What I Learned about Happiness…and the Only Things You Need to Have It

Being on the Appalachian Trail was the happiest time of my life. For 7 weeks I had emotional ups and downs, physical pain, loneliness, self-doubt, hunger, fear (only one day, luckily), concern for others, financial struggle, fatigue…and some other things. But despite those very normal human issues, I was happy to wake up every single day, happy doing the day’s work, happy to prepare food and fetch water and clean up camp, happy to go to bed with a full belly and adventure filling my soul.

Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy! Standing against the shelter South of Mary’s Peak in Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.


I can honestly say that while I was out there, the people I met may also have been the happiest individuals I’ve ever met, anywhere, consistently. Of course there are grumpy people you come along as in the rest of life. But really, people were so full of joy on their journeys, even when they struggled to overcome personal and geographical obstacles, all the time. Having heard the stories of how people came to the trail and what their motivation was to achieve their personal goals, I know not everyone was a trust fund kid, not everyone had a family who cared what they were doing, not everyone had a reliable food source at the next town, not everyone had decent gear.  Not everyone had any semblance of happiness or joy before they got out there and risked whatever it was they risked in the mundane world to get to the place of magic – where the trail is alive and people who give you junk food and rides are angels, and the voice of the universe is in the rustling of leaves, and the fire god keeps you warm and the rain god refills the springs to quench your thirst.  Out there a big chunk of our joy came from a common feeling of being lucky, of having the outrageous blessing of courage, to have chased a dream and caught it, every single day.

My life now, having returned to and immersed myself in the mundane world of the city, isn’t so bad. Actually it’s good. I find myself each and every day using something I learned out there on the trail.  I’m not amongst the fatherly oaks and motherly magnolias, no bears or deer are popping out to peer  into my spirit, and no sweeping vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains are waiting for me around the next turn.  But I walk every step of that hike as I drive for work, or prepare food in a kitchen, or talk on a cell phone…even now as I type instead of using a pen and paper.  Here are some things I learned on the trail that were elements of my happiness then and now…stuff I use as I check tasks off a list and go about my business as a professional woman in a mid-size city.

All you need to be happy.

1. Less stuff.  Oh you minimized? Do it again. The less stuff you have, the less dumb work you have to do to maintain it (cleaning it, looking for it, organizing it, questioning its validity in your life). If you only have a few plates and one pan, that’s all you have to wash.  Less: clothes, decoration,  appliances,  things to please other people with, electronics, fewer  (less of all this also equals more money for financing real fun).

2. A good pocket knife. On the trail you know the value of this. I carry mine every day and use it to cut rope, veggies, flower stems, you name it. My SOG is one of my closest companions.

3. View. If you have a nice view from a window in your house, or a special place in your yard, or pictures of your adventures (past and future plans), you don’t need a lot of other things to occupy your space. You also get spiritually reinvigorated when you look at nature…Take a walk around your yard and pay attention to all the little plants or ant hills or rock layers you’ve never seen before.

4. People to share with. Social beings need interaction. Even introverts. We all need people to have normally functioning hormones and neurotransmitters. We need people to learn from and to teach, to support and supported by. Humans give each other purpose and camaraderie and there is absolutely NOTHING like sharing experiences with people. I miss my trail friends…we endured something together.

Me and Moxie at 4Pines Hostel. She’s awesome!

5. Organization/Cleanliness. I don’t mean germ-free spic and spanned sterility (that’s bad for your immune system). I’m talking about a sort of organization you develop out there where things have their place because it’s easier to find when you need it. Things are cleaned before being packed and put away because it’s one less thing to do when you are exhausted, hungry, and thirsty and need to set up camp. Maybe systems is a better word…however, getting too stuck in a system is dangerous so be flexible…because there could always be a better system for you to discover.

6. Purpose. Mission. Goals.  What’s your motivation for getting through a stressful day? What about a stressful week? On my 4th day hiking I met Believer who told me, “It’s gonna hurt for a few weeks. Don’t give up, just keep going and it WILL get better.” And he was right. I had a purpose, a mission, a goal. And now that I’m off-trail I have them for my urban life. A big one is figuring out how to get to my next long distance hike and still have a job when I get back. But sometimes I make a goal for the day or the week and remind myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that sometimes in the beginning, it’s gonna hurt (like this past week!).

7. Water. Duh. Clean water that doesn’t taste or smell like chlorine or calcify your pineal gland with fluoride. I haven’t totally figured this out in the city, at least not until I’ve saved enough to get one of those Burkey filters (however it’s spelled). But in addition to just having life-sustaining water to drink…a hot shower is something I will never take for granted again. You get used to being dirty and sweaty all the time but those rare showers in hostels are some of the greatest moments on the trail.

8. An adventure within reach. Everyone needs something to look forward to. Always have that. Even if it’s just lunch with a friend or a trip to your favorite bookstore, make it special by giving yourself something to explore or check out if you’re not out on a grand adventure. But have a grand adventure in sight, too!

First Day!
First Day!

9. Regular, frequent exercise in Nature. It is where we’re meant to be, how our bodies and brains are designed to live, where we hear inspiration and perhaps this is where we FIND OUR PURPOSE… The Earth has everything we need to live happy, healthy, connected lives. The happiest people I ever met were outside doing something, not indoors on treadmills (*there is nothing wrong with cardio equipment, it just shouldn’t be the only place you get physical).

10. A tiny space to call your own. I was one of the rare hikers who preferred to set up my tent every night over sleeping in the shelters. Mostly because I enjoy having a little place where I can just be alone, reading, changing clothes, meditating, planning my next day, or whatever. Usually people don’t knock on your tent door unless they know you very well or need some urgent assistance. It was fun to meet other hikers at shelters, eat and sit at the fire with them, but my tent was my other sanctuary. Now that I’m in the city, I chose the smallest room of the house for my bedroom because it’s kinda like a tent AND it prevents me from acquiring too many ‘things.’ Keeping it simple.

Rainbows on the Rainfly.
Rainbows on the Rainfly.

11. Functional beauty. This is important to me because I really like things to be aesthetically pleasing. But because I don’t want a bunch of things around that only serve to be pretty, I try to make sure that everything I have makes my eyes happy. I could decorate my room with my hiking gear because I like how it all looks (well I guess the cookpot isn’t really sexy). My shoes and shirt and boots are bright, my pack is a beautiful teal color, my utensils are made of bamboo. I love art, and I think if a piece invokes a strong feeling or strikes your heart chords just by looking at it, then it’s serving a function. But I’m really selective and would rather spend a bit more money on something amazing then a little money on a bunch of so-so junk. So along with functional beauty comes quality over quantity.

12. Awareness of your blessings, small and big, of the most normal things such as a blue sky, of the amazing thing such as accomplishing a huge goal. When gratitude is your mentality, when you feel lucky to be alive and doing whatever it is you do and being wherever you are, you are automatically a happier and better version of yourself.

Ok well that about sums up what I was thinking about as I cleaned my stove after dinner.


2 thoughts on “What I Learned about Happiness…and the Only Things You Need to Have It”

  1. Catching up with your postings. Love your happy list…..May you always be surrounded by those things that bring you joy. Love you.


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