Lessons in Happiness From Long Term Travel

happy old indian man long term travel picture
How The West forget to be happy..
Do they use self help books in rural Cambodia? How would a poor Filipino farmer feel about Tony Robbins? Is The Secret much of a success in war-torn Somalia? and Why the hell is there even a self help industry?! The West seems to have forgotten how to be happy in it’s infinite search for the magic pill and it gives me the absolute shits. The pursuit of happiness is a terrible idea, happiness itself on the other hand is a much better concept. There are 5 particular lessons I’ve had reaffirmed through long term travel that I think really contribute to whether a person is happy or not.
Happy kids long term travel picture
Happiness is universal

I have been to some shockingly poor countries and what never ceases to amaze me is the ever present positive and welcoming nature of the people. I’ve spent time with people whose monthly incomes are worth less than my socks (and they’re not nice socks) and while these people often have so little they’re still willing to share what little they have with you. After coming home again, I’ve been repeatedly dismayed at the greed, wastage and the general narcissism that seems to be rampant in most 1st world societies. Don’t get me wrong I love my country but it seems to me that we may have wandered off the path a little and many people are focussing on the wrong things in life.

Last night, while at the gym I made the rookie mistake of switching on the TV. Right away I was viciously attacked by 500 stations of reality television, talk shows and bad police dramas. I panicked and a scream caught in my throat as I launching the remote through the air in an attempt to desperately avert my eyes before I was sucked into the black soul destroying hole that is modern TV. Watching an hour of TV has the same negative effects on life expectancy as smoking 2 cigarettes and given the average American watches 4.5 hours of TV a day.. well you do the maths. It’s really not pretty, and I think much of the reason the West has such a low level of GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) stems from a commerce driven disposable society fueled by the confusion of needs and wants.

Consumerism long term travel image
Consumer culture is screwing the world.

Stroll through the self help section of a bookstore and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the average person had every possible psychological issue, eating disorder, relationship problem and phobia known to man. The shelves are stacked with volumes of dodgy self help books that appear to me to be nothing more than a few pieces of common sense wrapped up in clever marketing primarily designed to make money for their authors more than genuinely helping people (The Secret anyone?). You could read every self help book in the world and not gain as much as you would through just a short trip to provincial South East Asia.

If you want to learn about yourself, travel the world and experience life in another country, ride a bike through Cambodia or drop Ayahuasca with a shaman in Peru. You will meet new people, explore new places, face fears, and see and experience things that will change you for the better in a way that no book could ever dream of. You will return home with new eyes to see things you never noticed before even though you may have been looking right at them. I have met many travellers in my time and they all seem to share some common traits, each seeing the world with fresh eyes, a love of life and generally taking nothing for granted. I have found that travellers are as a general rule far happier than your average person.

5 Lessons in happiness I learned from travel

Smiling old woman long term travel image
Be grateful for everything!

The nearest place to get food to me right now is 30 meters away, I have access to clean water, i’m educated, I have a car, somewhere to live, a shower, healthcare and all my limbs. Be grateful for what you have, there are millions of people around the world who would give almost anything to be where you are now. Its nothing more than a lucky roll of the cosmic dice that you ended up where you are, so stop taking things for granted and be grateful for everything you have.

If you buy $400 jeans are you a bad person? Yes, yes you are. You don’t need $400 jeans. Don’t ever confuse needs with wants. Look up at the stars and always remember you are an infinitely small speck of dust, flickering into existence for a fraction of an instant on a pale blue dot and then treat everyone around you with respect and never act like a dickhead, we’re all in this together and no one’s getting out alive!

Community and Relationships
The most important things in your life are the relationships you share, friends, family, partners and the wider community. These relationships are what really make you happy and enrich your life more than anything else. Some of the poorest people on the plant have a better sense of community than most of us in the 1st world, they share, integrate and look after each other in a way that some people in The West would never understand. Travel has taught me to treasure these relationships and always be open to new friends and connections with new people.

