instead of being in flow, which psychologists define as an immersing, in-the-moment state of being, we may end up being too strict in the pursuit of our goal. In the end, we may realize that reaching our objectives does not always result in happiness.
While cycling to Bhutan, Boyce admits that he let go of the idea of ever reaching his destination many times. By doing so, he guaranteed that his journey remained purposeful and pleasurable. If we’re not happy along the journey, we should consider if it’s even worth going.
Don’t be misled by stories
There are many stories about what makes a happy life, but not all of them are backed up by solid facts. One example is that money can buy happiness.
Boyce spent a lot of his career examining this alleged relationship between money and happiness, and this is his major finding: Having more money (above and beyond what we need to meet our basic needs) is not as important as having good relationships, taking care of our mental and physical health, and living a meaningful life that is in line with our beliefs and values. Yet, sadly, these things are often given up in order to accrue more wealth.
Allow others to give
Boyce’s experience as a researcher led him to understand how important relationships were to happiness. But, like many people, he had trouble cultivating these relationships in his own life. The inherent difficulty and work in achieving such relationships isn’t something that is often talked about, so people are left to think that others will only love them if they meet certain criteria, not just because of who they are.
Boyce reveals that one of the most surprising things about his bike trip was how kind and helpful people were. Even though they didn’t have much, people would invite him into their lives and offer food and a place to stay. He admitted that at first, he was suspicious of this kindness, but over time, he learned to open up to people, which led to deeper relationships and more happiness.
You can get through a crisis
Boyce is the first to admit that he couldn’t have ridden his bike all the way to Bhutan without running into at least one problem. At some point, we will all be in a tough spot. We might lick our wounds and get back on our feet, but we need help from others to get through a crisis mentally. We also need time to figure out what’s going on and make sure we’re moving forward in a good way. All of these are important for being resilient, and they all played a part in helping Boyce on his journey.
You can’t beat the million-star hotel
After a long day of cycling through the mountains (or a hard day at work in the office) there’s nothing better than lying under the stars. Even though humans are part of nature, we spend a lot of time indoors in built-up, often made-up social spaces that don’t meet our basic needs. Nature is important to our health and happiness, not just to help us feel calm and peaceful right now, but also to keep people alive for generations to come.