How to get the most happiness out of your travels

“It’s got brilliant white sand, umbrella-shaped trees for shade, clean clear water, a few little waves here and there to make it interesting, dozens of great little beachside cafes and bars, and enough local life to remind you that you are indeed in Bali.”

That’s how my pocket-sized Frommer’s guidebook describes one of the many beautiful beaches that encircle the popular Indonesian island. Sounds like paradise, and for many people it is. Tourists from around the globe flock to Bali to soak up the tropical sun on scores of postcard-perfect beaches. It’s just not for me.

I’ve been in Bali for a month now, and have yet to log an hour of beach time. Frankly, I find the whole “drop-and-flop” style beach holiday boring. Not to mention my skin has the colouring of a marshmallow and it takes to the sun much like those fluffy white treats take to a campfire. Sun and sand holidays are just not my thing, and that’s okay with me.

I’m happiest when actively exploring the local culture, art, music, architecture and natural landscapes of a destination. Lucky for me, Bali has a wealth of these assets too. Here, paradise for me is discovering a ruined temple while trekking through the rice fields, immersing myself in a traditional religious ceremony, or striking up a conversation with some locals at a roadside food stall.

Travel is a highly personal experience. What is holiday bliss to me may sound like a travel nightmare to you. So to get the most pleasure out of your own holiday, it makes sense to base your travel choices – on everything from where to stay, to where to eat, to what to do – on how happy you expect these experiences will make you feel, in both the short and long-term.

However, not all types of experiences deliver the same happiness bang for your buck. According to the book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, four kinds of experiences are especially good at making us happy. Doing more of these things during your next trip should make your travels, well, happier.

Do things that align with your sense of self

In my mind’s eye, or perhaps over-inflated ego, I like to think of myself as a mild-mannered version of Indiana Jones when I travel. And so, when choosing between alternative travel experiences, it helps to think: What would Indy do?

Have a drink at a glitzy hotel bar flooded with foreigners, or mingle with locals at a tucked away Shisha café? Watch a well-orchestrated cultural show staged for tourists, or go to a small village temple for a traditional water blessing? Take an air-conditioned tour bus to see all the “must-see” attractions listed in my guidebook, or hire a local to take me on an impromptu trek through the jungle? Tapping into my inner Indiana Jones makes these decisions easy.

Okay, I’m no Harrison Ford and I’m not on a life-threatening quest for a lost artifact, but thinking like Indy helps to align my travel decisions with my (idealized) sense of self – a globetrotting explorer on the hunt for authentic and unique experiences. From a happiness perspective, it turns out to be a good way to think.

According to Happy Money, experiences provide more happiness when they are tightly linked to your sense of who you are, or want to be. So whether you fashion yourself after Marco Polo or Carrie Bradshaw, you’ll get more happiness out of your holiday if you do things that align with your sense of self, even if it’s a highly romanticized version of you.

Foster connections with others

All other things being equal, experiences tend to be more satisfying when they make us feel connected to other people. If you’re travelling with others, this social connection is built-in: Almost all your experiences are shared with your travel partners. Not only does the feeling of being connected give a blissful boost in the moment, but the relationships with your travel mates will likely grow and deepen which can provide a happiness windfall for years to come.

Fostering social connections is not so easy when you travel solo. It can be lonely out on the road, and long stretches of isolation can dampen the pleasure of travel. There is a silver lining, however: It is often easier to connect with other travellers or with locals when travelling alone. Since you don’t have the comfy social safety net of travel mates, you are forced to get out there and meet new people.

Whether you go it alone or with others, your travel choices can help make it easier to cultivate more connections along the way. For example, consider staying at a hostel or pension where you can easily meet other travellers, or at a home stay where you can interact with a host family; seek out restaurants and cafes with communal seating areas; or take part in group activities, like cycling tours or cooking classes, where part of the fun is sharing the experience with others.

One of the best things about travel is the constant opportunity to meet people from around the world. Be deliberate about fostering these connections: You’ll be happier for it.

Make memorable stories

“Apparently, the stuff sells for $50 a cup in places like New York and London and, get this, it’s made with cat poop!” I say to my friend, who’s sitting across the table at our favourite coffee shop back home. At least that’s how I envision the story beginning.

Kopi Luwak – as it’s called in Indonesia – is coffee made using coffee beans that are harvested from the fecal matter of the Asian Palm Civet, a nocturnal animal native to Southeast Asia. The civet kind of looks like a cat, but technically isn’t one.

