SIX SIMPLE SECRETS OF HAPPINESS – Observations of a Wilderness Guide

Adventure travel is a fantastic way to see the world, get in on the ground floor to interact with locals, shake up your preconceived notions of what was possible, and bond with your travel partners. It’s also a fantastic study in human behavior, and I now feel that I can pick out a generally happy person within minutes of meeting them simply by seeing what they comment on when we first meet. Watching how they interact with others, how they approach obstacles, and how they treat themselves provides inside into the secrets of happy people.

1. Be Kind to Others
Those who are kind to others are the happiest by far. Their genuine concern often outweighs their own concern for themselves. You will find that others really react differently and will go out of their way to help someone who is warm and kind. Sometimes our culture idolizes strength and dominance, but most people don’t like to be on the receiving end of dominance.

Imagine you meet a stranger who immediately barks an order at you. You bristle because they seem to have a sense of entitlement that you should help them and they seem to believe they are so superior that they have the right to ask for help without any consideration for your feelings.

Now imagine you meet a stranger who says “Hey there, sorry to trouble you, but would you be able to help me with xyz?” They immediately give several impressions – 1) that they don’t assume it’s your job (even though sometimes it might be), 2) that you are gracious, and 3) you leave them some room to say they don’t know or to direct you to someone else. My experience around the world in many different cultures, is that this approach is far more effective to get things done, make friends, and garner support. You don’t ALWAYS have to be standing up for yourself, at least not until you have a REAL problem.

Learn your porters names!  They are people, too.

Learn your porters names! They are people, too.

I make a real effort to learn the names of everyone that works for me on my international trips, even when we have 10 porters with challenging local names, as well as key words and phrases in their native tongue to express appreciation. Small gestures, but I think some of these folks are not used to kindness from foreigners, so it can go a looooong way.

2. Be Grateful for What You Have
The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that wealth has a real dark side. In some of the poorest countries and regions, I have seen families that were all smiles and giggles when together, porters carrying heavy loads that were willing to bust into dance with me without an iota of self-consciousness, and young children playing with soda bottle caps with great delight.

Happiness is a state of mind, not a state of material accumulation.

Wealth, and the pursuit of wealth, seems to breed an unhealthy desire for perfect…whether in the structure of our lives, our partners, our clothes, even our food. Even though something may be so darn good already, there is always room for improvement, right? Just 5lbs less. Just a nicer car. Just a better apartment. Then I will be happy.

I have seen many clients ask for lots of customization with their meals in developing countries to make their culinary experience perfect (despite my warnings – generally these kinds of requests can be confusing and well meaning staff will get it wrong). When that meal wasn’t prepared exactly as they expected, they will often proclaim, “Oh! If ONLY it didn’t have the xyz ingredient, THEN it would have been perfect.” And they can be greatly unhappy with imperfection of a single meal and that unhappiness amazingly can seem to last for hours!

International trips are very perspective resetting.  When I return home, I always have renewed gratitude for a comfortable bed to sleep in, a safe environment, consistent electricity, and faucet water that I can drink and bathe in without a care.  We are very fortunate here in America.

3. Respect other Cultures
Other cultures are around us every day, you don’t have to cross any major seas to experience them. There are different ethnic groups, religious groups, differences across regions and even cities, and even gender can be considered a culture in my opinion. There are MANY different ways to react, to process, to address people and situations based on your cultural reference point. It can be quite jarring to barrel into a situation with your own perspective and no consideration for another’s.

In Tanzania and Nepal, it’s considered shocking for both men and women to show skin, many clients will ask again and again if it’s REALLY not OK to wear tank tops and shorts because they REALLY want to wear them. I feel as if I’m an overly strict parent by insisting that we respect the local cultures when I turn them down repeatedly. They are still adults and can do what they want, but I will not give my blessing. Why should we show up in someone else’s home and do things that are considered offensive?

Hanging with a family deep in the Makalu Barun region of Nepal

Hanging with a family deep in the Makalu Barun region of Nepal

Tread lightly, ask questions, try to understand, and where you cannot understand, try to respect…you might just learn something and others will react more positively to you. At the very least, you will not leave a trail of shock and dismay for your behavior.

4. Take Care of Yourself
Marytrism is a bad deal for you and everyone else around you. If you don’t take care of yourself, you become tired, cranky, overworked and generally unpleasant to be around. This is one of my greatest challenge areas that I’m working on. Even the simple act of doing a 10 minute meditation before starting my day on Kilimanjaro helped me feel far more focused and present. I have a great morning mediation from my coach, Gregg Swanson, which asks you to focus on ONE thing you want to accomplish that day. If we just accomplish one important thing each day, it’s amazing how far you can get.

