10 Tips the Outdoors Taught me about Finding Happiness in the “Real World”
I’ve always been able to live with being a little less happy in the off-season in the short term because I could tell myself “it’ll all be better soon. You’ll be hiking in 4 short months.”
I’m beginning to think that rather than postponing happiness until hiking season, I’d be better off learning how to take the joy of hiking and find it in real life.
I started reading a bunch of articles on being happier and realized that the “lessons” they were suggesting were really stuff I already knew from hiking. It turns out the lessons we learn on trail—that make us survive and thrive in the outdoors—can actually apply to being happier in “real” life, too. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve found on “happiness lists” that are also true for hiking:
- We can’t change what happens to us. But we can change how we react to it. In hiking, we learn that we can’t change the weather. We can’t change wildfires. We can’t make that blister go away (well not immediately). But we can change how we react to them. If it rains, we can put on a rain jacket or heck, set up our shelter and spend the rest of the day playing MadLibs. If there’s a wildfire, we can figure out how to walk around it. We can tape up that blister and drain it, or (worst case scenario) take a few zeroes and get new shoes. It turns out that real life has “solutions” too. By changing my attitude to an “oh, I know how to make this better” way of thinking, a lot of the stuff that was making me angry suddenly became a lot easier to manage.
- Don’t judge yourself for not sticking to the plan. We all make itineraries for our hikes. And ultimately, 99% of people don’t end up sticking exactly to every day they had planned for in that Excel spreadsheet. But it’s when we start feeling guilty—like we should have kept that to itinerary—that we get hard on ourselves. And when I’m hard on myself, not only do I get unhappy, but I get clumsy and start fumbling on everything. By making a plan, trying hard, and not feeling guilty if it doesn’t happen quite on my timeline, I will be a lot less stressed.
- Find wonderful, beautiful things, wherever you are: I’m a big fan of finding little wonders everywhere, not just in big vistas. It’s one reason why I love urban hiking or the Appalachian Trail. No matter how bad my day is, I know there will always be something tiny that can cheer me up.
- Make your own choices. Set your own goals. Check in on your progress often. You can hike the trail by getting up, walking, and camping wherever you end up (this is how I hiked my first thru). Or you can hike with an intention of making it to a particular lake. Or a goal of making it in town. The deliberate setting of goals is how I take control of my hiking day. It’s how I make sure that others hikers don’t hijack my hike when they want to camp early (unless I really want to keep hiking with them the next day). It’s a yardstick to measure my progress so far vs. where I want to go. In real life, it’s what will keep me on track instead of getting swept up in the newest work crisis.
- Follow your circadian rhythms. On trail, we usually get up when the sun rises and go to sleep when the sun goes down. We always get plenty of sleep following that schedule. In the “real world,” we can get distracted with lights and TV. Getting enough sleep and waking up early is all about getting back to my trail roots.
- Stop comparing myself vs. people around me. On trail more than anywhere, I’ve learned that just because someone may be faster than me today doesn’t mean I won’t beat them to Canada. It’s also taught me that it doesn’t matter who makes it to Canada first, it matters who makes it to Canada the happiest. In real life, just because someone may seem “better” than me at being skinny, or speaking eloquently, or having an fancy profession doesn’t mean that I’m not doing an awesome job at other things. I just have to remember to not get distracted from excelling at my own thing.
- Eat enough and stay hydrated On trail, I know my body will bonk if I don’t eat enough or stay hydrated. Oh, if only I could remember that lesson during a busy day of report-writing for work! It sure would make me better at doing my job and also at being happier while doing it.
- Find friendship everywhere. This one I’m good at on trail but bad at in “real life.” I’m pretty shy (hence the spending time in the woods solo thing), so striking up conversations with strangers just seems weird to me. But on trail, I’m looking for some social interaction and the barriers are broken. I’d like to be more like my trail self all the time and see everyone as a potential partner worth hiking hundreds of miles with.
- Make time for friends. One of the reasons why trail friendships are so deep is because of the amount of time we have available to spend with each other. If I were to have a 1 hour coffee meeting with a friend every week for a year, that’s 52 hours of hanging out. If I were to hang out with a new friend on trail for 3 days straight, that’s 72 hours—more than I’ve spend with that coffee buddy. In “real life”, I don’t always have the kind of time to spend with folks, but if I can let myself be free of distractions, even when I’m off trail, I can make deep friendship a priority
- Stay active, preferably outdoors: An obvious reason that hikers are so happy is that we’re exercising all day. All that movement get the blood going and increases endorphins in our brain, while also reducing the stress hormones. Being outdoors during our activity is like a super shot of happiness. Check out this awesome infographic on staying happy for more info: http://www.happify.com/hd/exercise-and-happiness-infographic/
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.