I’ll never forget the day I told my parents I was going to sell my house and everything I owned, quit my ‘career’ job, and travel around the world.
My mom cried. My dad thought I was throwing my life away and everything I’d worked for.
I was 27 years old. Seemingly, I had life by the you-know-whats. I had a great job, my own house, and a car that impressed beautiful women. There was just one problem:
I wasn’t happy.
I felt guilty. I tried telling myself, “Stop! You have nice stuff. You have security. You have retirement savings, respect, and room for advancement in your career. Just be happy you whiner!”
But it didn’t work.
So, I did what most people only dream of doing: I booked a one-way ticket to Istanbul along with my best bud, Joe.
My round-the-world adventure lasted for almost two-and-a-half years. I traveled through the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia—a journey that changed my life.
Today, as I look back on my travel experiences and where they’ve led me, I realize that traveling has taught me how to be truly happy.
I’ve come up with 10 Keys to Happiness that I learned through my travels. Although happiness is a feeling experienced differently by everyone, I think many of these 10 traits will resonate with the majority of people.
Although I believe you can find happiness anywhere, travel has been my guiding light. It has been the challenge I needed to discover what happiness means to me.
If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling the world, I hope this post brings you inspiration. If you don’t, I still hope to entertain you and show you another side of the coin.
Travel is beautiful, eye-opening, and empowering.
As you’ll see in the following sections, traveling has brought me to a place in my life where I can say I’m happy.
And it feels awesome.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” — Henry David Thoreau
Before I told my parents that I was going to sell everything and travel the world, I felt like a rudderless ship floating aimlessly through a sea of indecision and confusion.
Ten months before we got on a plane headed for Istanbul, Joe and I were drinking rum and coke on a Wednesday night, bitching about work, and brainstorming our next vacation.
The two of us had traveled to Brazil and Iceland for our yearly two-week vacations in 2008 and 2009. It was time to plan our next trip. Travel planning always gave us a goal—something to look forward to.
Countries like Thailand, India, and Australia were on our bucket lists but in order to get to these places we had to fly half-way around the world. With only two weeks to do it, it seemed like a waste.
After a few minutes of silence and sipping our drinks, Joe and I looked at each other, smiled, and nodded.
“We have to quit our jobs,” we said at the same time.
The decision was made. We set a date 10 months in the future. We bought a huge map of the world and used pins and string to map our route.
We spent the next 10 months completing renovations on our houses. I worked 40 hours per week at my engineering job and countless hours on my house in my free time.
And then, 10 months after those Wednesday night rum and cokes, we left on the day we said we would.
Setting that goal gave me direction. I was focused and determined.
Goal setting doesn’t just apply to planning a trip around the world. It applies to anything you want to do and accomplish.
Set your goal. Get accountability by telling someone close to you. Then work your ass off.
If you want anything in life, you’d better be willing to work for it. If you want to travel the world like I did, it takes a shitload of effort. I’m not independently wealthy. Achieving my goal took sacrifice, prioritization, and hard work. I can guarantee you that if you sit on your couch binge watching Netflix, you won’t give yourself the opportunity to travel the world or accomplish any other big goal you want to achieve.
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” —Denis Waitley
One of the greatest lessons in gratitude I learned was in Aleppo, Syria.
It was September 2010, a few months before war broke out that still continues to be fought today.
Joe and I were walking through Aleppo, eating shawarma and baklava. We cut through a park filled with trees and flowers. Old men played backgammon and smoked shisha, blowing thick clouds of smoke into the air that smelled like burning charcoal and apple.
Two young Syrian men approached us.
“You,” one of the men said pointing in my direction. “You look like fighter guy, Van Damme.”
Joe and I laughed. We shook hands with the guys, took a couple photos, and chatted for a while.
They asked us questions. They were curious and enjoyed practicing their limited English. We told them about our round the world journey.
One of the guys looked at me and said, “You’re so lucky to travel the world.”
