The things I know about happiness

by Kim on September 3, 2013 · 54 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately. Maybe because I recently had a birthday and have reached the age where I thought I’d have everything figured out. (Ha!) Shouldn’t the questions be answered by now? (Double ha!) Maybe because I am about to go overseas again. Leaving my friends, family, and dogs behind always sends me into an existential tailspin.

I am an eternal optimist and I’m naturally resilient and these two traits keep me mostly happy most of the time. Still, I’ve said before that I consider happiness a moving target. Happiness isn’t something like a tattoo that, once embedded, stays forever. Happiness is not a destination. It’s not, Helloooo, happiness, I have arrived! Now fetch me a cocktail while I settle in for the rest of my life. 

It doesn’t work that way for me. I have to chase happiness. And once I catch up to it I have to work to keep it. I have a constant internal burn to achieve, to move, to create, to love, to converse, to collect, and I have to work to find the things that keep those torches aflame. I have to work to be happy, but the work makes me happy.

I recently took a personality test that noted one of my signature personality themes as Futuristic. “You are the kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon,” the test results said. “The future fascinates you. As if it were projected on the wall, you see in detail what the future might hold, and this detailed picture keeps pulling you forward, into tomorrow. You are a dreamer who sees visions of what could be. When the present proves too frustrating, and the people around you too pragmatic, you conjure up your visions of the future and they energize you.”

That description (along with my other signature themes of responsibility (“you take psychological ownership for anything you commit to and feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion”), empathy (“you can sense the emotions of those around you and are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective”), activator (“when can we start?”) and connectedness (“things happen for a reason. You are sure of it.”), pretty much eerily sums me up. “Read this!” I said to Brian, pushing the test results towards him. He read the paper with a smirk on his face and said, “Uh, yep. That is you exactly.”

What I’ve struggled with until recently is how to be fully happy in the present despite my tendency to race like a bat out of hell towards whatever awaits me in the future. To be, essentially, happy right now despite whatever might be coming down the line.

I’ve learned some things.

For instance, I’ve learned that I love traveling but it doesn’t make me happy. Writing makes me happy, but I have a tendency to overwork. I become a hermit, hunched over my computer for fourteen hours a day, and that doesn’t make me happy at all.

Traveling fills the part of me that yearns to see it all, to meet new people and to be thrown out of my comfort zone. The hardest places to travel are my favorite. India is my favorite. Nepal is my favorite. I love feeling completely out of my element. Buenos Aires bores me. Spotless resorts and manicured lawns bore me. I like the grit and struggle of real life.

Traveling excites me and writing fulfills me but it has been the luxury of free time that has made me truly happy. Oh, the books I’ve read! The questions I’ve been able to ask myself and then answer as I trudged for weeks over the Himalayan Mountains. The things I’ve learned about myself while staring out of the window on a train as it knocks its way through India, soothed into a meditative lull by the clicking of the rails.

Kim in Nepal

Me in the Himalayan Mountains

Free time, time not indebted to someone or something else, has given me the space to develop the skills to be happy in the present. Mostly. I’m still a student after all. But here is what I have learned during this time of learning about happiness.

1. I have learned that happiness can always be accessed with gratitude. See that flower and the brilliant blue of the sky? Thank you. Thank you. Gratitude fosters happiness. Try it and be transformed.

2. I have learned that happiness is about embracing the scary and thrilling truth I am on the path that I should be on even if I occasionally trip and sprain my ankle. I am doing what I am here to do and it turns out that I always have been. Because every decision that I have ever made has lead me  here.

3. I have learned that happiness is about letting go of all the things I can’t control (which is everything) except for the one thing that I can control (me and my reaction to each situation).

4. I have learned to think of happiness as a smooth river rock that is just big enough to enclose in my palm. I picture this rock in my chest, near my heart. It is warm and golden and brilliant. And when I forget about happiness I close my eyes and focus on that smooth stone. I feel it inside of me and I know that it is here and always will be. I remind myself that I carry happiness with me wherever I go.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to test myself, to become a bigger and more confident person. Writing allows me to fulfill my life’s passion. But this gift of free time has given me the room to ask the deepest part of myself, what do you really want? Who are you? What feels natural and right? Giving myself the time and freedom to answer these questions has made me undoubtedly happy.

What do you know about happiness?

