What Does Happiness Look Like to You Now?

No. 1 in a Series of 4 Essays on Sadness as the Ultimate Off the Beaten Path

These past few weeks, you’ve begun telling those in your immediate circle of an impending existential crisis. They should know this so that (A) their schedules could accommodate your breakdown, and (B) because you particularly like to plot specific times and dates of your failures.

It should happen in the days after you turn a decade old, say 20, 30, or 40. Do it in a comfortable time and spot, maybe early morning on the desk while looking at the line of hundred-foot long mahoganies that front your house. Stare at them for long moments, unfollowing formal units of time and distance.

At one point in this armchair travel, you will look back at the past ten years and run through the cliche questions those in mid-crisis usually run through – What have you done in the past ten years? What is the meaning of it all? Is it time to reassess priorities? Are you enough? And then the clincher, What will really make you happy?

You input the last question on the search engine because you believe that GMT (Google mo, tanga) answers everything. You’re met with listicles like 25 Ways to Feel Happier in the Next Five Minutes.

You click, and what oozes out are bumper sticker quotations that “Happiness is a now thing. Don’t wait until later to be happy,” along with subheadlines like Hug a Puppy, Think Positive, and Smile. You close the laptop.

In the past, happiness only had one face. It came in the form of a plane or bus ticket. It came in the form of novelty – a new place, new experience, new material to feed the ego. It came in the form of restlessness. It came in the form of escape.

The formula was simple. You wanted more of the sensation, so you bought more plane tickets. You filled your calendar with social obligations. You fed the ego. You productized happiness, put a price on it, and promoted it as a rare, inaccessible enigma. You should be the only one feeling it, or else it loses its rarity.

What you didn’t expect is that, because you productized it – bottled and tied with a large red bow – you also gave it an expiry date.

It grew, found its peak of maturity, and now it’s on the decline. You begin to question the pathos of things. Hence, the existential crisis.

When happiness declines, you can either (A) continue following the same path, adding perhaps a new feature or two to trick yourself of its newness, or (B) sell the happiness to someone else like a secondhand car. It’s time to buy (correction: find) a new dream.

The purpose of a crisis of any kind, it seems, is to force you to restrategize. Perhaps in your pursuit, you’ve lost track of the objective. You sought to be healthy to inspire, and then find that you’ve unconsciously body shamed others. You wanted security for your family, but now, you don’t even see them anymore. You traveled to widen your world, and then you find that your lifestyle is now limited by it.

In an existential crisis, you’re forced to ask, what does happiness – joy, contentment, sanctity, whatever you want to call it – look like to you now?

 

 

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Travel in the Digital Age

 

The daughter of my mentor, Aurora Uypuanco, interviewed me recently on the use of social media to propel different advocacies as part of her thesis. Mine centers mostly around travel and conscious tourism. Here’s how the conversation panned out.

When did you start utilizing the internet and social media to publish?

I first started publishing my work (writing, photography, graphic design, digital art) online through sharing platforms like Multiply and DeviantArt. This was back in 2003 in the latter part of my College years. The lure was instant gratification. I needed feedback to improve my work beyond what I received in the classroom. Social media complemented my formal education because it connected me with other writers and visual art practitioners who had a completely different perspective from the theorists and professors at University. Art became experiential and interactive. A sharing platform made me feel that I was part of this bigger, more dynamic community; that I was somehow taken seriously as an artist because other people actually bothered to read, comment, or provide constructive criticism to my work. That search for validation has its boon and bane, but at that time, it propelled me to move forward in what is usually a solitary endeavor.

The internet was also integral in letting me experiment with different mediums. As a starting artist, I couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to excel at. I knew I wanted to create, but creation took on different, ambiguous forms. I was divided between the world of visual art – graphic design, digital paintings, photography – and the world of words – poetry, short stories, non-fiction. Blogging was a very fresh concept at that time, and so I experimented with that too. These forms called for different schools of learning, and I was lucky enough to find a holistic middle path. I’ve since used visual art, or at least its dynamics, as part of my profession, and made writing my passion.

 

You’ve been traveling before the world became “Facebooked”. What is the difference between traveling now compared to, say, 10 years ago?

With search engines and a layered digital footprint, you get a more visible picture that nothing is new anymore. Almost all physical manifestations of travel have been explored. You cannot say that any content is unique because places, these days, are not as inaccessible as they once were. Type in, say, “Bungee Jumping in Papua New Guinea”, and you’ll have 150 pages of resources to investigate, all with different voices, moods, tones, and levels of relevance. 10 years ago, this body of work was still being collected, much like the building of a physical library.

The birth of Facebook and blogging though have helped curate that information so that you don’t have to be completely overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. You can choose who to follow, and consequently, which information you believe to be relevant. This may have given birth to the internet personality as well. Travelers, these days, also have to create a personal brand and digital personality. Facebook has taken on the role of what publications like National Geographic Adventure, Lonely Planet, or Outside Magazine, did 10 or 20 years ago which is to highlight specific storytellers and stories. Facebook made that personality closer to us and has also made the creation of a personality easier. I once rebelled against this need to create a persona. Perhaps this was why it took me three years to get into Facebook. I’ve since realized that the control is still mine. How much you give in to the system is your choice.