I hated being told I was “lucky.”
“Well, we worked very hard to give ourselves this opportunity,” I said defensively.
I’ll never forget his response.
“No, no, we mean you have a passport. You’re lucky to have a passport.”
“I don’t understand,” I replied.
Up to that point, my travel experiences had been limited to “first world” countries. I hadn’t had much contact with people like these two young men.
They explained to us that it was impossible for them to obtain a passport. They were stuck in Syria and could only dream of traveling to new, faraway countries. And no matter how much they dreamed, it would never come true.
That story affected me deeply and the war hadn’t started yet. Now, when I see news reports of the devastation in Aleppo, I wonder what happened to those two guys. But the lesson they taught me will never be forgotten.
We are privileged and very lucky to be able obtain a passport.
Except, if you talk to anyone about getting a passport, they’ll probably complain about waiting in a line for an hour at the passport office or having to fill out four pages of paperwork.
Believe me, I’m not judging. I used to be that complainer.
And that’s why I wanted to share this story. So many people in Canada don’t even make it to the passport office. They never take advantage of this privilege. And that makes me sad.
I think about those two guys in Syria who would have done anything to have the opportunity to travel the world. They would have waited in line for weeks and filled out a thousand pages of paperwork just to get a glimpse of the world.
Travel often taught me unexpected lessons in gratitude and that day in Aleppo is one I’ll never forget.
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” —Mahatma Gandhi
We all know that being healthy feels good. Our overall health encompasses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Traveling helped me fall in love with walking, which has improved my physical health. It exposed me to different people, cultures, and ways of living, which has improved my emotional and spiritual health. And perhaps most importantly, traveling around the world benefited my mental health by teaching me the importance of minimalism.
When I sold everything I owned in 2010, I felt like a thousand pounds was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to worry about the furnace breaking down in my house. I didn’t have to worry about getting the oil changed in my car. I didn’t have to think about the new piece of furniture I should buy so guests could be more comfortable when they came to visit. I no longer had to pay bills for hydro, natural gas, water heater rental, car and house insurance.
As a result, I opened up space inside my head which gave me more time to think, dream, and share ideas.
And it felt amazing.
We live in a society where our success is too often measured by the stuff we have. We always want a bigger house, newer car, and the coolest furniture. But the problem is, many of us aren’t any happier because of the things we have. Instead, we keep striving to accumulate more instead of minimizing.
The good news is we’re seeing minimalism happening more and more in western culture. People are driving smaller, more efficient cars and converting shipping containers into homes. People are buying more furniture, clothing, and appliances second-hand.
Minimalism is one of the best things that ever happened to my life and I encourage you to explore the benefits yourself.
Simplify, man. It feels good.
“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.” —George Sand
I don’t know about you, but I love love. It makes me happy. I love to show love to my friends, family, and strangers. I’ve even learned to love and accept myself for who I am, the bad shit and all.
And of course, I love romance.
I was single for three years before I left on my round the world tour. During those three years I dated a lot of women and had my fair share of one-night-stands. And although it was fun, I felt empty and wondered if I’d ever find Ms. Right.
I wanted a woman who was a spontaneous traveler and adventure-seeker. She would be funny, confident, and sexy as hell.
I got frustrated with dating in my hometown. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for, but that all changed when I set out on my world tour.
Five days into my two-and-a-half year adventure, I met Amelie in Istanbul.
We first crossed paths in the hallway of our hostel. I said “Hi.” She smiled back.
That night I sat down beside her in the rooftop bar at the hostel. She was from Quebec and worked as a tour leader guiding groups of tourists through Asia. She had a sexy French Canadian accent, loved to travel, and laughed at my corny jokes.
The next day we hung out and got lost in Istanbul together.