When I was on Kili, every day I focused on being present and being kind to my clients. Sound weird that I’m talking about taking care of myself by focusing on my clients? It can actually be quite challenging on such a physically demanding peak to take care of yourself and be physically and mentally available to your clients. Their anxiety can be high and both the best and worst can come out of people on trips where they are far out of their comfort zone. In order to take care of them, I set aside time each morning alone in my tent to gather and focus my energy on them.

Working on my Zen on Kilimanjaro

Working on my Zen on Kilimanjaro

I give a big lecture at the beginning of each trip about how are are all a team now and have to support each other to meet our desired objective, but that a team is comprised of individuals who each need to take care of themselves to first in order to contribute to the team. Despite this, many and especially women, have great difficulty stopping a group to take care of something personal. Once such woman, after hiking down a very rugged section after the Lava Tower on Kili said, “I’m really hot and need to take off my jacket.” I said, “OK, let’s do it now before you overheat.” She protested, we hiked for 20 paces, and then she complained again of being hot. This time her tentmate said, “So why don’t we stop and take care of it?” She protested again, we hiked another 20 paces when she said something once more. This time I stopped and said, “OK, we need to address this now. Everyone take a break here.” Her response flabbergasted me – “Ha! I knew if I said something a third time, you would be willing to stop.” Far less drama and internal dialogue would have been necessary if she had simply stopped on her own. You don’t need to ask permission three times and receive a satisfactory answer in order to take care of yourself.

For more about putting your own oxygen mask on first…”Serious Self-Care.”

5. Avoid Blaming Others
It’s so easy to find fault in others or a situation if you are looking for it. Always having your negative radar on can be a major obstacle to happiness. This was very evident on one trip to Italy. Several of the clients had not read their materials nor heeded my advice to add stairs and stepmill machine to their training to prepare for their trip. I told each one over the phone that previous clients had said there were more stairs than they had expected (hence my recommendation to add stair workouts to their training). Once we were on the trip, several expressed concern about hiking along sea cliffs, the amount of stairs, and the warm weather. They were disappointed that I had not properly warned them.

We had numerous discussions about how the materials should be changed to properly warn people (although I was certain the materials did a good job, the customer is always right so I entertained all of their suggestions.) After the trip, I did a thorough review of the materials. Sure enough, there are descriptions of hiking up and down rugged trails, sea cliffs, numerous stone stairs and stair switchbacks, and suggestions to be prepared for hiking for 4-6 hours in hot weather. It’s easy to find fault when you are looking for it, whether or not it is there.

Instead, they probably would have had a much better time if they said, “Wow! Look at these glorious blue skies and sunshine we have and are blessed not to have any rain. And what a great workout hiking along dramatic sea cliffs so that I won’t feel guilty about my espresso, gelato, wine, and elaborate multi-course dinners.” Same experience with a different perspective can make all the difference in your happiness.

Hiking along sea cliffs

Hiking along sea cliffs

Beautiful village of Vernazza

Beautiful village of Vernazza

At the same time, you can’t be too hard on yourself. So what if you missed something or forgot something important…usually the only thing that’s the end of the world is death (and maybe a lost passport)! Things can be replaced or borrowed, schedule mishaps can be fixed, hikes can be cut short, meals can be reordered, miscommunications with friends can be repaired. So don’t blame others for your mistakes, but don’t blame yourself either. Just recognize the mistake, try to fix it, learn from it, and move on. You, and everyone around you, will have a much better time as a result!

6. Anxiety is Not Your Friend
Bad things happen whether you send countless hours worrying about them or not (and so do good things!!!). If you are afraid of flying, the plane probably isn’t going to crash and you may have spent 5 hours in agony worrying about it. And if you are worried that not worrying about a crash could actually cause a crash, let me assure you that your thoughts have little impact on the successful or unsuccessful outcome of a flight!

I have seen a lot of anxiety on the trips I have led around the world. Typically, what happens on a trip happens regardless of any one person’s worries. And often, when bad things happen, they are not so bad and are truly unexpected. It’s one of the great lessons that adventure travel teaches you – you can never be completely attached to an outcome, and you have to be mentally prepared for many obstacles along the way. This makes it all that much sweeter when you achieve your goal!

Being mentally prepared for obstacles and worrying about obstacles are miles apart. Being mentally prepared involves strength, flexibility, and a presence of mind to remain calm and think about options to solve an issue, as well as the awareness and acceptance that not all problems are solvable. Anxiety is a focus of energy on the thing you are most worried about happening, and in the end it often results in not being mentally prepared for any host of other things that many happen – your mind is far from a state of calm and focus.

