A Journey For Happiness: The Man Who Cycled To Bhutan

We’re all on a journey in life and we shouldn’t be surprised to meet many lovely, friendly, helpful, wise, and supportive people along the way. People you meet on your journey will often connect you with other people who they think you’ll grow to like and love. There’s a certain magic in the way this happens, and we should embrace the magic. 

I had to think back carefully to recall the magicians who connected us way back in 2014, but I’ll never forget meeting Christopher Boyce for the first time at a conference in Stirling, Scotland.  I immediately recognised him as a friend and a fellow journeyman. Little did I know at the time that Christopher would undertake the most amazing journey ever, just a few years later, when he cycled around the world!

As with many powerful moments of connection, I recall the event in Scotland like it was yesterday.  I had facilitated collective intelligence on a project consulting with Irish Citizens, where we had asked citizens and wellbeing experts to identify key objectives that should be included in a national wellbeing index for Ireland. Although the work was somewhat academic and abstract, it did eventually feed into a bigger conversation on the way our government plans to embed wellbeing objectives and measures as part of national policy and project work going forward. Christopher was interested in this work and he was also working on a range of projects and publications that highlighted the limited benefits of money and wealth as a means to achieving greater happiness.  In the bubble and buzz of conversations, I also heard from others that Christopher was living a very frugal life.  He spent a lot of time living in a tent in the hills outside Stirling.  He cycled everywhere on his bike and he was taking on the tough challenge of a vegan diet, while also pushing out hard with his research and academic work at the University.  Christopher was clearly very passionate and principled, and he was clearly a lovely fellow, but I could sense he was often hard on himself as he tried to live up to his own principles and as he battled to get his message out on the fundamental perils of materialism and the pursuit of GDP and economic growth as the primary purpose of human systems.  Human systems are complex and wellbeing is not easy to achieve, but Christopher knew that the worldview of governments had been tainted and misguided by the dictates of economics. He understood he was facing an uphill battle.

Not long after visiting Stirling, I invited Christopher to Galway to present his research to our psychology and economics students and staff.  His talk was a big success. But even if I had not intuited it before, Christopher made is clear to me when he visited Galway that he was not happy.  He was not happy with his work, his life, and the societal systems he was operating in. This was no simple dissatisfaction with one aspect of his life – it was a deeply-felt unhappiness with his connection and place in the universe.  Passionate and all as Christopher was about vegan food and cooking, I did cajole and joke with him about trying out the deep-fried battered mars bars with his non-vegan girlfriend in Scotland. While he laughed and got the joke, and while he understood why I joked and cajoled, I could see that humour alone was not going to jolt him out of his unhappiness. Something bigger was afoot, and I could sense Christopher was on the move. His vision may have been slightly clouded at the time, but deep down I could sense he had plans for significant life changes.  The journeyman would not sit still or stand idly by in the face of his existential unhappiness.

It was a few years later, in 2017, when the news came through: Christopher planned to quit his job at Stirling University and cycle around the world – he was going to cycle from Scotland to Bhutan!  It is hard to fathom the courage that this decision involved, never mind the strength of spirit and tenacity to see it through.  As far as I was concerned, Christopher had elevated himself to the status of hero.  But the real story of every hero and heroic journey is that there is pain, challenge, frustration and countless problems and difficulties to face.  As he set out on his long journey, which took 18 months and covered more than 20,000 kilometers, Christopher could not have anticipated all the pain and challenge and frustration and the countless problems he would face.  Overcoming his initial embarrassment, he began documenting his journey in a series of blog posts as he travelled.  His posts were humbling to read and as I followed along, I empathised and grew to love Christopher even more.  Through layers and layers of pain and anxiety and doubt and challenge, Christopher slowly but surely transformed.  This transformation occurred not only during the 18 months of cycling and journeying — all the hours reflecting alone on his bike and connecting with many different people and places and adventures along the way — but also when Christopher returned to Scotland.  When he returned, it took him time to decide, but we’re so glad Christopher decided to write a book about his adventure – A Journey for Happiness: The Man who Cycled to Bhutan

This book is a masterpiece by any standard and every standard.  It transcends the genres of academic text, autobiography, and travelogue by transporting us to a new place – a place where the person meets the world and embraces the whole of their reality.  The reality of their past, the reality of the world systems that shape their life, the reality of what science tells them and what science helps to achieve, and the reality of all the different people and places they connect with on their journey. By taking us there with the fullness of his personality and the honesty and authenticity of his perspective, Christopher allows all of us to journey to this new place, too.

Christopher travelled south on his bike from Scotland through England, France, and Spain, across to South America, up the west coast of North America, through Canada, traveling west across the North Pacific to Asia and continued south west through Vietnam all the way to Bhutan. As he set out on his journey, Christopher had a purpose: he wanted to create a journey with happiness at its core. He wanted to understand how other countries value and experience happiness and wellbeing, and how they create cultures and societal infrastructures to support happiness and wellbeing. He wanted to learn about Bhutan, a somewhat mysterious country that has eschewed international economic agendas to develop its own model of governance oriented toward the happiness of its citizens.  And he wanted to go slow and connect, leaving a minimal carbon footprint, so he chose his trusty bike as his mode of transport. He prepared in advance by learning every aspect of bike maintenance, and he planned carefully as he packed his camping equipment and only the essentials needed to sustain himself. And throughout his journey, he also kept a log of his spending and his experiences from day-to-day, including his emotional experiences, which he subsequently charted in his book.

