WRITER AND PHOTO | RACHEL WHITE
On the two-hour drive to the campground, I make my kids listen to talk radio. There’s a story about a Yale psychology class that was the most popular course ever. It’s called “The Science of Well-Being,” and it is a class designed to teach people how to be happy. It turns out that what we think of as “success” – having money, working hard enough, being smart enough to get into an elite Ivy League school, and prestige – isn’t enough. Americans are feeling more unsatisfied and unhappy than ever. In fact, we’re 18th in the world on the U.N.’s “World Happiness Report.”
As my husband honks his horn at the people driving under the speed limit in the left lane and the kids bicker in the back, I listen to the story, and a realization settles over me. It’s camping. Camping is the secret to happiness. Let me explain.
My takeaway from the Yale class is that there are some universal things that we can do to make ourselves happy.
Get a Good Sleep
Most people need about 7 hours of sleep to be happy. This is one of the best parts of camping: catching ZZZ’s. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from dropping into bed (or sleeping bags) at the end of the day, exhausted. Everyone is tired from being outside in the fresh air all day, which is a good thing. Sure, bedtime schedules go out the window with the kids staying up too late around the campfire, but the beds are cozy and dry, and we sleep hard with the northern Michigan night sounds as our lullaby.
Most people think that if they had more money, they’d be happier. Research has shown this to be untrue. People who have more time on their hands are happier than people who have more money. Our family’s got nothing but time in the summer, with long, lazy days in the sunshine. My husband goes to work, and we hang at the beach, sit and talk around the fire, read in the hammock, play dodgeball, dolls, pickle, or at the playground, or do whatever. My work has slowed down a bit, but that’s okay. It will give me time to enjoy more quality time with my family.
Spend Time With People You Love
Michigan in the summer is one of the greatest places in the world. It all comes down to this: It doesn’t matter much where you are, it’s who you surround yourself with. So we can live in a 1985 Bluebird bus for a summer and be as happy as the millionaire in the mansion just down the lake. I know I’m lucky; not everyone has it so good. My family is healthy and happy. I do work that I love. Our friends come to visit at the campground and we spend long nights around the campfire laughing and singing and burning marshmallows. Bottom line: Spending time with those you hold dear gives you more joy and contentment in your life.
Every day when we camp, we stroll down to the lake and go for a swim. We ride our bikes. We take long hikes through the woods and over dunes. Heck, we even have a walk to get to the bathroom. Physical activity is a common denominator for the happiest people in the world – it’s science. Moving your body releases all sorts of well-being chemicals in the brain.
I’ve heard this before: The happiest people are not the ones with the most to be thankful for, but the ones who are the most thankful. I’m so grateful for my life. I want my kids to be happy, too, so I’m having them write in a gratitude journal before bed. On grumpy nights it’s challenging, but they can always think of something.
As we pull into the state park, there is a collective sigh. My husband’s shoulders relax. After we park the bus, the younger ones jump on their bikes, and the older ones put up the hammocks and kick back.
Now to transfer these habits into my everyday life. Research shows that you need to change daily behaviors and thoughts for long periods to have results. Yes, it is sometimes a challenge, but then, I can be a happy camper all year round.
Want to learn more? The Yale class is now offered online for free. Just go to coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being.