__________

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin Addis September 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm

It’s so hard to live in the moment, but when I do, I’m happiest. I can understand wanting to peer over the horizon, though. We all do it! I guess happiness is a decision more than anything, at least that’s what I think. The best I can do is avoid things that I know make me sad and take my happiness away. But seeking happiness through things and people? That’s a tactic I think will never quite work. I really like point #4 you made. So beautifully said!
Kristin Addis recently posted..The One Question I Can’t Stand

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 6:56 am

I agree with you. Things will not make you happy and other people cannot make you happy if you are not happy yourself!

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Kaitie September 3, 2013 at 6:12 pm

“What I’ve struggled with until recently is how to be fully happy in the present despite my tendency to race like a bat out of hell towards whatever awaits me in the future.” Isn’t that the truth?! I have to constantly remind myself that if I’m constantly worrying/waiting for future plans, I’m doing an injustice to NOW.

I came across this quote that I try to remember when I’m feeling exceptionally focused on the future. “In between goals is a thing called life, that has to be lived and enjoyed.”
Kaitie recently posted..Travel To-Do List: Galapagos Islands

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 6:57 am

Yeah, the downside about always thinking about the future is that it makes me a WORRIER as well. It makes me a very excitable worrier. Not a good combo!

Love that quote, Kaitie. Thanks for sharing.

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Patti September 3, 2013 at 6:49 pm

“Traveling excites me and writing fulfills me but it has been the luxury of free time that has made me truly happy.”

EXACTLY! ~ my strongest yearning at this point in my (our) life is to live an obligation free life. I have loved our life, not every moment of every day, but I have loved our life with absolutely no regrets. But now… now I want to have “the luxury of free time” to really live our lives. The only fault I find with this palpable yearning is that I forget to live in the moment, to remember to be thankful that I wake up every morning to this amazing life we are currently living, because I’m always thinking 2 steps ahead, planning for the next chapter when we have that “time.” Well done Kim, for figuring it out now.
Patti recently posted..Route 66: Tucumcari, NM – Who Knew?!

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 6:59 am

It’s strange to me because I’ve gotten so used to having such flexibility of my time that I forget that other people don’t have it. Like, I’ll be at the grocery store at 11 a.m. on Tuesday and not even think it is weird. I remember how strange that used to feel when I was working my 9-5 (and I’d always wonder- don’t these people have jobs?!) I’m not sure how I’ll ever go back (hopefully I won’t have to!)

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Sarah Somewhere September 3, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Yep, yep, and yep! ‘Happy’ is a tricky word, so I think what I seek now is peace. Within myself, and in my acceptance of others. I do not have it yet, but the lessons are in the seeking. Acceptance, that’s another big one for me. Faith, service, gratitude and creativity fill me with love, which is akin to happiness I guess. I know enough about un-happiness that I feel pretty new at this happiness stuff, but like your book discusses, following my heart and the message of my innermost self seems to be working pretty well. Ironically, accepting the times when I am un-happy and not fighting it or expecting something different from what is, fills me with peace. Seems to be mostly about acceptance for me, because there are simply not enough countries or mountains or oceans or tropical islands or accolades to keep this one happy for long! I need to cultivate my happiness by turning my life over to a higher power and trusting the results. Thanks for asking :)
Sarah Somewhere recently posted..A Bittersweet Symphony

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:00 am

Peace. YES. For awhile while I was writing this post I was using the word ‘contentment’ which I think is very similar to peace. Sarah, your insights about acceptance during the Rickshaw Run helped me a lot. You are one wise woman.

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Kristin Thomas September 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Wow! This is amazing! The same thoughts have been inside my head my whole life, but I could never have put it as eloquently as you did.

“What I’ve struggled with until recently is how to be fully happy in the present despite my tendency to race like a bat out of hell towards whatever awaits me in the future.”- I still struggle with being present and happy in the moment. I always have a count down to some important event on my phone, always looking ahead and sometimes forgetting to see what’s right in front of me.
Kristin Thomas recently posted..The Not So Glamorous Life of Travel

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:02 am

In some ways, the excitement for the future makes us happy (I’m assuming it is true for you as well). I love having something coming down the line. But I don’t want it to detract from whatever is happening in the moment. Actually, traveling really helps me live in the moment… especially in a place like India where you can only really be concerned by what is happening in that instant.

