The stereotype of world travelers is the upper-middle-class college kid who goes to some random, third-world country, sees a bunch of poor, half-naked kids joyfully playing in sewage puddles with toys made out of string and broken sticks, and suddenly has the life-changing epiphany that, no, you do not in fact need an XBox 360 and 24-hour delivery from Dominos to be happy in this world.
Who would have thunk it?
It turns out, the human capacity for happiness is surprisingly flexible. Psychological research shows that people quickly adjust to their surroundings and are able to find joy in most situations, regardless of their culture, material wealth or political situation.
For this reason, traveling the world has lowered my estimation of happiness. When I left Boston back in 2009, my aims were somewhat hedonic: party a lot, meet interesting people, have crazy adventures. But over the years I’ve grown to see that “feeling good” in and of itself is often overrated.
I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud. Happiness is important, sure. But it’s also common and can be found in most situations once your mind adjusts to your surroundings. You can find happiness in any slum or in any mansion, on the beach, in the mountains, or in the middle of the desert.
But what is rare in many parts of the world is human dignity. You know, people who aren’t treated like animals — used, ignored, cheated, beaten, mutilated, silenced, or suppressed. Again, not to be a stick in the mud, but those happy kids playing in sewage pipes and shitting in buckets will be lucky to make it to middle age without serious violence, addiction or health problems in their lives.
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