What Makes You Happy?

What Makes You Happy?

This afternoon, a man on a bike cycled past me.

He had headphones jammed in his ears and was singing along to music which was only faintly audible: the song was one I didn’t recognise, but the big smile on his face spoke for itself.

‘How nice – that man is really happy!’ I thought. And then I stopped, and reconsidered my reaction.

That man was happy. Happier than me, perhaps. Certainly happier than many other people around the world. It was an unbelievably lovely thing to realise: without knowing the context or the cause, I’d spotted a total stranger being happy.

What Makes You Happy?

The changing states of happiness

When I was younger, a seemingly indefinite number of things made me happy. The promise of secret worlds hidden behind cobweb-covered doors and high brick walls; the way my cat rubbed his little head against mine when he clambered onto my bed; staying up late enough at sleepovers with my friends to warrant my mum bringing us a midnight feast.

Yet happiness can and does change over time – and writing a memoir, funnily enough, will cause a large amount of retrospection. Over the last few months I’ve looked back critically over different elements of my life to see that I’ve actually wrestled for a long time with being happy. More specifically, with maintaining that happiness once I felt I had hold of it.

What Makes You Happy?

As a teenager, moments of happy contentment were immediately leapt at by a mind looking for holes. Were there difficult exams coming up? Did I have a strange sickness or symptom that hadn’t gone away? If I couldn’t find a worry-worthy problem straight away, I ended up settling for the distant concern that someone I loved would die: causing a numbness far back in my chest which would always sit there.

Nowadays my happiness tastes different. Adult life is weighted down, and there’s more room for embarrassment or shame to crease and fade the positives. Happiness becomes something we consciously cultivate when we don’t have quite enough of it.

Now, I feel happy when the caffeine from fresh brewed Italian coffee floods my veins and I feel the beginnings of a really good story form in my mind; when I find an outfit to always feel beautiful in, no matter what my mood is; when I finally feel strong in one of many yoga classes I force my body into.

What Makes You Happy?

And then there’s travel. Almost a decade has passed since I first travelled solo, and in that time I’ve faced up to hundreds of internal and external challenges which have shaped me into the person I am now.

But am I actually happy?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a great deal recently. I always used to think that travel was my safety net: it gives me a thrill and a rush like nothing else, and has been the outlet I turn to whenever I need something. A change in living pace; the temptation of unknown horizons; the chance to meet new people and grow another facet of myself. Again and again and again.

Happiness also seems to occur more naturally when you’re travelling. Outside of normal life’s mundanity, everything shines: there are long train journeys with a window seat, or delicate silver jewellery on a market stall table which you buy on impulse, or a sudden group of perfect friends in a backstreet hostel.

The concern is wondering what elements of normal life you might be giving up at travelling’s expense.

What Makes You Happy?

I’ve spent the last two years assuming that once my masters degree was finished I’d immediately be on a one way flight to Guatemala, or Bhutan, or Mongolia. I hadn’t expected to feel unsure. Not about long term travel. Not about the one constant I’ve had in my life for the last eight years.

Writing a book has alerted me to a lot about myself, and one of the most pertinent factors is that since my mum died in 2009, I’ve always been on the run. Whether it’s running away from my problems or running into them doesn’t really matter: the fact is, I haven’t really stopped to take stock of what, where and who I am.

It’s resulted in me feeling just a little bit lost.

What Makes You Happy?

Surprise! I’m staying in London (for now, at least)

Two years of being back in my home city and you’d think I would feel settled here, right? Strangely enough, there’s always a feeling of impermanence which shadows my London life – but then again, that feeling has been with me in most other countries too.

It’s a by-product of constantly being on the move, and it’s somewhat debilitating. London might not feel completely like my home but all the trappings are absolutely there. It’s the city where I grew up; where my dad lives; where most of my closest friends are. Currently I’m renting a gorgeous apartment with two wonderful housemates in a part of the city which I adore.

The idea of giving all those factors up, just for the potential of finding something great at the other end of the world, simply doesn’t make sense.

What Makes You Happy?

Long term solo travel means so much to me, and it probably always will. But it’s a sobering realisation to know that – for now, at least – it might not be the right choice. Instead, there are some other aspects of life which are already making me happy, and which I think deserve more of my undivided attention.

One: publishing my book

Now my masters is officially over, I have the second draft of my very first book manuscript clutched to my chest – all 96,000 words of it. The writing process has been a whirlwind of highs and lows but I never really imagined what might happen afterwards: working on a fresh round of edits; crafting a book proposal; researching possible literary agents and making contact.

Yet that’s the stage I’m at, and while it’s a wonderfully exhilarating place to be, it also requires a fair amount of dedication. I feel like this memoir is where the past eight years of writing have been leading (not to mention the years of experiences which are documented within it!) and I want to give it the attention it deserves.