The day after that, she left to start another tour and Joe and I continued on our adventure. Amelie and I exchanged Facebook info and stayed in contact. Three months later, we met up in India. Four months after that, I traveled to China and met her in Beijing. Six months after that, she followed me to Australia and we lived and worked in Melbourne together before buying an old Ford Falcon station wagon and driving through the Outback together. We returned to Canada, settled in Montreal, and got a cat. We had a great relationship for over five years.
But 6 months ago our relationship came to an end. It was heart-breaking because we still loved each other, but our lives were heading in different directions. Instead of fighting it and resenting each other, we decided to go our separate ways. Our friends commented that it was the most mature breakup they’d ever seen.
I learned so much from our relationship together. I learned to speak French. She challenged me and always called me out on my bullshit. With her, I become more confident, adventurous, and self-aware.
And none of it would have happened if I hadn’t decided to travel around the world.
When you travel, you’ll meet people with the same mindset and passions as you. You’ll meet the crazy ones—people who don’t follow the same path as everyone else.
Love is always close by when you travel. Be open to it and see where it takes you.
“Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.” —Jamais Cascio
A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a friend on the phone. He said my nickname should be Teflon because “when bad shit happens it slides right off me.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. I’m not a heartless robot, but I have developed an ability to be resilient and bounce back when things don’t go as planned.
Being resilient makes me happier because I don’t dwell on the past so much. I’ve developed the ability to accept new realities, learn from the past, and move forward with positivity.
When you travel to developing countries where you don’t speak the language or have knowledge about local norms, I guarantee you things will go wrong.
You’ll miss buses and spend sleepless nights on the floor of dirty bus stations.
You’ll get lost in unknown cities where you can’t speak the language.
You’ll get sideways stares from local people when you wander into random neighbourhoods.
You’ll get hassled.
Your patience will be tested daily.
If you travel alone, you will get lonely.
And because of the tough challenges you’ll inevitably face, you’ll build resilience.
Whether you’re traveling in a foreign country or living your “normal” life at home, you’re going to face tough challenges. When that happens, you have two choices:
- Hang your head in defeat and say “fuck my life” or,
- Push through the challenge, learn from it, and use the experience to build resilience.
Life is full of disappointment and struggle. But through each struggle I’ve faced, I’ve learned that I can get through it. I build more confidence every time “shit happens.”
As I’ve built my resilience, I’ve become a happier person. This past year has challenged me. I got fired for the first time, went through a major breakup, and watched my last grandparent die. You probably faced your own challenges this year, too. Are you feeling stuck in those bad times or are you moving forward?
If you struggle with getting over tough situations, I encourage you to travel. I have no doubt you’ll learn how to be more resilient. And when you can get through the tough times faster, life gets a hell of a lot happier.
“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.” —James Thurber
After an unsatisfying three weeks in Vietnam, six months into our world tour, Joe and I decided to part ways.
When you travel with someone else things can get tense. You spend 24 hours a day with that person. You need to make every decision together. Go left or right at the next intersection? Eat here or there? What should we do tomorrow?
Joe and I had just arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. We got settled in our guesthouse, found a noodle stand for dinner, and had a discussion.
We agreed something needed to change after Vietnam. We had met many solo travellers on our journey and the idea of traveling alone intrigued both of us.
Joe and I talked for a couple hours after we finished our dinner. There was no yelling, name-calling, or blaming.
In the end, we decided splitting up was the change we both needed.
I’m sure Joe would agree when I say that decision changed our lives. It took us in new, exciting directions that still resonate to this day.
When we did end up meeting up again a few months later after our split, we had endless stories to talk about and our relationship was fresh and better than ever. And it was all because of that honest discussion in Laos.
Instead of going our own ways we could have chosen to bury our feelings and continue with what was “comfortable.” Time would have passed, we would have become spiteful towards each other, and our relationship might have been permanently damaged.
But that didn’t happen because we both had the awareness to explore how we were feeling and discuss those feelings before they became a problem.
Awareness around your feelings and the ability to discuss them will lead to more happiness.
How many times have you heard stories about people staying in unhealthy relationships, shitty jobs, and toxic friendships because things are “comfortable?”
