Pursuing happiness is futile. Sure you have the right to do it but you will always end up like the frustrated cat, franticly chasing that little red laser light. To find happiness you have to instead chase meaning. Happiness will be the delicate bloom on the shrubbery of a meaningful life. I suggest you apply this logic to your vacations. If a vacation has no more significance then to make you happy, you may find that when you get back it is a bit like that cat when he raises his paw and discovers the red dot is gone. Nothing gained from the experience. Here are my 10 suggestions for adding meaning to your travels.
1. Go Somewhere You Have Never Been
If you family goes to the same lake house every year, that is awesome. But if you are looking for a way to amp up the meaningfulness of your time together, try going somewhere new. When things are familiar, it is easy to get complacent having expectations of comfort and ease. You are in the realm of explorer anytime you visit a new place. Even if it is a different lake with the same people, there will be some risk with trying a new restaurant, meeting new locals or trying something new. Even if you don’t like it, I promise it will be more meaningful.
2. Choose a Destination Where You Don’t Speak the Language
This is advance level traveling for most people. We take the ability to communicate for granted most of the time but when you are in a new place and cannot communicate, life gets exciting. Luckily, it is not the 1800’s, we have iPhones that can translate anything you say into almost any language you need. You can spend the weeks or months leading up to your vacation studying some important phrases (please, thank you, where is the bathroom, I would like, yes, no, beer, ect.). This will give you a sense of confidence. The VAST majority of locals are delighted by people who try to learn their language. Ignore the random B-hole who doesn’t.
3. Go Somewhere with Historical Significance
My family used to visit Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. I loved it. You can almost see the troops lined up on the ridge, holding the line to protect their fellow soldiers. On occasion you can actually see it because they still do reenactments at most of the significant sites. This made history real to me and my sisters. On a trip through Scotland, we stopped at the Culloden Battlefield. We happened upon a scotsman telling the tragic story of the battle in his beautiful and sad brogue. I teared up as he described how the brave Scots fought and lost to the English. The Scots were beaten and the cruel English Crown would reign so harshly that to this day there are still fewer people living now in the highlands then there were back before the Jacobite revolution. Well that is how the handsome Scotsman told the story on the grassy field.
4. Go to a Place with Personal Signifigance
If part of your family is from Ireland, then there are travel agents lining up to help you find your ancestral home. The same goes for Italy, Norway or any other country. But it could even be closer to home. One of my dream trips is to visit Isle Royale in Michigan because my great-great grandfather owned it with his brothers. The family eventually deeded it to the government and it is now a National Park. It would be very fun to take my boys to see that. So, take your 23andMe test, then book your trip to visit your long lost relatives in Mongolia.
5. Find ways to Interact with Locals
Good resorts are good at making you comfortable and happy. They want you to stay right where you are, buying food at their restaurants, trinkets in their gift shops. While there might be locals working at your resort, they have been carefully trained and coached in how to interact with you. After a long flight and a harrowing experience at baggage claim you might need a few days to decompress somewhere comfortable and take advantage of the spa offerings, but after that GET OUT! Go to a local market. Take a local bus. Go to a restaurant away from the resort. Wander away from the crowds (be safe though). People love to talk. You never know, my friend met a guy on the streets of the UK and now they are married, living in Glasgow with 3 kids. On the other hand I met a guy in Pucon, Chile named Pinoche who hated all Americans. I would not trade the experience for any resort time.
6. Learn About the Culture, History and Language
Knowledge about the place you are going will make the whole experience better. You don’t have to do a doctoral dissertation on the significance of the primary imports and exports of your destination but it is nice to know a few basic facts. Some information might be incredibly helpful like weather or cultural expectation about how to dress. I never finished reading The Tale of Two Cities (yeah I was that student in HS) so, it was a little embarrassing when I wanted to go see the Bastille in Paris (there was a Bastille St stop on the metro). I got off the train, walked up the steps and looked around for an old stone jail-like building. Nothing. There was a rough cobble stone street but I was disappointed. I found out later that those cobble stones were all that remains of the Bastille. In case like me you didn’t finish the book, *spoiler alert* they tore it down during the French Revolution. Well at least I walked on the remnants. So do a little research and be willing to learn as you go.
This one is not for everyone. If you are a member of a church, then you may call this short term missions. There are organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Peace Corps, Mercy Ship and others with whom you can volunteer your time to help out local people. This would be a harder one with young children but is a fantastic way to introduce older children to diffrenent ways we can all make a difference in the world.
8. Check Your Expectations
Expectations are not all that different then plans. Neither is bad but they must be held loosely. Most people around the world will have expectations about you. Coloradans have certain expectations for Texans and different ones for Californians. Sometimes the stereotypes are funny but only insomuch as you are willing to give each individual a chance to be who they are. Hopefully, as you travel you will improve the impression people have of your home state or country.
9. Try New Things
If you travel to the UK and decide you cannot eat “chips” without ranch dressing, you may not get everything you could out of your travels. Not just food but other cultural experiences will enhance the meaningfulness of your trip. Go to a Cèilidh and dance your feet off in Scotland. Visit a local church. Try the local liquor. Take a tuk tuk. Buy a local tunic. Ride a camel. Pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone will be worth everything.
10. Remember Your P’s and Q’s
Stress is high when traveling. New places, new things and all this pushing out of your comfort zone might leave you forgetting your grandmothers advice. It is still good advice though. Losing your temper or treating other human beings poorly will quickly give your experience meaning but maybe not the lasting affect you were hoping for. So breath slowly, be polite and take it one step at a time.
It will be awesome.