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Sarah Ram September 4, 2013 at 1:14 am

Happiness. For me its about living congruently (yes, I’m a counsellor!) – but when I am not living the way I want to, the way that feels right I am less than happy, and increasingly so. At the moment I am endeavouring to live the life I feel is ‘me’ – after 50 years its about time! That niggle, that itch, that whisper is becoming harder to ignore. Your words inspire and affect me, because I know they are not just sound-bites, they are deeply felt emotions that you are sharing honestly. I am standing on the edge of a huge precipice, to jump means freedom and congruence but it also means risk and uncertainty.
Sarah Ram recently posted..WATCH OUT!

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:03 am

Yes, isn’t it all about living the life that seems to fit like a pair of fleece pants? I life you feel totally “you” in? That is always my gauge as well. Do I feel like ME? Then I’m in the right place.

Risk and uncertainty is part of it!!! I can honestly say that the risks are worth it… the rewards will change you. I know you know!

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OCDemon September 4, 2013 at 2:27 am

there’s a great documentary on Netflix called Happy that’s all about what it takes to be satisfied with life. It looks at different cultures all over the world where people are happy, and it’s pretty obvious that the results line up quite closely with the values of people who have escaped the rat race of careerism. It’s not money and status and fancy cars that do it; it’s close friends, family, laughter, and getting outdoors. I’d throw passion in there too, but not everyone is passionate about particular things, but for those who are, pursuing them is important too.
OCDemon recently posted..5 awesomely quirky tourist attractions in Poland

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:05 am

I recently heard about this documentary. I’ve added it to my netflix queue (now I have to watch it before I leave for Spain!). I think that this is why sometimes poor people are the happiest. Nothing huge to lose, close connections with family/community. I see it time and time again while traveling. They have something that we have lost. We think we’re better off, but are we?

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Emily September 4, 2013 at 6:26 am

I really like your 4 points, especially #3. Life happens and it is only yourself that you can control in this great whirlwind. I think happiness is also about being kind and forgiving yourself. We’re all learning as we go, nothing is perfect and it’s all part of the path we were meant to take.
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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:06 am

I agree. Forgiving yourself and treating yourself kindly is so important. I always have to remind myself to treat myself the same way I’d treat my sisters or my friends. Why are we so hard on us?

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Will September 4, 2013 at 6:34 am

Hi Kim,
This post makes me happy :) #5 should be “read Kim’s blog”. Seriously, this is a great read and seems so true to me. Love the river rock analogy, obviously.
Will recently posted..Rafting the Wild West’s Upper Klamath

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:06 am

Aww, thanks Will. You should choose a river rock and keep it with you. Something to squeeze in your pocket that will ground you.

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Claire September 4, 2013 at 6:37 am

What a beautiful post. Especially number 4 – I’m going to have to try that myself! I’ve noticed that the thing I hate the most about my job isn’t the job itself, but the lack of control over my own time (and therefore, life). There’s no room to think or move or grow and the weeks tend to blur into each other. Travel, to me, means that I’ll have a bountiful amount of time and I cannot wait.
Claire recently posted..Positivity: balancing the daydreamer and the planner

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:07 am

That was what bothered me about my job too, Claire. I knew that no matter what I would be at that desk from 7 until 4:30 Monday through Friday. There was no room to be spontaneous in my life. Not the case anymore!

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Aurora September 4, 2013 at 7:17 am

This is beautiful.

For me, I have been thinking about joy more than happiness. Happiness is tied to circumstances, and sometimes my circumstances suck. But – even in those sucky moments, I can practice gratitude. And that the more I practice gratitude (and practice being the key word) – then the more joyfulness I have in my life. And the more gratitude I practice, the more joyful I am, and the more connected I am to people around me. Which ultimately allows me to more grateful. What a wonderful feedback loop.

But, like any exercise, it takes work. Practice. Relentless practice.

and of course you _know_ I loved this: “The hardest places to travel are my favorite. India is my favorite. Nepal is my favorite. I love feeling completely out of my element. Buenos Aires bores me. Spotless resorts and manicured lawns bore me. I like the grit and struggle of real life.”