I know many people lack awareness around their feelings and the ability to talk about them.
Traveling gave me the time and space to learn to be aware of what was going on inside me and the confidence to express it. Just like Joe and I knew something needed to change when we split up, “normal” life works the same way. We can’t be afraid to be aware of our feelings and have the guts to express them to the people around us.
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” —Anne Frank
Giving to others feels good.
When we travel, we give by spending our money in hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants, and bars. We spend money on tours, sightseeing, activities, and transportation.
It’s important to remember to spend our money in responsible, sustainable ways. There are always tourists traps and people trying to make a quick buck in not-so-good ways. There are companies that we might not support if we knew how they treat their employees or the environment. It’s our responsibility as travellers to be aware and educate ourselves.
These days, ignorance is not an excuse. Google is at our fingertips. Guide books are edited and reprinted every year. We live in the information age and we should take advantage of it.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way that might help you be a more responsible traveler.
How to Eat
A good rule of thumb is to eat at places with more locals than tourists.
If people don’t stare at you when you enter a restaurant, it’s not local enough. If they have an English menu, it’s not local enough. If the restaurant is recommended in Lonely Planet, it’s probably not local enough.
I’m not saying to never eat at “touristy” restaurants, but it’s fun to get off the beaten path and eat food at local holes-in-the-wall.
For me, food is a huge reason why I travel. I’ve had my best meals at places where people don’t speak English and I often had no idea what I ordered. I look at the menu, point at something, and hope for the best.
If you have food allergies, this probably isn’t the best practice. But if you’re like me and you love trying new foods, this is the best way to eat and support local people.
How to Book Tours
Use local operators and try not to book tours online before you go, when possible. Most of the time you can arrange tours when you get to your destination. That said, there are a lot of good operators out there who have proper websites and business, but some of the best “tours” I’ve had were VERY local.
I remember one such experience in Gondar, Ethiopia. Joe and I hooked up a young local guy named George. He took us to people’s homes for coffee ceremonies where we sat on dirt floors and smoked shisha. We’d buy George dinner and give him money for his time. He took us to local bars, restaurants, and places that we would never have discovered on our own.
Just remember to do your research before booking tours and don’t get stressed about planning ahead.
Be Respectful to Animals
Don’t ride elephants that stay chained to two-foot chains all day. Don’t feed monkeys. Don’t ride dolphins.
And please, do not take photos with “tame” lions and tigers.
You’ll often see tourists in Africa with photos of themselves sitting beside a lion, petting it. You know what happens to some of these animals? They send them into a “reserve” and rich tourists come and hunt them. Since they’re domesticated, they don’t know how to avoid hunters and become easy targets. It’s sad.
So please, if you want to see animals, try to see them in their native habitats.
One of my most memorable experiences was in Sumatra, Indonesia. I hiked into the thick jungle for three days and saw orangutans in their natural habitat. I sat on the jungle floor and stared up at those magnificent animals swinging effortlessly through the trees. It was one of the most powerful travel experiences I ever had.
As I’m finishing writing this post, I’m checking out of my Airbnb apartment in Puerto Escondido, Mexico after a monthlong stay before heading back to Canada for Christmas. I packed my bags and said goodbye to Maribelle, the young Mexican woman who has been cleaning my room twice a week. I thanked her by giving her 400 pesos (around $20 US). She said “Gracias” five times while fighting back tears.
That’s why giving makes me happy.
“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” —George Orwell
Traveling will teach you self-acceptance. You’ll meet new people from all over the world and get a chance to be yourself. You don’t have to wear the mask you often wear at home. At home, you might be afraid of friends and family who will judge the “real you.” But when you travel, you’ve got an opportunity to be YOU. You’ll meet people who will love and accept you despite your “weirdness.” And when you learn that you can be accepted for being yourself you’ll gain more confidence and happiness than you ever imagined.
Traveling also teaches you how to be more accepting of others.