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro from Mt Meru

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro from Mt Meru

Another story from Kili involves a woman who was incredibly fit and physically prepared for the trip, yet her anxiety level was off the hook. Her mind kept going straight to the summit, all the things that could go wrong along the way, and what she would have to say to people back home if she didn’t make it. Each night we did breathing exercises and a pep talk about how the only thing she had to worry about was putting one step in front of another each day. In contrast, another client was far less physically fit and was really challenged by the hiking each day. But she had no expectations about summitting, enjoyed the experience, and never stopped smiling. Every step and every day was a great gift.

In the end, they both summitted, but who do you think had a better time?  This is how I prefer to approach a big peak…If you can’t have fun and be kind along the way, it truly may not be worth it.  🙂

Serious Self-Care

The mountains have taught me many critical lessons that have enabled me to live life more fully and feel more confident to take risk.  I began climbing around 10 years ago and was formerly someone who always considered herself to be unathletic.  In school, I was truly the kid who was always picked last for dodge ball!  However, over time as I slowly built my experience, trained and ventured into bigger and bigger mountains, the most serious of which was the 5th highest mountain in the world, Makalu, in Nepal.

One of these lessons has been the importance of self-care.  First, the concept of self-care assumes that you have a certain level of self-awareness.  If you are out of touch with your body, or with your needs, it will be difficult to focus on self-care.  Mountaineering forces you to become very self-aware.  We preach eating before we get hungry, drinking before we get thirsty, and layering or delayering to regulate our body temperature.  Getting any one of these simple things wrong can cost you a summit or in the worst case in extreme environments, it can cost you your life.  Failing to regulate your blood sugar through food can cause you to “bonk” and not have the energy to make it to your destination.  Dehydration can accelerate or exacerbate Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms.  Either getting cold or getting sweaty can be a precursor to hypothermia as water pulls heat away from the body.

Even on mountains where supplemental oxygen is not required, we joke about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”  So much in mountaineering and in life is about team work. And women especially often fret about being a burden and will sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the group to avoid feeling like or being seen as a burden.

A 13 year old reminds me about the importance of self-care…

One such example occurred on a GirlVentures course I was guiding this summer.  GirlVentures is a inspirational non-profit that focuses on providing transformative experiences for adolescent girls through leadership, communication, and technical skill development in the outdoors.  This particular course was a 14-day backpack that included an ascent of an 11,000ft mountain called Mt Shinn, a technical canyoneering descent, rock climbing and rappelling.  Each girl gets the chance to try out a different role each day (leader of the day, cook, gear goddess, navigator) and on the day that we were ascending Mt Shinn, “Cindy” was the navigator.

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Mt Shinn’s approach is a difficult cross-country approach and the climbing, while easy second and third class, needed a great deal of attention.  To lessen Cindy’s stress of being navigator for the day, I gave her the instructions of being very aware of her surroundings during the approach.  We repeatedly turned around and looked behind us to see how we would figure out how to retrace our steps back to camp.  She seemed anxious but was taking it all in.

The climb was very challenging for Cindy who, like several of the girls, has a healthy fear of heights.  Cindy worked through each of the scrambling sections and areas with a sense of exposure with the help of the instructors and her fellow participants.  It’s a stressful thing to face your fear of heights at that stage, but Cindy seemed to be coping well.

Climbing Mt Shinn

Climbing Mt Shinn

On the way back down, we turned the leadership over to the two “leaders of the day” and to Cindy as navigator.  We hike towards the back to provide a controlled environment where the girls have a chance to experience decision making in the wilderness, communicate with each other, and start the long process of finding their leadership styles.

Cindy did seemed stressed that she felt getting the entire tired and hungry group back to camp was on her shoulders.  I began hiking closer to her and giving her tips along the way when we would see landmarks we noted on the way up.  She was very focused and seemed to be doing a great job.  We got back to camp with little delay and everyone began to focus on self-care – hydrating, resting, changing into fresh layers.

Soon one of the instructors ran over to me to ask for help with Cindy.  Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what.  Cindy was cold, shivering, and was breathing rapidly.  We performed a full assessment, helped Cindy find her dry layers to change into, and continued to encourage her to eat and drink to recover from the day.  Her respiration and pulse were high, but her oxygen saturation was also high.  Hypothermia is typically indicated with a low pulse rate, and altitude sickness would usually be indicated by a low oxygen saturation rate.  We were perplexed, especially as Cindy’s respiration would get back in control when we would doing relaxing guided imagery or controlled breathing with her.  I began to suspect that Cindy was actually experiencing anxiety likely caused by initially getting cold, having low blood sugar, and being overwhelmed by this new uncomfortable physical experience.