Because I am right here with you!
Aurora recently posted..Dear Life

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:09 am

Ah, Aurora, I’d never thought about how happiness might be tied to circumstance and that circumstances change. But you are right. Happiness seems to be fleeing where joy, peace and contentment are things that exist underneath it all… things that states of your soul more than anything else.

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tyrhone September 4, 2013 at 7:28 am

Great post Kim. You should watch some of the videos by Alan Watts on youtube. He speaks a lot about happiness and freedom. For Sarah and I just being able to chillax has been the greatest part of this whole travel adventure.
tyrhone recently posted..Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun (the movie)

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:09 am

I will check them out. Do you have a favorite? Thanks for the recommendation Tyrhone!

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Ali September 4, 2013 at 7:43 am

I have a hard time figuring out exactly what makes me happy. Free time is definitely a wonderful thing. On our last trip, Andy and I had a week on the Amalfi Coast, after several hectic weeks, and we barely did anything. We spent hours reading and writing and admiring the view from our terrace, and it was wonderful. I do enjoy writing, and even more so the more I do it. I’m happy when I travel because I love seeing new places and, even though in the moment I usually hate being out of my comfort zone, I love it and what it does for me afterwards. But that thing I’m meant to do? I haven’t figured it out yet. I totally agree with you that happiness is a moving target, I just need to figure out how to catch up to it a little quicker!
Ali recently posted..Using Books as Travel Inspiration

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:10 am

Ali, I think the most important thing is that you are looking… you’re searching for the thing that feels real and right and you won’t give up until you find it.

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Charlie September 4, 2013 at 9:19 am

Yes! When I travel, I believe the main reason I’m so happy is the freedom. Free from obligations, I’m able to figure out and act upon what makes me happiest. Like you, I’m a dreamer often looking to the future. Although so many positive things come out of this, it can distract from living in the present. Living in the moment is when we’re truly happy. You’ve put all this into words so beautifully.
Charlie recently posted..Breathtaking Chihuly Exhibition in Montreal

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:12 am

Thanks Charlie. It is just such a blessing and luxury to have time to really think through the big things and try to come up with answers… even just being able to follow your fancy as far as books to read and things to learn is so wonderful. Long live free time!

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Lance | Trips By Lance September 4, 2013 at 9:49 am

Happiness happens now. If it’s not, something needs to be changed. I love to travel and do so frequently. But I love coming home. I’m happy at home, I’m happy having fun in the city where I live. People need to stop striving for tomorrow and live more for today. I find as I get older parents’ health becomes something I used to not think about. We all have issues, and you never know what issues could arise tomorrow. So enjoy today. Tomorrow is not promised. The only tomorrows I try to think about are the future travels I need to plan.
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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:13 am

That is definitely true. Nothing is promised. I’ve also begun worrying about parents health problems… but that’s another worry for tomorrow. Gulp.

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Gary September 4, 2013 at 9:57 am

Great post. Which personality test did you take?

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:15 am

Hi Gary, I took the test that came with the book “How Full Is Your Bucket?” which is a book my in-laws had laying around the house. Okay, I just googled it and it is this: http://www.strengthsfinder.com/home.aspx. The Clifton StrengthsFinder.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures September 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm

“…happiness can always be accessed with gratitude.” YES YES YES!!!!! This is the ultimate truth in life. Gratitude and paying it forward. :)
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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:16 am

Yes, paying it forward is a good one. :)

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Lindsey September 4, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Kim, I agree so much with what you said. Happiness is something that has to be worked at – and in all honesty, that’s half the fun! I loved what you wrote about looking to the future, and the gratitude of being in the moment. I loved the part about travelling itself not making you happy, but that it goes deeper to fulfilling the need to see, to explore, to learn. I love that your ideas of happiness speak so much to the half-formed ideas of my own. Thank you.
Lindsey recently posted..The Solo Prejudice

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:17 am

Thanks Lindsey!! I’ve been thinking about it for the last year now! I still feel like my ideas are half-formed but getting closer…

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Anja van der Vorst September 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I enjoyed reading your post. It’s nice to know more about someone’s thoughts and feelings. I always have to leave my beloved -old now, 18 years!- cat behind. Along with my friends and family, ofcourse. The leaving and the goodbyes never get easier or less sad, but the arriving at ‘the other place’ with my other friends and (their) pets helps me to forget that and get over it;-)
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Kim September 5, 2013 at 7:18 am

Sorry about leaving your cat behind! I’m glad you can leave it with someone you love.

