If I had to think of the one thing I learned while abroad for six months that has changed my life forever, the answer would come very quickly: I learned how to achieve happiness.
I also learned the meaning of gratitude.
All in all, I learned what appreciation truly feels like. I learned how to be truly grateful. During my European travels that took me from London, to Switzerland, to Budapest, to Greece, through Italy, France, and Spain, I learned many things. But most importantly I learned one thing for sure: I learned the importance of stopping to smell the roses.
The realization of what I had learned only became more clear when I returned home. Reintegrating back into what was once the norm was a difficult feat, and before too long, I realized what the real difference was.
Everything was – in all actuality – the exact same as I had left it. My family members were the same as I had remembered them. The relative melodrama of issues and day-to-day occurrences remained. The outlook was how it always had been. But nothing felt the same.
What was different was me. I was different.
I quickly realized that, during the time I was away, I had changed so far from the person I was that I was actually able to see who I used to be quite clearly and objectively. And having this ability for the first time in my life, I also realized upon returning home that I had formed some pretty strong opinions (generally not nice ones) about that person.
I quickly acknowledged that, though I was home, I was not on board with becoming that person – the person virtually void of appreciation – once again. The mere thought of being who I was six months prior sent a fearful chill down my spine and upset my stomach instantly. I was back, but I couldn’t go back.
I couldn’t go back to being who I was because I had experienced and lived as someone better. I had experienced a new world as a different me, a me who I truly loved. I had seen the other side, and guess what? The grass was greener. I was better. My life and my future suddenly became limitless. I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I saw the good in everything. I was unafraid.
Most of all, I was happy.
And all at the hands of one lesson: gratitude.
Can you imagine one day waking up and realizing that for the past 20 years, you had never actually experienced happiness?
This sounds scary, but it’s a blessing really. It’s a blessing because it’s a lesson that changes life forever. It’s a lesson that allows true gratitude – and true happiness – to take root in your future.
We all seem to have this opinion of happiness, and perhaps we all think of it a little differently. A lot of us do plenty of convincing in order to make ourselves believe we’re happy, regardless of the daily depression and anxiety we feel. We might one day realize that we’d been living in accordance with someone else’s definition of happiness. We might realize we don’t actually know what happiness is. And, for some of us, our opinion of happiness changes over time.
It was as if being abroad for six months had sped up my life significantly. It was as if – packed into that half a year – I had aged a decade, and during this time warp, I had suddenly come to the realization of what happiness really means for me.
I realized that, for me, happiness is completely within one’s self. Happiness is not something that can be given or taken away by anyone else. It’s not something that can be hidden or masked with a countering facial expression.
Happiness is a particular undeniable glow. It’s a smile that you can’t stop smiling. It’s a kindness that you can’t stop from spreading. It’s a skip in your step and a never-ending awe of the beauty that surrounds you, which is nothing but life itself. It’s the ability to stand in a square before a building for an hour – alone – and just think about life. It’s an inquisitiveness that keeps your mind wondering at the vast possibilities.
It’s the beauty you can find in stretching the moments – the beautiful sunsets that turn the sky pink, the many phases of the moon that bring back memories, the glimmering stars, the trees that sway in the breezes, the bike rides that show you the most beautiful sites, the lovers kissing on the bridge, the most incredible I’m only up this early to catch a flight sunrises that remind you of what you’re missing each morning, the puffy clouds moving overhead and the wispy ones that look like your freckles, the birds flying into frame at just the right moment, the girlfriends laughing on the metro, making you ache for your friends back home, and the dog you wish you could pet who can’t stop running after the relentless, ever moving stick, making you laugh audibly.
Hundreds of these stretched moments became a beautiful blur of the most incredible six months of my life. Together, this is what has come to define happiness for me. It’s the experience of waking each morning with one thought – I’m so lucky – but also truly feeling lucky each and every day. It’s the absolute faith in your future, in your dreams coming true. It’s the ease in which you overlook the anxieties and fears that are presented to you, choosing instead to see the bright side.
That’s happiness. Happiness is always choosing the bright side, and always taking a moment to smell the roses. Happiness is always feeling grateful, lucky, excited, in awe, and absolutely, completely secure in who you are and what you’re after. True happiness, I now know, is all of that and the ability to feel it and live it all alone with only the input and participation of you.
Since happiness is not an all-encompassing emotion, as we’re so often tricked to believe, I’ve come to view happiness as the strength of choice. You see, it’s a fact that I was absolutely the happiest I’d ever been during my time abroad, but that doesn’t mean that my life was completely void of all negative emotions.
No, I still felt sadness. I still dealt with my anxieties and worries. I still had my moments of despairing loneliness. I still walked the streets and saw the most beautiful things, at times welling up because I was experiencing it all alone. Though it felt like a dream, it was still reality. And these very real emotions still existed.
But, even though we’ve never been told this little secret before, happiness and sadness can co-exist. They always have and they always will. And they don’t need to be in constant opposition with one another.
With happiness and appreciation – for once – on my side, I found that the brightness of my life, and my experiences of the things around me, allowed me to choose the bright side.
The persistence of the shadow in my life even though I was experiencing so much beauty offered a startling realization: we, as humans, must always must have something to complain about. If it’s not the monotony of the 9 to 5, then it’s the insecurity of the freelance work. If it’s not the boredom of our hometown, then it’s the fear of a foreign place and foreign language.
It’s just our nature to complain. It’s the very urge for constant progression, I suppose, that’s allowed us to survive as a species.
Luckily, though, we can overcome this innately human flaw. I overcame mine by simply choosing to turn my back to my complaints. I saw my growing loneliness and aching as an ungrateful intruder who wasn’t welcome, and I paid it no attention. I chose to focus on the bright side, on the beauty around me, instead of dwelling on what was seemingly wrong with my life. Happiness became a simple, daily choice. And with that choice, I was able to experience my time abroad in the way that I did.
If I had chosen to focus on the misery, the uncertainty, and the loneliness, I wouldn’t have lasted one month away from my family, friends, and known surroundings. I would have self-sabotaged myself out of what has become the single greatest experience of my life (which is actually filled with hundreds of amazing memories).
But most importantly, I would have stayed the same. I wouldn’t have changed as a person. I wouldn’t have made any progress. I wouldn’t have found and built the inner strength necessary in order to choose happiness everyday. I wouldn’t have given myself the ability to disengage the self-imposed limitations I had placed on my life and my possibilities. And I never would have come anywhere close to believing in my dreams, let alone to believing in me.
And it’s all because I took a moment, everyday, to feel grateful and to appreciate all the beauty that I was experiencing, not allowing the shadow to take away from any part of it.
You can stand before the Eiffel Tower, or ride the London Eye, or walk the circumference of the Coliseum. You can travel the entire world. But do you see it, do you feel it?
Did you even stop to smell the roses on your way to happiness?