 

Was it your love for traveling that led you down this path? 

It was my love for writing, more than travel, that led me to what I choose to do now. A professor of mine named Radel Paredes once asked me, in a casual chat, what I wanted to do after graduating. Quite spontaneously, I told him I wanted to be a travel writer. The next day, he gave me a photocopy of Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel. The first line was “We travel initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next, to find ourselves.” That line fixated me for a year, and I knew then that somehow, I wanted to capture that feeling for someone else. I wanted to create something – a line, a moment, an intangible image – that would catalyze a transformation, and would stay with them the same way Iyer’s line stayed with me. In a world that’s so ephemeral, I thought, what work could be more beautiful and defining?

 

What has the “magic” of the digital age brought in your travels?

Do you mean, have my travel philosophies changed because of the digital age? Well, yes and no. Logistics has become easier through the years because the digital age has given birth to more options. You don’t have to stay in hotels anymore; you can couch surf. You’re not forced to take an expensive tour; you can DIY. You don’t have to just pray for good weather; you can actually Accuweather how it’s going to be like on-the-ground. The magic that the digital age has brought in travel is summarized in two words: mobility and accessibility. In this sense, travel has become more much more “comfortable.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, to be comfortable is not my primary intent when traveling. I am compelled even to make any trip uncomfortable with the belief that comfort equates to complacency. As a traveler, I feel that you have to take advantage of the heightened senses a new place or experience brings. Being uncomfortable means you’re learning, growing, debunking set beliefs. So, I don’t always fully utilize all the comforts and access to information the digital age brings. I purposely do not read blogs before going to a place, just so I won’t have a preconception of what it is. How the place presents itself to me is how I write about it. This may be foolish but there’s a sense of authenticity there, a sanctity between traveler and place, that I don’t want to break.

 

As someone that utilizes online channels to get your work out there, how do you feel about the irresponsible use of social media by other travelers? How do you think this can be properly regulated?

Just to clarify, I don’t think there is such a thing as the irresponsible use of social media, whether it be in travel or in any other area in the same way that I don’t think there’s such a thing as an irresponsible use of traditional media. The medium itself is not the acting agent. It doesn’t have control or consciousness. It’s simply a platform that magnifies content and context. The irresponsible one is the informer, and any information published without due diligence to both content and context.

We live in an era where everyone’s opinion is valid; where personality sometimes supersedes facts. We believe what we want to believe without taking all aspects in. I myself am guilty of that, so it’s important to check yourself once in a while; to remind yourself you’re not an expert in all subjects, so best to keep mum in some issues to give way to other people’s more relevant opinions. Silence, these days, is an act of being responsible.

Some sectors have more at stake than others. To me, travel has less to lose compared to, say, education or politics, because travel compared to these two is a very subjective industry. You can even argue that nothing is factual about it. People will always have a different sense of place even when they’ve inputted with the same stimuli. There are different types of travelers, and so, there will always be different interpretations. I think that is perfectly fine, and it shouldn’t even be regulated. I always believe it’s the reader’s greater responsibility to regulate, and validate. Read from different sources. Get a second opinion. Find a valid argument. Question all points.

 

How can tourism establishments and tourists curb the negative effects of social media to tourism?

No matter how good your intentions are, there’s always a fine line when it comes to using travel to catalyze social change. Because it’s an anchor industry, meaning when tourists are brought in, it gives birth to other industries, the impact of that can see-saw between positive and negative unless your control mechanisms are really strong.

Say, for instance, you have a community-based initiative that allows travelers to witness the everyday lives of the indigenous tribes of the Philippines, and even volunteer in helping them make a community structure or teaching them English. As a positive effect, they may go on to learn new skill sets while realizing the need to preserve their identity because now there’s an external audience that’ll appreciate te. Or as a negative, the community-based endeavor might teeter out of control, and it mutates to become a commercial industry that will compromise the tribe’s human dignity.

As a platform, social media can be a great tool for storytelling. It can also help manage expectations so that travelers will more or less know what they’re getting into even before they go experience something on-the-ground. When you travel, you’re subject to an overload of information and sensation. Social media assists in giving you the right context so that you get an initial sense of place even before arrival, not to say that you should stick to this alone, but at least you know what information’s floating out there. You can either heighten or debunk the archetype. Social media should be seen as a way to create a collective consciousness. All this information out there will later chronicle the zeitgeist of our generation. So any content, whether it be a simple post or an image, has to be telling, layered, and substantial.

 

How has social media helped you touch the lives of the people you have met? Places you’ve seen? 