What Makes You Happy?

Two: developing my freelance writing

Spring-boarding my writing career into the field of paid work has developed organically, but because of the aforementioned masters programme, I haven’t allowed myself the chance to really work on making my name as a freelance writer. Apart from the occasional article for other publications, my work has been confined to this site.

Flipping through the piles of notebooks scattered around my house I can see story ideas on every page, many of which aren’t destined for a travel blog. Successfully pitching articles is something I’m really excited to do, and to see if I can actually make a living from. A pipe-dream, perhaps, but one I’d love to succeed in.

(With that in mind, please get in touch if you’d like to discuss any freelance writing projects with me!) 

What Makes You Happy?

Three: working on my self care

Probably the most important factor is something I’ve woefully ignored for the longest time. Way back in 2009, I went to approximately three therapy sessions after my mum’s death, and then decided I didn’t need help. Apart from a number of self-prescribed alternative therapies (ayahuasca, San Pedro and an old Russian healer woman in the Himalayas, to name a few) I really haven’t dealt with a compounded eight years of grief.

As you might imagine, that’s taken somewhat of a toll.

What Makes You Happy?

There have been bouts of anxiety, flirtations with depression and an all round lack of happiness: things which I hadn’t even realised were weighing me down until a few months ago.

I miss the person I used to be. I want to get her back again. So that means actively taking care of myself, from yoga, cycling, going for walks (and maybe doing the Camino again), to reconnecting with the positives in my life.

Getting back in touch with my body and loving myself is a priority I know I should make space for, and I think staying put in one place for a while longer is the right way to do it.

So what really makes me happy?

As the singing cyclist vanished down an East London street, my mind flitted through moments of positivity and happiness, each one stored carefully in my mind for when I’ve needed them. The true times which make me happy: like when Spanish falls effortlessly from my mouth and the words make sense; or the delicious jolt in my stomach when a man I like gives me the idea he likes me back.

There are inconsequential ones, too. Feeling the crisp coolness in the air which means autumn’s coming. Pizza and dark chocolate. Peanut butter, in all forms. Accidentally dropping off into a really satisfying nap. The heavy, swollen clouds in the sky which indicate a thunderstorm.

Most of these things are so tiny. Yet added up together, they’re huge.

What Makes You Happy?

I like to think that humans are indomitably happy. We strive for it with everything we do – even amongst all the wars, terror and fear that so much of the world now lives under the influence of. No matter who or where you are, if you’re not feeling happy the immediate wish is to be happy again.

Recognising the fact that I’m not truly happy at the moment has actually given me a sense of peace. The world will never be completely right: as an adult, I understand that now. But I can find solace in each occasion that is positive, and can be more thankful for every moment that I inadvertently feel happy – or see that happiness in someone else.

What Makes You Happy?

What’s next? No more travelling?

For the first time in a decade, the desire to jet off to an unexplored country for an indefinite amount of time isn’t the top of my list. And honestly, it’s a relief.

That’s not to say I won’t be travelling. In October I’m going to Italy with a few friends, and there’ll be plenty of little adventures on the horizon. But I feel rather proud to know I don’t need to prove anything about my capabilities or desire to travel. For now, working on myself and my happiness takes precedence.

And maybe the next time I head out on a long term adventure, it’ll be with complete happiness from the start.

What Makes You Happy?

Have you ever made a big decision based solely on your happiness? What makes you happy? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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38 Responses to What Makes You Happy?

  1. Laura Higgs (@Laura_GlobalEd) September 15, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

    Nice reflection Flora!

    • Flora September 17, 2016 at 10:43 am #

      Thanks Laura – glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Murali Mohan Vogety September 15, 2016 at 7:39 pm #

    Flora, interesting thoughts. We all go through phases of joy and sorrow. For most , happiness lies in contentment and making peace with yourself. Few realise that happiness lies within self.

    All the best with your book, writing and lotsa travels!

    • Flora September 17, 2016 at 11:00 am #

      Hopefully I’ll be one of the latter ones, Murali 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and your always thoughtful comments!

  3. Amy (Two Drifters) September 15, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    This is beautiful, Flora! Growing up, I always felt this desire to be “100% happy.” As an adult, I know it doesn’t exist, and instead of pushing away all sadness, I let some of it in and feel my way through it, knowing that it makes the sweet times even sweeter.

    2nd, you’ll make an amazing career as a freelance writer—I honestly believe fully you could cultivate that career for yourself quite easily. Your writing certainly speaks for itself.

    We’ll actually be outside of London soon for several weeks. Would love to meet up for a coffee!! xx Amy

    • Flora September 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

      Thanks so much for your confidence and positivity, Amy – and I’d love to grab coffee with you and Nathan when you get to London!