Civets like to eat the flesh of ripe coffee cherries, but their stomachs cannot digest the beans inside. Before the coffee bean is passed, the enzymes in the civet’s digestive track penetrate the surface of the bean and significantly alter its chemical composition. It turns out that coffee made from the pooped beans is delicious, prized by gourmet java aficionados for its aroma and flavour.

One of the most expensive coffees in the world, civet coffee can sell for upwards of $50 a cup in chic cafes around the world. Thankfully, I only had to shell out 50,000 rupiah (a little less than $5) to sample a cup at a small coffee plantation in rural Bali. Taken straight black, Kopi Luwak is smooth and sweet, with a hint of chocolaty flavour. It’s noticeably less bitter than a typical cup of coffee and, according to our server, has more protein and less caffeine than regular coffee. As with “low alcohol” beer, however, I’m not convinced that “less caffeine” is a selling point.

I’m not even home yet, and I can already imagine telling the story about drinking “cat poop” coffee to several of my java-loving friends. Though I might gross out a few of them, this modest five-dollar experience is sure to deliver a big happiness payday because of the added pleasure that comes from sharing the story with others. As Dunn and Norton explain, experiences can deliver long-lasting happiness when they make for memorable stories that you’ll enjoy retelling time and again.

Look for unique opportunities

“Do you want to attend a public cremation ceremony on Friday?” It’s the first and probably the last time I will ever be asked this question. How could I say no?

In Balinese Hindu culture, cremation is an important rite of passage in the cycle of life as it’s believed to release the soul from the body so it can reincarnate. In the ceremony, bones from the deceased are placed in sarcophagi shaped like mythical animals, and then burned after a long and high-spirited procession. Considered a joyous occasion for families who are helping their loved ones in the journey to the next life, the ritual involves lots of music and special offerings given on behalf of the deceased.

Witnessing the elaborate ceremony was priceless, and incomparable to anything else I’ve done on this trip or any other. It’s fair to say the experience will be a defining moment of my time in Bali, and will shape my memory of this holiday years from now.

As it’s put in Happy Money, unique experiences are so satisfying because they’re not easily comparable with other available options for your time and money. Not to say the more traditional things listed in your guidebook should be ignored. These are popular for a reason. However, the most satisfying experiences – the ones that stand out in your memory – tend to be the unique ones.

Whether you’re planning a three-day getaway to Las Vegas or a three-month backpacking trip to South America, plan to do something out-of-the-ordinary and be open to new opportunities that take you off the beaten track. These experiences provide some of the most fertile ground for happiness to bloom.

Photography makes past experiences more memorable

Have you seen Matt Cutts’ TED Talk on trying something new for 30 days? Cutts is an engineer at Google – a self-described ordinary guy who uses 30-day challenges to supercharge his life. In this short and cheery talk, Cutts argues that setting 30-day goals is an effective way to achieve powerful results in life. One of the selling points of doing these challenges is that 30 days is short enough to be doable, yet long enough to form a new routine. [In reality, there is no magic number for how long it takes for a new habit to form. Depending on the behaviour you want to adopt, it could take anywhere from a few weeks to the better part of a year. On average, a good rule of thumb is to stick with a new activity for two months to make it habitual.]

One of Cutts’ 30-day challenges was to take a picture every day. As an avid fan of photography, this challenge resonated with me. I especially liked his observation that photography helps to make time more memorable. Cutts contends that a picture lets you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on a particular day. A photograph is a simple, yet powerful way to reconnect with a past experience.

While I like to think of myself as an enthusiastic shutterbug, the truth is my Nikon spends most of its days collecting dust bunnies at the back of my bedroom closet. So, to help rekindle my interests in photography, I challenged myself to take a picture everyday this past February. Okay, first a disclaimer: February has only 28 days. I readily admit this isn’t technically a 30-day challenge. Close enough, I’m not going to split hairs.

I chose February, in part, because I was going to be on the road for a big portion of the month. With trips planned to Seattle for Super Bowl weekend and to Providence to participate in a conference, I anticipated a lot of good photo ops during my travels. [I also planned to bookend my trip to Providence with short stays in Boston and New York.]