Travel allows you to show a multiplicious self. You never know what self is going to appear when in a new place and with a different set of companions. Not to say this self is any less authentic, but it is different from what you show in your daily life. Before social media, the people that you meet along the way in your travels will only see that one-dimensional side of you; that side that reared itself in the limited time and space when you were together. With just that, it’s difficult to gauge whether your friendship can really withstand domesticity (what you call your real life) or if it’s the type of relationship that only stays in the streets of Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok. I believe that social media has become an integral part of having that ability to show that domestic (“real”) part of yourself, so the people you meet along the way get to see what you do when you’re not traveling. You get to know each other more across cyberspace. I’ve had friends I’ve met in hostels message me and ask, “What? You have a child?” or “So, you work with fishermen?” These are integral parts of me but they just didn’t show up when we were together. Social media fills in those gaps.

In a more functional sense, it helps sustain what was started during travel. Now that I’ve sort of built a steady network when I go to a place, I just instantly message friends I’ve met from those areas and they take me in. Juxtapose this to a conversation I recently had with the mother of a friend. She met a Japanese friend at a youth camp when she was younger. They only corresponded through letters after, but those quickly stopped. Everyday life gets in the way. Snail mail is slow, or it gets lost altogether. They only saw each other again 40 years after through Facebook. I thought, how lucky are we to have a platform where we won’t have to wait 40 years to see each other again?

 

Why Solo Travel Isn’t For Everyone

“I hate travel,” says a friend over lunch in a Taiwanese shabu-shabu house, and the way she sticks her tofu in the hotpot tells me she isn’t joking. She takes insult over everything physical journeys represent – the entitlement, the unpredictability, the commercialization. Oh, and what about the impermanence and fleetingness of it all? To her, travel is overrated.

She doesn’t buy into the concept of travel being the best educator either. For isn’t it any person’s choice to learn in whatever set-up he’s in, whether it’s in the confines of a classroom or at the height of Mt. Apo?

It might have been the secret sauce, the putrid combination of shallots, vinegar, sriracha, and other flotsams I can’t quite recognize, but I found myself nodding to all points.

Conflict arises when two people find the need to be right. I find no need to be lately. But it did take me back to the many instances, in my earlier years as a traveler, when arrogance led to imperatives. How many times have I tried to transform other sojourners to carry my beliefs? How many times have I gauged the authenticity of their trips based on how similar their principles were to mine?

Take the concept of solo travel, this over glorification that it’s the braver, riskier, more fulfilling and nuanced way to see the world. I first started to travel solo out of choice, then later on as necessity. But to justify it as the only way to reach self-actualization is distorted.

If you’re thinking of traveling solo, long-term or short-term, here are a couple of things you might want to consider.

  1. | There is no one to share expenses with. 

Travel is, first off, a play in economics. Your pesos go farther when you have someone to share expenses with – from the room down to the taxi fare. Case in point, it took P7,000 to go around Southern Luzon for 8 days when I had 4 other companions to share costs with. The same amount only allowed me 3 days traveling solo in, say, Zamboanga. This takes a big toll in comfort as well. P400 per person can already get you a room in a 3-star hotel when shared with a companion, but it can only get you a bed in a far-flung hostel when traveling alone.

 2. | Doing every little thing on your own.

When expenses really aren’t a hindrance, logistics might be. Get used to doing the simplest of tasks on your own, such as lugging your bag on and off the carousel, taking it up the stairs to the train platform, or even taking it with you to the bathroom because you’ll have no one to leave it with. Independence, other than being a mindset, is also found in the little, detailed acts of pragmatism. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Have the desire even, to experience hardships. If your intent to travel solo is to take a vacation, then you might find the reality to be terribly skewed, and an outcome of mismanaged expectation.

3. | Situational awareness is a must.

Travelers are often played out to be dazed wanderers, lost in the sunset or drinking in the mountainscape. But any lapse in self or situational awareness is an opportunist’s dream. As a solo traveler, the heightened sensations brought in by a new environment should be taken advantage of especially because there is no one else to fall back on in case of emergencies. In my case, I got robbed during a ferry ride on my way to Iloilo, a fault I can blame to no one else but myself. The romanticism of getting lost in the moment is broken by the practicality of a bigger priority, your security.

4. | There is no such thing as collective memory.

Memory isn’t duplicable, but it can be shared. In solo travel though, there is no one to take in that emotional glue with. No one can chime in when you talk about that drunken night in Catarman, or the missed boat ride in Samar. If you’re the type of person who takes pride in the inaccessibility of your stories, that might be fine. But unless you find a more permanent avenue to share your experiences, such as writing or photography, be prepared by the notion that there is no one specific you can relate your experiences with and to.

5. | You are energized by people, not by solace.

As an introvert, I adhere to Nietzsche’s belief that “loneliness is one thing, solitude another.” Traveling alone then becomes an avenue for me to listen to my own voice, without the noise and the many small compromises that have to be listened to in daily life. However, if you’re the type who is truly exhilarated by conversations, by dissecting activities with another at the end of the day, or connecting through any form of shared experience, then you’ll find more fulfillment when traveling with company.

While many choose to travel alone, the notion that it’s the singular way to do so defeats the very purpose of world-widening travel is supposed to bring. The notion that travel defines any person, even, is just an act of navel-gazing. To sharpen the edges of life, I would think, has never been dependent on the presence of warm bodies, or of none.