When you travel and arrive at an airport or train station, there are always people who speak English. They get paid to direct tourists to hotels and guesthouses. It’s not always easy, but there is always someone around who can help.
At least that’s what I thought before I arrived in China.
I arrived at the train station in Shanghai, China at noon. I exited the train and expected taxi drivers and hotel agents to come rushing at me, as is the norm in many Asian countries.
But it didn’t happen.
So I walked around. I found a tourist information booth. I asked the woman working, “Do you speak English?”
She nodded her head with a quick “No” and shooed me away.
I kept walking around the train station.
I approached a group of men, smiled, and said, “Does anyone speak English?”
They looked at me with blank stares. One of the men said something in Mandarin and his friends all laughed and pointed at me.
In that moment I thought, “Shit. So this is what it feels like to be the foreigner.”
That experience reminded me of an exchange student from El Salvador in my Grade 7 class who didn’t speak English well. My friends made fun of her. I remember her blank stares and awkward laughs, trying to fit in by laughing with the group.
As I stood there with that group of Chinese men laughing at me, I laughed with the group, even though they were probably making fun of me. I felt awkward and alone, but it taught me a good lesson.
It’s important to accept people who are different than ourselves. People who don’t speak our language, follow the same cultural customs, or pray to the same gods.
Something I learned while traveling the world is that most people are good. Everyone wants the same things as us: opportunity to work and provide for our families. That’s it.
The news often shows us a divided world. A world where a guy like Donald Trump can be the president of the United States after a campaign based on fear and hatred.
I’ve noticed that many Trump supporters are people who have never traveled. People who have never sat in the home of a Palestinian taxi driver whose son is in an Israeli prison for throwing stones. People who have never sat with an old Indonesian man and listened to him talk about the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands in his village. People who have never seen the slums of India, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka.
Acceptance is a key to happiness because it gives us humility, understanding, and perspective. Traveling has taught me to treat people who are different than me with more respect, at home and abroad. Now I know what what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” —Brené Brown
When you travel, you’ll make new connections with people who will touch your life in different ways. You’ll hear interesting and unique stories from world travellers. You’ll hear stories from locals that’ll touch your heart. And you’ll meet people who will affect your life for years to come.
One of the most incredible connections I made was with Rob, my roommate in Melbourne, Australia.
Rob wasn’t happy. Him and his wife had broken up months earlier. He smoked cigarettes and weed like they were going out of style. He had a serious drinking problem.
Rob was in a bad place.
One night, I went into his smoke filled bedroom and Rob was sitting in front of his computer, drinking whiskey and crying. I sat down on his bed beside him. He told me he didn’t want to go on. There was nothing in his life worth living for.
“Do you have a dream?” I asked. “What is it that you’ve always wanted to do?”
He told me he dreamed of going to China for a year, somewhere on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, to study Kung Fu. But he didn’t believe it was possible.
“How can I be like you?” he asked. “You left home and you’re traveling the world. You’re confident and not afraid of anything. I don’t think I can be like that.”
I told him I wasn’t always that way. I told him I had struggled with insecurity, fear, and lack of confidence for years.
I told him that traveling forced me out of my comfort zone. Travel is risky, challenging, and sometimes a struggle. But I learned that I was capable of so much more through traveling, which made me more confident than I ever thought possible.
So Rob and I talked over the logistics of his yearlong Kung Fu pilgrimage. He needed to save a lot of money. He would have to give up smoking and drinking. It seemed like a daunting, impossible dream.
But that night, Rob started on a new path. He took his smoking and drinking one day at a time. He started to save money.
And then, over a year later, he left for China. He studied Kung Fu for a year and completely changed his life.
Today, Rob is a sober non-smoker who just completed his personal training certification. He is starting his own personal training business to help people fight the same addictions he struggled with. He continues with his Kung Fu practice and he’s in a supportive relationship with a woman he loves.