Here’s one small story from Boston. One morning, pining for a java fix, I decided to search Yelp for the “best coffee shop” in the city. Up sprang Polcari’s Coffee on Salem Street, earning an astonishing five stars. Sold! So, in the midst of a minor blizzard, we set off to find this mysterious caffeine mecca. After zigzagging through the streets of Boston for well over an hour, we finally reached our destination in the heart of the city’s historic Italian neighbourhood. Waltzing through the front door of the quaint shop, we were surprised to find not a single espresso machine on site, but rather a vast assortment of coffee beans, tea, spices, as well as deli meats, candy, pasta and nuts. I’m such an airhead. Polcari’s is a coffee store, not a coffee shop (darn semantics). After browsing the wares for a few minutes, we walked down the block to find a more run-of-the-mill café. Once we got our brew, I took out my camera and snapped this shot from the doorway:

February 15: Exploring the historic Italian part of Boston, Massachusetts
February 15: Exploring the historic Italian part of Boston, Massachusetts


One thing I love about this photo is how it picks up the falling snowflakes, reminding me of the beautiful snowy streets we explored on our quest to find the perfect cup of coffee. Sure, we never did find that elusive five-star cappuccino, but the photo reminds me of one of life’s important lessons. To quote author, Greg Anderson: “Focus on the journey not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” May all my bungled adventures – both big and small – bring so much joy.

How to make your New Year’s resolutions stick: The power of setting concrete goals

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution, only to give it up a few weeks later? If so, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. According to research from the University of Scranton, an estimated 92% of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution for 2012 failed to realize their goal. This raises a question: what did the other 8% do right?

Usually you can count me with the 92% of folks who fall short in achieving their resolutions. In most years, my garden-variety oaths to exercise more or drink less fall by the wayside well before the start of spring. In spite of my poor track record, somehow in 2012 I found myself part of the 8% who succeed. That year, my resolution was to read 20 new books by year’s end – a goal that I surpassed by mid-September. So what did I do right, when so many past attempts had failed?

In the book, Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss the best ways to make a change in behaviour stick. Amongst other factors, one way to ensure that change lasts is to set a goal which gives you a clear direction to follow. To be most effective, this goal should be simple, concrete, and actionable.

Let’s say you want to start eating a healthier diet, and so you make a resolution to “eat healthier” in the coming year. Despite your best intentions, you fall back to your old ways a mere two weeks later. Sound familiar? According to the Heath brothers, the main reason for faltering isn’t laziness, but a lack of clear direction. Your goal to “eat healthier” is just too sweeping and ambiguous to execute in your day-to-day life. Ambiguity, it turns out, is why many of our New Year’s resolutions fail.

Your chances of success will be much greater if you make a resolution that’s clear and concrete – something you can easily take action on and doesn’t leave any wiggle room for digression. For example, you’re more likely to create a lasting change in your eating habits if you set a simple goal to change one specific behaviour, such as “switching from whole milk to skim or 1% milk,” rather than trying to overhaul all your eating habits in one fell swoop. A goal like “only drink skim milk” works because it’s laser-focused, unambiguous, and easy to follow.

This helps to explain why I was able to achieve my goal of reading 20 new books in a year. What I didn’t do is make a vague resolution to “read more books” in the new year. Instead, I was specific about the number of books I’d read and the time frame in which I’d read them. Clear as crystal.

Originally, I thought 20 books in a year would be a stretch – doable, but ambitious. However, as often is the case with big goals, they can appear less daunting if you break them down into bite-sized chunks. Case in point: to read 20 books in one year means finishing a book every two and a half weeks, on average. That works out to reading 20 pages a day, assuming a typical book has roughly 350 pages. Only 20 pages a day, now that’s workable.

In retrospect, my resolution wasn’t so far-fetched after all. Just by reading a little every day, I was able to finish my 20th book by the middle of September and, by the end of the year, I read 27 books in all.

Buoyed by this success, I decided to set a new goal for 2013: to read at least 23 new books to bring my two-year total to an even 50. I’m happy to say I hit the mark and, as in 2012, I finished a total of 27 books by year’s end.

So this year, if you want to create a New Year’s resolution with staying power, make sure to frame it in simple and specific terms. For instance, instead of resolving to “save more money” or “lose weight” in the new year, challenge yourself to “make your morning coffee at home” or “take the stairs at work.” Be clear and concrete if you want to make your resolutions stick.

As for me, I’ve set a new goal to reach 100 books by the end of 2015 – to stay on pace, that’s 23 new books in each of 2014 and 2015. Do you have suggestions for good reads? Please leave a comment below.

Update: I finished my 100th book, Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson, on October 28, 2015. It took me three years and 301 days (1,397 days in all) to complete this goal.