African kids long term travel picture
Everywhere I’ve been, I have met happy people

An open mind
New ideas are the lifeblood of innovation and change, travel will broaden your mind in a way that nothing else can, new ideas keep you fresh and an open mind will make you more accepting of change, different opinions and generally a better more well rounded person. Change is inevitable, those who can’t change will be left behind, accept it and move on, travel will help you do that.

The Unimportance of Material Things 
When you live out of a bag the key is simplicity and minimalism, the philosophy of less is more applies here. Treasure relationships and experiences not things, things can be fun but they don’t matter, how does a shinier watch make you a better person? Don’t waste time or money on the unimportant, ignore the Joneses and remember to always question why you ‘want’ something you probably don’t need.

The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that you are always pursuing it. Like Wylie Coyote after the Roadrunner or a donkey following a carrot into infinity, we’re always going to be chasing it but never actually catching anything. We don’t need a Tony Robbins seminar or some other dodgy self help ‘guru’ to show us the way, we already have all the answers. Embrace your relationships, look at the stars and be grateful for your lucky roll of the cosmic dice and just be happy, most people never have the chances we do and travel is the best way I know to remember that.

About Author


Hi, I'm Pete, an ex-cubical slave and corporate love monkey currently writing my way around the world. My background is in branding, digital marketing, media and I'm probably about a level 10 at moustaches.


  1. Awesome post mate 🙂 A lot of great points in there. NO-ONE needs $400 jeans, that’s for sure. Also, welcome to world of travel blogging!

    1. Thanks Tom! Yeh I just think people get too concerned with the minutiae of their lives and kind of miss the bigger picture, not that I don’t too im just painfully aware of it haha Love Activebackpacker BTW!

  2. Great post. I love the picture of the smiley old lady.

  3. Angelina

    You my friend have been here before.If we could all only take a little less and give a little more.I am going to follow your travels and live through your worldwide experiences.

  4. Great points Peter. I really relate to some of the things that you said about material wealth and a sense of humility. We don’t need even a fraction of the things that we are told to buy. I have also noticed the sense of community as you say. It seems that sometimes the ‘poorer’ are not so.

  5. Indy

    We don’t need a Tony Robbins seminar or some other dodgy self help ‘guru’ to

    I thought I was the only one who didnt believe in the self help rubbish. I meant to say shit, if allowed. How much of what they teach is actually retained by the people who pay them? The self help gurus in the mean time get rich, and the gullible people get nothing out of it in the long term.

    Thanks for bringing that up.
    Have a great trip where ever you going.

    (PS. Am off to India soon. Will be blogging about it somewhere.)Dont print this.

  6. Charles

    I was looking for a picture of and old lady laughing, to put in my desktop, to remember an story told by a Tibetan lama

    “A westerner found in the Himalayas a very old women, toothless, in a very poor place, but the old lady didn’t stop smiling and laughing. Puzzled, the westerner ask the old lady – Why do you laugh all the time? – and the old lady answered – Why not?”

    The photo and the words tells exactly the same. Very nice page!

    By the way, is the best illustration for my history that I found in the web. It is a pity that it is so small!

  7. Kristin

    I just got “home” to Hong Kong after a trip through Uganda. I’m not sure if more polar extremes exist in regards to materialism. Where we were in Uganda, many people had very little in terms of possessions but were extremely polite and seemed very happy. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, one of the first things that always strikes me is the amount of Mainland Chinese tourists standing in line outside of Louis Vuitton or whatever high-end luxury they MUST buy. They may have money but it certainly can’t buy class and you see some of these same tourists littering, spitting and worse. Hong Kongers base their own value on their salaries and the amount of possessions that they can buy yet they seem to be some of the most unhappy people I have ever met. It really makes you think about your values in life after living here as an expat….

    1. Wow, what a contrast Kristin! Yep I’ve seen the exact same things first hand too. Always blows me away how ridiculous some people are, it just makes no sense. I’m not going to kick off a rant about consumerism, marketing and the environment cause i’ll run out of space.. I see very similar values here in Singapore every day too. It’s all about the money, just gross to see. I find Singapore also attracts some A-level drop-kicks too, there’s definitely something about Finance that attracts a certain kind of person.

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