When you travel, you will make connections with new people. And because you’re traveling the world, people will be inspired by you. I think I can safely say that I changed Rob’s life. But he’s also changed mine. Rob inspires me to continue on my path and push myself further beyond my own fears.
Turn your phone off and embrace the beauty of human connection.
Happiness will follow.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” —Mahatma Gandhi
It feels good to learn new things.
New skills, knowledge, and ways of seeing the world are inevitable when you travel.
I learned how to be more curious, patient, and creative.
I learned how to get lost and find my way back to my guesthouse without Google maps.
I learned how to take a poo in a squat toilet (and love it!).
I learned how to meet new people and talk to strangers.
I learned how important it is to push the limits of my comfort zone and do the things that scare the shit out of me.
Traveling is scary because it’s different and unknown. You have to leave behind everything you know that makes you comfortable: your language, culture, and home will feel so far out of your grasp.
My two-and-a-half year adventure around the world changed the course of my life. When I returned to Canada and moved to Montreal, I eventually found another engineering job. I collected a nice pay-check, was given my own projects to manage, and enjoyed my colleagues. But still, I wasn’t satisfied. I hated office politics, endless paperwork, and having someone else control my time.
I decided I was going to be my own boss.
I spent hundreds of hours reading blogs and books. I built a website and started a blog. I went back to school and got my coaching certification. And then finally, I launched my own business.
Would I have ever made this change to my life if I hadn’t learned what I learned while traveling the world? I don’t think so.
Travel taught me to take risks and embrace my fears. It taught me the value of time. It taught me to be confident, secure, and not to give a shit what other people think. Travel taught me to “own it.”
You’ll learn a lot of from traveling. You’ll learn what you like and, sometimes more importantly, what you don’t like. You’ll learn how to say “No” and eliminate toxic people from your life. You’ll learn to be confident, purposeful, and authentic.
But don’t listen to me.
Go and get it for yourself.
To date, I’ve traveled to six continents and around 40 countries. I feel at home when I travel. I’m comfortable, confident, and purposeful.
But it wasn’t always that way.
I remember the beginning of my travel “career.” I was 22 years old and heading to Sweden for a one year university exchange program.
I remember my first day in Sweden like it was yesterday.
I arrived on campus in Lund to a whirlwind of lineups, forms to sign, and new faces. They loaded me into a van and I was taken to my new home—an international student residence called the Old Fire Station, which was actually an old fire station. That night I went to a bar with new friends I met that day.
I left the bar around 1am. I walked in the direction I thought I would find the Old Fire Station. I couldn’t remember the name of my street because I couldn’t pronounce it. Streets had names like Fjelievagan and Byggmastaregatan. I didn’t have a smartphone or a map.
Within minutes, I was totally lost.
I wandered the empty, quiet streets for hours.
Around 5:00 am the sun started coming up. I was exhausted, jet-lagged, and frustrated. I thought about lying down in a ditch and passing out just before I saw a mailman. Luckily he pointed me in the right direction to my new home.
I opened the door to my room and fell onto the bed. I was tired, overwhelmed, sad, lonely, and completely defeated.
I started to cry. I bawled my eyes out until I was choking on my breath like a lost child in a shopping mall.
I felt so far from home. I didn’t think I’d be able to stick it out. I was outside my comfort zone for the first time in my life and I didn’t like it.
But I stayed.
Each day things got better. I found my way around, made new friends, and ended up having one of the best years of my life.
I wanted to end with this story because we don’t often hear the vulnerable beginnings of people’s stories who are “successful.”
I feel like a successful traveler today, but it didn’t start that way.
Traveling might seem intimidating for you right now. But the fear you feel is normal. It’s not easy getting out of our comfort zone for the first time. Traveling to faraway countries is scary.
But I promise you’ll discover new ways of finding happiness if you choose to embrace travel. Face your fears head-on, get the hell out of your comfort zone, and go discover what this beautiful world has to offer.
Travel has changed my life.
I hope it changes yours, too.