Building a Happy Life: 6 Thru-Hiking Lessons to Help You Out
by Carlie Gentry
“Happiness is a how; not a what. A talent, not an object.” –Herman Hesse
I could have started this out with an elaborate, all inclusive definition of what happiness means but Herman really hit the nail on the head. The feeling of happiness is an incredibly relative experience. I am not talking about fleeting feelings here. I am talking about something bigger, wider, deeper. I am talking about the art of crafting a life that is an overall enjoyable endeavor to undertake.
Okay, that’s cute, but how does one ‘how’ happiness in to their life? Easy. (lie) Look at it like a thru-hiker. When was life ever simpler, and when was it ever easier to make you happy
A hot shower?! Bingo!
A hotdog at a road crossing?! Lotto winner!
Making it to a mouse infested shelter nearly full of wet-dog smelling thru hikers on a day of constant rain?! Heaven!
We all want to live an ideal life in which we do not feel ruled by uncontrollable factors, but to do so we must effortfully meld our lives into what we want them to be. To do this, just remember what it took to get you to the end of the trail, and follow the same steps!
The Building Blocks of Happiness:
1. Honesty With Oneself
What does your ideal future look like? For me, back when I was standing on Springer Mountain, that was an easy question – it looked like Katahdin. But once I was back, I had to do a lot of soul searching about it. (Yeah, I know. We all thought we would figure it out on the hike, right?) For me, time is happiness. Working two jobs, days where I am on the clock for 14 of the 17 hours I am awake make up a large portion of my week. Things like going for a run, reading, or writing for fun fall way down on the priority list. (Not even food and showers typically make it on the priority list for me on those days.) So when I decided to ‘get happy’, I knew I needed to cut out the insane work days.
If you’re ever going to make it to the end of a thru-hike, you have to compromise a lot. You have to trim the material fat in your life, and then do it again and again. You have to give up all the comforts of life. Maybe worst of all, you have to keep going. In the rain. In the mud. In the snow. Just keep walking.
Likewise, one can’t frolic forever in life. As good as I am at skipping showers and laying under the shade of trees along the side of a dirt path, I have to have a job. But it is MASSIVELY important to your happiness to like your job. Not hating your job is nice, but it helps so much to actually like your job. I like my main job as a gear nerd at a major outdoor retailer. We all have to do things we don’t fully want to (like have a job), so why not try to tailor them as much as possible into something we would willingly do? If for some reason you hate your job, do yourself and the people in your life the major favor of getting out of there!! It’s a bummer to hate your job, and it’s also a bummer to listen to a loved one constantly complain about the job they hate.
3. A Goal and a Plan
On the Appalachian Trail, the goal is Katahdin and the plan is solidly mapped out for us by a fellow named AWOL. Just walk. Pinpointing an ideal life and putting it into action is a big task. Keep in mind that small steps can be big accomplishments. I recently put in my two weeks at my secondary job. I hardly work 18 hours a week, but because I go to sleep at 8pm to wake up at 4 am, I am robbed of well over 30 hours a week due to this job. Those hours I lay in bed trying to convince my body to sleep when the sun’s barely even down are also my prime writing hours. Ditching this job will open up time for soul-satisfying tasks like late night writing and early morning runs. My personal plan extends only to the immediate. Part 1 is to be satisfied on a daily level. Part 2 is to save money for the next adventure. Part 2 will take a lot longer because of Part 1, but I will be a happier person for it.
4. Hard Work
This is maybe the most recognizable thru-hiking attribute on this list. It takes a lot of finagling to point your life in a new direction and begin to see some forward movement. It takes a lot of mind power to lay out a plan and make those big decisions that are crucial to seeing progress. It takes a lot of grunt work to set things up, because life is often a game of cause and effect. Between accepting the job I had been pining over for months, keeping one for extra cash flow and finishing off the responsibilities I had at another, I worked three jobs for a while and learned the true meaning of misery. (I thought I had learned this during the week I hiked through knee deep snow in the Smokies but at least then I didn’t have to hold in my griping and smile the entire way through.) But in order for the pieces to fall into the correct places, I had some stupid-long work days that make me think 14 hours isn’t so bad.
Put a hiker on Springer with enough gumption and a little bit of luck to not break any bones, and in due time they will be standing on Katahdin. Likewise, paint your portrait, set your goal, write your plan, start doing work and in due time, you will see a change. I completed the Appalachian Trail in August – and I am just now seeing that a version of life that I have written for myself is a possibility. I will not be waking up to the crow of a rooster as the warm sun cascades into the window of my farmhouse and wakes me for my daily chores of feeding the animals and harvesting fresh veggies. No, I haven’t mastered that level of happiness in life yet – but it is a life I have nonetheless purposefully created for myself. Eight months in the making, but I’ll take it!
Constructing a life for yourself where you can do more of what you want does sound a bit selfish. It is, really. So is taking six months out of your life to hike the AT. But it’s the sort of thing that ultimately brings more good (i.e. positive energy) back around into the world. I can’t imagine living in a society where being overworked and underpaid wasn’t the norm, but I bet it would be a lot more satisfying place to exist!
The Extra Part: Suckiness
As a finishing remark, we all know that things suck sometimes. The trail is beautiful and a thru-hike is an incredible journey, but it often sucks. It’s like they say, the best things in life are worth the effort. So for when those times come on your trek to happiness, I leave you with Thich Nhat Hanh’s elegant way of saying “fake it ‘til you make it”:
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” –Thich Nhat Hanh