One of the instructors and I stayed with Cindy through the night, calming her down when she woke up in a panic.  All of her vitals began to return to normal as she realized she was going to be all right.  I told Cindy what my theory was and she confided that she had felt so much stress and pressure from the challenge of navigating the group back to camp, that she hiked much faster than she had energy for and didn’t stop to eat, drink, or change her layers.  She arrived into camp physically and mentally exhausted and never uttered a peep until her anxiety was well on its way.

Put on your own oxygen mask first!

Cindy’s primary concern was that I would tell someone about the trouble she caused that night and that it might make her ineligible for the next level of leadership training.  Cindy and I had a long talk about what it means to be a leader and be in a position with responsibility to others.

First, you must take care of yourself and communicate your needs. Just because you are in charge of leading a group does not mean you are a superwoman and no longer have basic needs.  Stop the group, stop what you are doing, and tell them what you need and then do it without apology.

Second, you are serving as a role model for others to take care of themselves.  How many mothers do you know that run themselves ragged taking care of others but then tell their daughters how important it is to take care of themselves?

Third, Cindy DID become a burden on the group that night.  Two out of four instructors had to provide their undivided attention on one person, taking them away from the other ten girls.  It likely would have taken less than 15 minutes to take a break during the descent to eat some more food, drink some water, throw on a warmer layer and admit that she wanted more help with the return navigation.

Cindy seemed to digest all of this feedback, but we also encouraged her to share her experience with the rest of the group and ask for help learning this life skill.  The group was AWESOME.  Instead of being annoyed with Cindy for having shown vulnerability and having a tough time, they rallied around her and over the coming days when we did difficult things like the Helms Creek descent, they kept asking her how she was doing, when was the last time she ate, etc etc.  She would giggle each time but seemed to appreciate the well meaning reminders.

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Moms, don’t forget you are a role model for self-care!

I mentioned that mothers are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to self-care.  Just a couple of months ago, I ran a custom backpack for a girlfriend of mine from business school.  “Kristy” is your typical overachiever and right after getting her MBA she completed an Iron Man – she’s a tough cookie!!!  Fast forward 10 years and Kristy is now the mother of two kids who returned to work two years ago and is killing herself to prove she is still a competitive professional.  She’s gained weight, doesn’t have time to train, and wanted a goal that would inspire her…hence, the idea for a backpacking trip that would culminate in the non-technical ascent of one of California’s “14ers”, Mt Langley.  [A “14er” is a mountain above 14,000ft in elevation.]

It’s a beautiful area, but Kristy had not been able to make time to train, and she suffered on the way up to our camping spot at 11,000ft under the weight of a full backpack for the first time.  We went slowly and she struggled to control her competitive self which said “Go faster!” but then her fitness would say “Go slower!”  We worked hard on finding a comfortable pace, but it seemed like she had a lot of trouble with self-awareness and kept apologizing, illuminating the fear of being a burden.

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

I convinced her we should go as far as she could could go – no pressure!  We set off Saturday morning to the flanks of Mt Langley and a very slow and measured pace.  Slow and steady wins the race!  I would say, listening to her breath to try to gauge the pace right.  If she was ever in front of me, she would keep pushing a bit faster and faster until she had to stop to catch her breath.  I shared with her my theory that after being a mother for so many years and putting others’ needs before her own, she may have lost the art of self-awareness.  Surely she had needed to hone her self-awareness when training for and completing an Iron Man, but that was years ago.  Could she remember how to tap back into her own needs?  She cocked her head, thought about it, and agreed there could be some basis to that theory.

I decided to take over the pacing and keep encouraging her up to the top of Mt Langley at a super slow pace.  I would point out when we would get passed by someone (usually a guy) going faster but then we’d pass him as he had to stop and catch his breath.  One of those guys turned around because he was feeling altitude sickness.  Kristy and I continued on at our nearly agonizingly slow pace, but we made it to the top!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Kristy since then has made comments about how I can get anyone to the top of a mountain, but it really comes from years of experience in self-awareness and how the body reacts to physical activity at altitude.  Kristy was mentally tough and really listened – she had faith that if she kept putting one foot in front of the other, she would get there and she did it.  It was really hard for her, but listening to her body and finding a pace that would not burn her out or bring on altitude sickness was the key to achieve this major milestone.

The next time you are racing toward some goal, whatever it may be – personal, professional, physical, intellectually, don’t forget to take a moment to think about what you need to nourish and care for yourself.  You’ll be more likely to reach your final destination and feel good about it!

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

If you are interested in seeing the live version of this talk presented in Bend, OR at the SeriousSuccess Motivational Series for Women, check out the YouTube video below: