Unlocking the Secret to Happiness

It is summer and for many of us the time when we pack a suitcase and take a trip. If so, you may be on to something that has life-long benefits. According to recent research, spending money on experiences and travel is more likely to bring you and your family lasting happiness than spending money on material goods. Think about it: only a few days after purchasing a shirt, a watch or new electronic gadget, the thrill starts to fade. Per researchers at Cornell University, people "adapt" quickly to the novelty of a new physical object – whereas creating an experience or a trip continues to bring joy long after the event is over.

Many of my fondest childhood memories are of our crazy family road trips and adventures. Growing up in the US, we would cram the entire family into our enormous orange Oldsmobile nicknamed “the Ark” and crisscross the US and Canada, visiting family members, seeing cultural and historic sites, and sharing silly stories. We experienced big cities, quaint rural towns, endless cornfields and miles of national highways. I remember savouring the sweet-sour taste of watermelon rind pickle on a family friend’s farm near Toledo and fiery South Indian fish curry at a cousin’s home in Toronto.

As I got older, these trips morphed into backpacking through Europe on a meagre college student budget (and eating bread and cheese for days on end). Studying abroad and being an exchange student in countries like Panama and Germany generated similar lasting impressions. I am grateful that my parents had a genuine taste for wanderlust and imparted to my sister and me an insatiable curiosity to explore new places, even with limited finances. Each of these trips brought me out of my comfort zone, making me aware of the immense differences and similarities in culture around the globe and have left me with lifelong memories (and many pre-iPhone photo albums).

As immigrants, expats and cross-cultural parents that have lived in the US, Hong Kong and the Netherlands, my hubby and I are now trying to create new experiences for our kids in our adopted country while being mindful of the culture, setting and customs of the places we are exploring. Travel and experiences with family and friends not only influence happiness but can also impact health. According to a longitudinal Harvard study, it is close relationships that keep people happy throughout their lives.  In fact, these relationships are better predictors of happiness than fame and fortune or social class, IQ, and genes. The study researchers suggest that we deepen our relationships by doing new things together with the people we know. These experiences connect us in ways that material goods cannot.

While traveling or doing something experiential like visiting a museum or attending a performance, we may lose track of time as we are keen on absorbing new information away from our usual surroundings. It seems that this disconnection is a key aspect of creating long lasting memories.  According to friends who recently visited us in Amsterdam, the additional challenge is to also disconnect from our electronic devices. Our friends make a conscious decision to be present and not check their WhatsApp or email accounts constantly (which I admit I have been guilty of) on their trip to Europe. They have different levels of success, my friend chose to travel without a phone, her husband tries not to check email and they both encourage their daughters to stay off their tablets, phones and social media as much as possible. I completely agree with their philosophy. In fact, one of our best recent family trips was a 3-day hiking trip in the mountains where we had no Wi-Fi whatsoever, and our preteen boys spent time whittling wood, playing local board games and hiking.

Travel doesn’t have to be a luxury experience. Having traveled by bike in the Netherlands, Greyhound bus in the US, budget air to Iceland and local trains in India, even short, low-cost trips can be transformative. What experiences are you creating with family and friends this summer? Whatever you do, remember it will bring you a step closer to creating connections, memories and life-long happiness.