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Kelli Anne September 5, 2013 at 7:37 am

This is so beautiful! I found this post when a friend retweeted the link and it was a joy to read. Happiness can be a bit of a slippery slope sometimes, and I know I stress myself out trying to find this place of eternal, constant happiness that does not exist. I loved the rock analogy that you can imagine it as something that you carry with you and have access to at all times. I always try to remind myself, “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.”

Great post! : )
Kelli Anne recently posted..A Trip To Governors Island

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 10:46 am

Ah, I love that. It is so true. “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” Beautiful.

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Carmel September 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I tend to steer away from the word “happy” only because it evokes the sense that it’s a feeling, not a state of being. I usually use the word “content” to describe my state of being. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about being content in the past few years. I feel content when I give myself my freedom…meaning when I allow myself to be the only one’s whose opinion really matters at the end of the day. When I’m living in line with the person I want to be. Like you said, it’s a struggle and something I’m constantly working at, but I feel my best and am happiest with myself when I am honest with myself. It’ll be interesting to see how travel fits into my current life. In the past, I’ve felt most like myself when I’m out in the world. We’ll see what happens!
Carmel recently posted..ON WRITING

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Kim September 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm

It’s funny because I started out using the words “happy” and “content” interchangeably and then I changed them all to “happy” to just make the article read a little more smoothly. But happy and content ARE different things. I can’t wait to see how your travels impact you. SO EXCITED to read about it.

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TammyOnTheMove September 5, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I did that test a few years ago at work. Each team member had to do it so our manager could figure out if her team has got someone from every category, as apparently this makes the perfect team. I was also in the futuristic category. I have been ever since I have been little. I always dream about the future as an escape from the boring present and it really helps. Strange isn’t it?
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Kim September 7, 2013 at 5:45 am

It was uncanny how correct those test results were! I want Brian to take it too… but we only got one free test with the book.

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eemusings September 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Does travelling make me happy? Great question. You’d hope so, as I’ve taken off six months to do it. I may have to think more deeply about this, though.
eemusings recently posted..Wanted: American advice!

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Kim September 7, 2013 at 5:46 am

Ha, well I’ve now taken a year and six months (almost) to do it. It doesn’t make me “happy” per se but it gives me so many things. I definitely wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) September 10, 2013 at 8:28 pm

When you write posts like this, it’s like you’re peeling back all my layers and writing about my own quirks and tics because like you, I’m a planner and a dreamer and the hardest thing for me is to be in the moment and be happy (or even content) with the here and now rather than racing off in search of the end credits and the start of the next feature film that awaits me. But also like you the thing I have come to value most about the trip Tony & I are taking is not so much the act of travel, though I still love seeing new places and grappling with the foreign and learning new things every day, but all the time it has afforded us to just dwell deeply with ourselves. It’s this thing, more than any other, that keeps me moving and makes me certain I don’t ever want to return to the life we left behind because now that I’ve known this kind of freedom and the happiness it inspires how can I ever go back?
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Kim September 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm

That is the question — how can you ever go back?!?! How can any of us ever go back? Man, trust me. I think about that all the time.

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cantaloupe September 16, 2013 at 7:55 am

Word to gratitude being an easy way to access happiness. Today I had to go back to an old apartment that I hated to see a roommate that I wasn’t particularly fond of to give up some money. I was not excited for the task. But then I decided to take it as an opportunity to remind myself of how much better my life is now that I’m not living in that shitty place of yore. And I got to see its dankness and revel in how my life has improved.
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Kim September 16, 2013 at 10:39 am

YES. That is exactly how it works. We always have the chance to find happiness…

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Morgan September 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Love this post! I’m now picturing a smooth river rock inside me…warm and full of happiness!
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Kim September 20, 2013 at 2:38 am

Ha, amazing how you can really feel it, huh?

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Mary Cecchini October 9, 2013 at 8:43 am

Hi Kim – great post! Thanks for sharing your insights. What I know about happiness is that its something I need to choose. So whether its finding the silver lining of my day, seeing the good in what I don’t yet understand (or can’t control) or being more selective about how I spend my time (and who I spend it with.)

Happiness is mine to chase and mine to choose.
Mary Cecchini recently posted..On Coming Home and the Start of a New Season…

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