Why lowering my expectations has made me a happier traveller

Is there something fundamentally misguided about what we expect to get out of our holidays? Are we setting trips up to fail by promising ourselves the absolute best time, because it just has to be, because you need it and you’ve dreamed of it?

These are things I have been thinking about recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that for many people, myself included, the answer is frequently yes. The good news is that I think I’ve also found a solution that relieves the pressure somewhat and will make us all happier holiday makers as a result.

Not all that long ago I attended an event held by Airbnb, which has recently partnered with philosopher Alain de Boton to relaunch his book The Art of Travel. His words resulted in something of an epiphany for me.

“Many of our hopes of travel are way off what is delivered,” said de Boton, speaking at the intimate event in the St Pancras Station clock tower in London . Part of the reason for this is, he believes, that travel is one of the few occasions in life when you expect to work out the answers to questions you’ve been putting off, like how to be happy or what you want out of life.

“Travel is a way to save your soul, find redemption and meaning,” he said. “When you go travelling you’ve got to put your chips on the table and say: ‘I think life is about this’.”

Travel can often taken form of a pilgrimage — religious or other otherwise — and de Boton said that he find himself “really sympathetic to people’s desire for calm”. And yet he also sees the irony in the fact that “thousands of years of Western reflection has led to the sun lounger” — especially when compared to techniques to find stillness that have been painstakingly developed by Buddhist monks in the East.

“Think about sunbathing. Sunbathing is ritualistic — what it stands for is being calm. You lie out in the sun… and then what happens is there is a fly. And more noxiously there is you buzzing in your head.” Sunbathing stands for something luxurious and restorative in our culture, but that does not guarantee that it will be the escape route from our own minds that we might feel we need when we indulge in it.

It is good to be demanding and ambitious for our trips, but all the while, said de Boton, it’s necessary to remember that “one journey can’t do millions of things”. If you want to allow yourself to be transformed by a journey, he advised “getting a bit clearer about what you want from a trip.”

With this in mind my thoughts turned to my trip to Iceland, which at the time lay ahead of me, and I suddenly started to feel a bit panicky. I had thought about little else for months and I had so many expectations! Was I condemning myself to being disappointed?

Here is a list of things in no particular order of things I was expecting to get out of the holiday:

– A retreat from the general chaos of living in London

-The chance to enjoy days off (from actual work) for the first time since February

– A digital detox from my always-on lifestyle

– An attempt to draw a line in the sand following incredibly stressful period of change and feeling less than myself in all sorts of ways

– An opportunity to take stock and reflect on all that is good in my life

-The potential to capture some of the best photos I’ve ever taken

– A chance to catch up on my reading

– A way to gather some great material for my blog and form new partnerships

– A chance to spend some proper time with my boyfriend following a period where we had both been away from each other

– A rare time we could be completely alone together and properly appreciate each other’s company

– The living out of a dream we have both shared and thought about for a long time

– A way to see amazing things IRL that I’ve gazed at pictures of and wanted to see with my own eyes for years

– A chance to embrace nature and appreciate fresh air and solitude and beauty

-A moment to ponder deeply self-indulgent and vaguely existential questions about my personal ambitions, my life goals… and whether I have even settled on any yet.

Phew! No pressure then.

Clearly I needed to scale back, so I took a moment to reassess, prioritise and remember what this trip was really all about. And fundamentally it was about being with the person I care about the most in a beautiful place that captured our imaginations and made us happy, so I decided to make that happiness in togetherness my absolute focus.

As it turned out, pretty much all of my genuine hopes for the trip were met. I am so grateful for that, and for the added bonuses of seeing the Northern Lights (big bucket list tick) and puffins — neither of which should technically be hanging around in Iceland at the end of August.

Ultimately though I did myself a favour. There were times when the weather was icky and sometimes downright crazy, and could easily have thrown us into a funk (especially when it threw us quite literally off our feet).

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Instead we shrugged off storms with slices of pizza and rounds of cards. Our laughter echoed in craters filled with mists that supposedly obscured dazzling gem-coloured lakes, clambered back into our van and trundled on our merry way. In spite of these and other “setbacks”, not a moment of the trip disappointed. It was just the utter best and I will forever remember how happy it made us.

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It’s not easy being told to lower your expectations, because it feels like you’re being asked to compromise. This is especially true when it comes to travel. You might have spent months or even years researching, planning, booking and awaiting a trip and that’s a long time to hype something up in your mind.

Do yourself the biggest favour though — follow Alain’s advice and take a moment to think what it really is that you want to get out of your trip. Pick a thing — the thing that is most important to you — and if that thing is anything to do with your day-to-day life at home then discard it and pick again. As amazing as holidays are, they aren’t a cure-all for life problems (unless perhaps you are holidaying at one of those celebrity rehab ranches in Arizona). Pick a thing that will make you love and cherish your trip for the transient, temporary and special moment in time that it will be.

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I picked a person, and so did Alain, who said that he had chosen to make his children’s curiosity about the world the focus of his upcoming trip. But you could select anything (I definitely think you can afford to be at least a little bit selfish about this by the way — I just happen to do a lot of solo travel and have a lot of ‘me time’ as it is).

The great benefit of being a grownup is that more often than not you get to choose your own adventure. Don’t go forgetting though that you also get to choose how to enjoy it. Alain endorses it, and now so do I.

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2 Comments on “Why lowering my expectations has made me a happier traveller

  1. This is a great post and I totally get where you (and Alain) are coming from. I always massively hype things up and expect everything to be the best adventure and I do sometimes find myself disappointed. Not because something wasn’t good but purely because I’ve overhyped it in my head way too much. A very annoying habit and I think blogging and reading other blogs doesn’t exactly help either as it gives us so many ideas and expectations about travel.

    I’m planning a surprise trip for Mr Ayla in March next year and I’ve already got in my mind how amazing and incredible the trip is going to be! Going to have to try to drop my excitement and expectation levels down a notch I think. Especially as I still have another 6 months to go!

    • You’re so right — when you are a travel blog addict is hard not to want to replicate other people’s amazing experiences!

      I’m sure your surprise trip will be amazing — it is always so much fun to organise these things. I’m sure everything you think of will be wonderful, but most of all I hope you have just the best time together xx

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