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The key to a happy holiday? See nothing at all

Most of us are most happy, after all, when we’re most absorbed in something, and forget the time
Most of us are most happy, after all, when we’re absorbed in something, and forget the time Credit: Credit: Andrew Twort / Alamy Stock Photo/Andrew Twort / Alamy Stock Photo

In Bhutan, I pulled back the door to my terrace and stepped out into the morning light. The sun had just shown up above the mountains and kids were scuffling their way through the muddy streets to school.

Their mothers were banging the dust out of carpets, hanging laundry out to dry; from a radio somewhere, a scratchy folk song tricked long. I set the novel I was reading next to my cup of tea, felt the sun wash down on me - and realised that I didn’t need to see another thing in the Land of the Thunder Dragon to feel complete.

What made this doubly surprising was that the city all around me, Thimphu, wasn’t so astonishing. I’d spent three magical, silent weeks in Bhutan 28 winters before, at a time when there were almost no cars in the entire country, not a single television set and very few visitors.

It had felt then like stepping into a chapter from the world’s youth. Now, the jampacked streets were crammed with iPhone stores and Japanese restaurants, new hotels and bars.

'One of the happiest moments I can remember was in Havana, when I walked along the Malecon and saw nothing much at all' Credit: filipefrazao - Fotolia

Pure joy to most of the Bhutanese - but not, perhaps, to someone who’d flown thousands of miles to get away from all of that. And yet none of the clamour could take me away from the simple feeling of joy, sitting out on a quiet terrace, and the realisation that I didn’t need to be anywhere but here.

We all know that happiness is not a function of exoticism; you can find it, if you’re in your right mind, at home. I’ve seldom felt happier than in a Catholic hermitage - though I’m no Catholic - only three hours from my longtime home in California, or just turning off the lights in my living room and putting on some music.

Travel for me is really just a kind of conversation with an interesting stranger (who happens to be a place), and that new acquaintance doesn’t have to be a millionaire or a supermodel to engage me. Indeed, I’ve often felt most unsettled in a poster-perfect Bali or Hawaii.

But these days, more than ever, part of the joy of travel comes not from where you’re going, but from what you’re leaving behind: in an age when the boss can reach you round-the-clock, the phone is buzzing at 1:16am and there’s scarcely a moment when you’re not reminded of Brad Pitt’s divorce or your friend’s Instagram photos of her latest dinner, travel offers a chance to be liberated from all that, and remember who you are.

One of the blessings of that hermitage I keep returning to is that, for 72 hours, I know that no email can find me, no phone will ring and I won’t see a single traffic jam.

Most of us are most happy, after all, when we’re most absorbed in something, and forget the time; and most of us are least happy when we're all over the place, scattered and distracted.

Travel offers all kinds of commotion and panic - in the airport, on the 11-hour bus ride around hairpin turns; but, freed of the distractions of home, it often reminds you of what you really care about. Not being able to get online in that hill-station guesthouse is a frustration - until you realise it’s a rare chance to forget about Trump for 10 days.

Happiness is not the same as excitement or exhilaration, let alone ecstasy; one of the happiest moments I can remember was on a sunlit, silent morning in Havana, when I walked along the great seaside corniche, the Malecon, and saw nothing much at all.

'Many of my other happiest memories have been the opposite of extraordinary or life-changing' Credit: Alamy

Many of my other happiest memories - watching the city come to life every morning at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, rattling along the deserted coastline in the Mani in a bus, just sitting in a garden on a warm summer evening in my hometown of Oxford - have been the opposite of extraordinary or life changing.

They’ve simply reminded me how much is in the ordinary, if you’re settled enough to see it. Happiness is not something you look for, but what emerges when the looking ends.

In that regard, I suppose it’s fitting that the first moment of travel happiness I recall comes from Bhutan. It was that remote Himalayan kingdom that gave us the notion of “Gross National Happiness” 40 years ago, reminding us that the richest man in the world is a beggar of sorts if he’s impatient with his seventh marriage and upset because the second richest man in the world is catching up with him.

Bhutan gave us the notion of “Gross National Happiness” Credit: anandoart/anandoart

There’s one set of values by which we measure our livelihoods, another by which we gauge our lives.

That’s often the aspect of travel that’s most startling, in fact. We walk through the rubble of a street in Port-au-Prince, grow dizzy from the honking commotion of Calcutta, and then notice that the locals around us seem more full of life and even delight than the people we know at home who seem to have all the comfort and peace in the world.

Today brings the International Day of Happiness, created by the United Nations in conjunction with the World Happiness Report.

For me it could as easily be called the International Day of Travel. Both happiness and travel, after all, are ultimately about transport: get the chance to step outside yourself - if only away from breakfast, the wallpaper, the to-do list you know too well - and a quiet morning on a terrace can seem at least as dramatic as any roller-coaster ride at Disneyland.

Pico Iyer is the author of many books about travel, from Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul to, most recently, The Man Within My Head.

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