Photograph by Sujan Sarkar, National Geographic Your Shot
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Stunning nature near Shangri-La, China, makes these travelers dance for joy.

Photograph by Sujan Sarkar, National Geographic Your Shot

Travel Happy: How to Be a More Joyful Traveler

Follow these expert tips to cultivate joy during your next trip—and long after returning home.

By Sean O'Connor

In my personal and professional experience as a life coach, joy is found wherever you get completely enveloped in an experience, when you’ve really lost yourself: your worries, your ego, your past, and your future. Travel is the perfect time for this reboot. It’s also an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone, explore new approaches to life, and form new habits.

Below are some insights into how you push your limits to really lose yourself in the travel experience, and cultivate more joy in the process. Then take the ethos behind these joy-inducing activities back to your daily life at home.

Lose Yourself in the Music

In Fiji last summer, I donned a sulu—a sarong-type garment both men and women wear—and danced the nights away in the village where I was staying on the southern tip of Taveuni, known as the Garden Island of Fiji. Never underestimate the power of dance. I was sweaty and a little uncomfortable, but I made friends shaking it with what seemed like absolutely everyone in the community. I danced with old women and men, too. I moved my hips enough that I had to constantly retie my sulu until a local helped me to tie it properly. Certainly I looked funny at times. My ego told me to stop. What’s really special is when you can push through any discomfort or self-consciousness to truly lose yourself in the moment.

Coaching Takeaway: Whether you are traveling or in your own environs, see where you can re-create this experience and take advantage of the smile-inducing, heart-rate rising, feel-good activity of dancing with abandon.

Connect Deeply With Others

Create real, true, deep connections. Introduce yourself to an elderly person. Make a new best friend. Get so connected with someone you will feel like their home is your home and vice versa. Learn as much as you can about who they are, and be willing to share yourself, too. When language barriers get in your way, there’s always a possibility of communicating with a translator or simply communicating deeply through other means—it doesn’t have to be spoken language. Don’t miss these kinds of opportunities; they can lead to doors opening that offer you something entirely unique, like when I attended a traditional wedding in the heart of South Africa’s Zululand at the invitation of a friend of a friend of the security guard at my residence.

Coaching Takeaway: Creating meaningful connections with people while traveling will help you deepen and expand your capacity to empathize with people in your world. This, in turn, will help you create more authentic, connected relationships in your family, your romantic life, and even in your workplace.

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Happy kayakers high-five after an exhilarating swim in French Polynesia.

Help a Brother Out

On the coast of Mozambique, while my travel mates went out diving with whale sharks, my forgetfulness bit me in the butt. I had not packed my diver certification card, so I was left land-bound. With nothing else to do, I drove into town and, on the way, picked up some locals walking in from their villages. I decided to spend the day helping one run his errands. My rental car was a boon for him. We shopped for vegetables at the local market, made a visit to the clinic, negotiated on his wages with his boss at his job, and visited his young son. Using my day to explore the local scene and help this man sort out his problems helped me remove myself from my own. Whether it is a formal volunteer opportunity or something more spontaneous, help out others whenever possible to access a deeper level of joy within yourself. It gives us access to our highest selves.

Coaching Takeaway: You already provide service to your family or in the workplace while at home. See where you can go further and push your comfort zone of helping others. Look for opportunities while traveling to get this habit started.

Step Blindly Off a Cliff

Don’t do this literally. Figuratively, I am speaking about stepping out into the unknown. This must be practiced. Our natural inclination as humans is toward survival and comfort. We avoid the unknown. Find an experience on your trip that truly feels like stepping out into the unknown. This might be showing up somewhere with no itinerary or staying in a local’s home, if lucky enough to get invited. Or step off the side of a plane (parachute attached). It is going to look different for everyone. What is comfortable for one person is wildly uncomfortable to another. Personally, having no plans tends to make me a bit anxious. I have to practice being with the unknown and the unplanned. Doing so helps me expand my repertoire of how to deal with situations out of my control, quash the anxiety, and create more space for joy.

Coaching Takeaway: The landscape beyond our comfort zones is where we discover new things about ourselves, where we expand and grow. Challenge yourself while on your travels, then take the practice home. Be safe, be culturally sensitive, but be bold.

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Travel provides the perfect opportunity to connect deeply with others.

Engage the Senses

You may already be a person who lives by the adage of stopping to smell the roses. But life is a busy vixen. She is full of tricks and turns to throw us off our game. Our ability to be truly present erodes over time. Travel is a great opportunity to hit the reset button, and once we’ve reset we have the luxury of engaging our senses to practice being present. This can look a lot of different ways, but a simple exercise is to practice a different sense each day. Keep a sense journal and, on day one, inventory the smells that infiltrate your olfactory receptors. Then work through the others.

Coaching Takeaway: Re-upping your skills of being present is actually a meditative exercise to clear your mind, and in a clear mind joy has room to bubble up and spread within and outside of us.

Unpack the Story of Food

Food is a cultural staple. Every place you will visit has a food story and things that make the geography unique from a culinary standpoint. While cooking a large meal for a group at a ski lodge in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, I made new friends and learned heaps on the sheep-farming industry, all while cooking lamb steaks on the grill. Use food as your foray into learning about the ingredients, traditions, and techniques that make a place special. Curiosity and learning stimulate the brain and underpin creativity, which in turn can lead to joy.

Coaching Takeaway: Cooking is a way to practice presence and truly be in the moment, making yourself available for learning, laughter, and creativity. Taking time to learn and enjoy the process from beginning to end will be sure to raise our joy factor a few degrees.

Start With Yourself

Here you are. Right here, right now. Your joy matters. The world needs a lot more of it, and your capacity to cultivate it within you directly translates to creating a space for happiness around you. While on the plane or train traveling to your destination, make a list of joy-blockers. Note that we are not talking simply about the things that make you smile or laugh. Joy is that deep contentment and lasting happiness that you can call upon within yourself even in the most troubling of circumstances. Take a look at what factors, beliefs, and circumstances rob you of your joy. While you are out experiencing your destination, work through your list of joy-blockers and see what action there is or what support you might need to bypass them.

Coaching Takeaway: Joy is really something you can actively cultivate, so use your next chunk of travel time to create this garden for yourself and share the bounty with others.

Life and leadership coach Sean O’Connor hosts a podcast called Joy Riders. He is based in Los Angeles. Find him on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

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