      • Amy (Two Drifters) September 18, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

        yay let’s do it! 😀 I’ll message you when we’re around!

  4. Emily Bloor September 15, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    A beautiful poignant piece Flora, I really enjoyed every word. I relate to you in so many ways, especially the temporary feeling you’ve had living in London… I had the same experience when I lived there, knowing I was always going to jet off eventually… because that’s what we do, us travellers! The fact that you have decided to just Stop. Live. Breathe. is a really strong one and I wish you the best of luck with everything, especially with the publishing of your memoir. x

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      Thanks so much Emily 🙂 ‘Stop, live and breathe’ is a lovely mantra to keep in mind when things are feeling a little rough!

  5. Frankie Thompson September 16, 2016 at 5:19 am #

    Ahh Flora, I really do relate to this, albeit for wildly different reasons. My only one small piece of advice is take it slow and build good self care habits slowly… So slowly you don’t really realise it, because when you’re working on a book, time can feel very restricted and your focus will be so fixed on the words you may find it hard to think of other, arguably more important things… So don’t think about them. Just do a few little things a lot (reading for ten minutes every morning, going for a walk everyday) until they’re a habit without it feeling a big effort. Oh and yin yoga. Yin has helped me really kick depression’s butt this year and release some long held on to anxiety… Do keep checking in on yourself. I have no doubt you’ll be singing on your bike in no time xxx

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

      This is a great suggestion, Frankie 🙂 Yoga has been an increasingly key part of my self care process so far, and by all accounts it’s a good place to start from.

  6. Emma Hart | Paper Planes and Caramel Waffles September 16, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Flora, you have no idea how much I relate to this post right now. I actually have a post scheduled on a similar feeling. Over the last few months, more than usual, I’ve been wanting to get away, to live somewhere else and seek adventure in new places. I didn’t feel at home in Leeds and I needed to get out. A recent trip to Hong Kong though, a place that I love so dearly and a place that I could see myself living at one point, suddenly changed my perspective. I wanted to come home, in fact I came home early, because I was tired of constantly looking for something different or something better. I’ve come home and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so content to be at home. I feel like a massive weight has been lifted from my shoulders as I realise it’s mainly me that needs to make myself happy, not the location.

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

      I think that’s exactly it, Emma – finding happiness in any one place isn’t really possible unless you’re happy and settled in your own self first 🙂 So glad you’re feeling better now you’re at home!

  7. Susan Schwartz September 16, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    I will miss you as a potential travel “daughter!” Any time you change your mind let me know!! Sx

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

      I’ll still be travelling, Susan – just not for the long term 🙂

  8. whereisnoodles September 16, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi Flora, I have been following your blog for quite some time now and this particular article couldn’t be more timely for me. I relate to everything you say here and too am making some similar decisions. On another note, I absolutely love your writing style and think you have a true gift with words. Wishing you all the best on your next adventure to finding happiness – and if I was a company looking for a freelance writer, I would snap you up in a heartbeat!!! x

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

      Aww Nikki, thanks so much for all your positivity 🙂 I think it might be a more common feeling than I’d first thought – particularly in those of us who move our lives around quite often. Best of luck with your decision making 🙂

  9. Susan September 17, 2016 at 2:30 am #

    Flora, you’re such a lovely young woman! How refreshing to read this authentic account- I loved reading it. The zen masters talk about joy and suffering a LOT. Here’s the link to one of my favorites- maybe it will appeal to you.

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

      Thanks so much for that link, Susan – I’ll watch the talk asap!

  10. Caroline Eubanks September 18, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    Can’t wait to read this book!

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

      Here’s hoping you get to, Caroline! 🙂

  11. Mimazine September 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

    We often get so caught up in our busy lives we forget to pause and puts things in perspective. Great reflection and photos! Happiness is a journey, not a destination xx


    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

      Very true, Mimazine – thanks for your thoughts 🙂

  12. Nina Lee: World into Words September 19, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

    Happiness is something we all struggle with, because we’re never really explicitly taught what it is. At least, that’s how I feel. In my education the talk wasn’t about being happy, it was about graduating, earning degrees and starting your career. Happiness is something that should be simple but can strangely become complicated. I’m currently working on learning to enjoy those little things, as you say, rather than something grand, like a move to another country. I think this journey towards finding happiness also changes over time, with age. My definition of happiness is growing as I question the values and goals as imposed by society. But as Mimazine said, happiness is a journey, not a destination.

    • Flora September 19, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

      I’d never thought about it like that Nina, and you’re so right! Happiness is so intangible in most of its forms that I doubt it can necessarily be taught anyway – but learning appreciation and recognition of happiness is a valuable element which I think can often be ignored. I’m right there with you on enjoying the little things, first and foremost 🙂

  13. Leah Davis September 19, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    Beautiful words, Flora, and I can so relate. Taking care of myself has taken precedence lately over my undying will to travel. That desire will always be there, but it’s not what’s good for me right now. It’s always nice to hear about other long-term travelers that feel the same way. It’s not always “the dream.”

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

      It’s strange when there’s another priority to overtake travelling – but I’m seriously glad I’ve noticed it! Glad you’re doing the same, Leah 🙂

  14. Cara October 13, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    This is a lovely article Flora. Guatemala, or Bhutan, or Mongolia all sound amazing to visit.People are hardwired for the excitement of adventure and travel … the way you’ve been looking at the world isn’t the way everybody else does.It’s funny though, you do need to find what makes you happy and run with it, even the small things in every day life, as its not really a state of being but a result of actions that bring you happiness, after experience.Travelling is like flirting with life, you would say that you would stay and love, but you know that you have to leave because you are yet to explore so much. It makes your life a story worth telling and you realise what little space you possess in this big, wide world and yet you realise your importance by the many lives your influence during your trip. Life is meant to live with no excuses and travel with no regrets

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 10:21 pm #

      This is such a beautiful comment, Cara – thanks so much 🙂 I think you’re right: spending so much of life travelling does mean you’re essentially existing in a slightly different channel to many others, yet when you’re willing to share those experiences it all comes around full circle again.

  15. Steven October 17, 2016 at 4:19 am #

    sometimes happiness is simple maybe just if we can walk alone along the street on a beautiful place, watching pretty landscape or just enjoying meal or meeting nice people when we are traveling and also making new friend for all over the world. Everyone has their own way to make themselves happy. A great post from u and looking forward for ur next experience

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

      Happiness can come from anything and anywhere – that’s the beauty of it 🙂 Thanks so much for reminding me of that again, Steven!

  16. Ryan October 17, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    Beautiful and deep insight, and wonderful writing as always Flora. That is one thing that travel has taught me, is that striving for happiness can also mask it in something false. Even with traveling, my first year or two I convinced myself I’d be happy and it would cure everything and it ended up tainting a lot of the actual travel. Now, after 5+ years of being on the road taking my patience to new extremes, experiences leaps of highs and lows, and having an innumerable amount of crazy adventures — I’ve come to find that the things that make me happy are often those small ones like you mentioned at the end. And in general, seeing people happy makes me happier. I can help but find myself smiling when other people are. Even spending the summer taking photos of people on yachts on holiday having a blast, I was always laughing or smiling with them. But here are also times, like that, where I get down in the dumps and get to needing my own space, when I get over hostels and interactions and want a little room and a little desk of my own, or when I start to think it’d be nice to share moments with someone else even if I’m happy then and there. I think I’ve learned so much about myself that I’m not unhappy for long, but there is still a lot to learn about myself. And I didn’t even think I’d be excited about going back and exploring the USA, but now I’m looking forward to that as well. I know you can relate to the years of traveling forcing a lot of growth in emotional sides whether sometimes it breaks you down in the process or not, but I think it’s also a journey in itself that we are having the courage to explore. The courage to really look inside and go…what really makes me happy?

  17. Abigail November 16, 2016 at 7:52 am #

    What a beautiful post and that one that invites introspection. Happiness could mean different things to different people. It’s so amazing at how little it takes to make other people happy but that is a blessing. Being able to appreciate small things can bring so much happiness into a person’s life.

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks so much Abigail 🙂 It’s strange to think that I haven’t concerned myself with really examining the causes of my own happiness until quite recently – but it’s rather a wonderful thing to be able to do. Glad you agree!

  18. Asma December 14, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing this Flora. I always look to your blog when I need a voice of reason, I love how I can find such ‘human’ topics on here. I often struggle with wondering whether I am truly happy or not, in some ways it can be such a difficult emotion. I’ve recently been obsessing over TED talks to hear how others define it, and I still haven’t found my true definition yet. Wishing you all the best on your new adventures – and can’t wait to read your book xx

    • Flora March 7, 2017 at 11:34 pm #

      Thanks so much for your lovely compliments, Asma! And what a great idea about checking out some TED talks on the topic – I’ll absolutely do the same.

  19. Whirlwind of emotions August 30, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    This resonates with me now more than ever. I find myself agreeing to your sentiments – moving back home doesn’t always feel like it’s where I should be, but all the trappings are there. Couldn’t have said it better. My feet are constantly itching to go places(sometimes I go but always come back), and I find myself looking for escapades and planning mini-holidays (whether solo or with friends) and staying content in the fact that, although we may not have booked it, the possibility of it remains and that keeps me going for now.
    Who knows, someday the travel bug will hit again and instead of staying away only a month, I will find myself actually booking a one way ticket to somewhere and see where life takes me.
    You write beautifully. Good luck with getting your book published!!

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