As an academic immersed in the science of wellbeing for many years, Christopher understood how to coordinate his purpose with this world of science. For example, as documented in his book, he was aware of significant variation in reported happiness and wellbeing across nations. He wanted to visit places and connect with people in countries that are not completely dominated by economic, GDP, or growth-oriented models of wellbeing. He documents with great joy his time in Costa Rica, and all the wonderful people there, who share a national pride in being able to live happily and healthily with less. He travelled through Canada, which is culturally unique and distinct from the United States of America (where Las Vegas left Christopher feeling ill).  Like many other wellbeing researchers, Christopher was aware of how Canada has fashioned one of the most progressive wellbeing measurement systems and he wanted to learn more.  And then there was Vietnam, which Christopher describes as one of least underdeveloped countries in the world if we adopt a broader lens of wellbeing measurement.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book for me when I was reading was the way in which Christopher was learning and developing as a person on his journey.  Central to happiness and wellbeing science is the person and their connection with others, and of course the places and societal systems we fashion are critical for understanding how happiness and wellbeing are experienced. In his own process of development, Christopher has to transcend many of the constraints to happiness and wellbeing that have been shaped by his life history and the systems he has lived with. 

In the early stage of his journey, his past experience and the presumed expectations of society provoke a great deal of anxiety, sadness, and embarrassment.  Christopher is embarrassed to talk about his journey, he is anxious about leaving his job, and he is sad about the state of his relationships with others and his broader feeling of disconnection with the world around him.  But he grapples with these feelings and learns to understand their deeper roots, and thus gains a new perspective that transcends many constraints.

As he cycles through South America he learns how to let go of the destination: he comes to understand how goal-driven behaviour and his own expectations in relation to goals have often been an unnecessary source of frustration, anxiety, and unhappiness. It comes like a revelation when he sees this clearly and truly understands the nature of this source of unhappiness.  He also learns what it takes to deal with crisis, after being bitten by a dog in a remote area of South America, and having to make his way to the nearest town, navigate alone the available health services and obtain a rabies shot while being extremely ill and in great pain.

Beyond theoretical and empirical accounts of the psychology of wellbeing, Christopher also describes the reality of becoming more present focused or mindful, and listening to the full range of his emotions – from joy to anxiety – and learning how to respond.  Again, discovering this newfound mindfulness is a critical milestone in Christopher’s development on his journey.  He also brings to life and makes clear through his honest reflections on the ups and downs of his journey that any such process of development in far from linear – we cannot expect too much of ourselves are assume that newfound understanding or skill will always serve us well.

It is later in his journey, and after the crisis of the dog bite and other challenges that Christopher, who inherently values independence and competence, begins to really and truly lean into people’s willingness to give, share, and help. He fundamentally learns to appreciate this and he sees how it operates in Costa Rica and elsewhere. He starts to slow down and share more of himself, and he starts to open up to other people and the world and connect in a new way.

As he slows down, leaves go of maladaptive goals, becomes more mindful and connects more with other people, he also starts to connect more with the world.  He begins to appreciate nature in a new way – in direct contact with its beauty and wonder.  This is something fundamentally different from valuing the environment and having goals focused on reducing one’s carbon footprint.  This is about wonder, beauty, life, and connection with land, sea, sky, stars, the Universe and the road ahead.

As he travels through North America, he also comes face-to-face with the stark reality of societal system designs – recognising the extent to which the economic and social system encourages mistakes. He has a visceral negative response to the Las Vegas experience and all that is represents for him. He has to move on swiftly, but he reflects on the nature of the underlying societal designs.

As he travels on, Christopher digs deeper into his life and learns more about what it means to face personal life trauma.  In parallel, he is learning to unconditionally accept all before him.  Moments of transcendence and bliss merge with insights and new perspective that begins to consolidate.  Throughout, Christopher shows his authentic self and he somehow transmits to his reader something more than is documented in the book itself – he transmits and prompts a deep sense of compassion and humanity and love.  While Christopher moves forward to the next stage of his journey, back working in Scotland while also visiting and talking with people about his book and his journey, he appreciates now how his actions are aligned with a deeper life purpose.  As for me, his friend, cajoling and joking with him about battered mars bars, my most striking sentiment as I finished the book – lying on the bed in an apartment in Lanzarotte back in April at the end of a tough academic year – was that Christopher has truly provided a wonderful gift to the Universe.  And now the Universe will return the gift.  

Christopher, you have a home in the universe wherever you go.  You are deeply loved and we are very grateful to you for sharing your journey with us.

* * *

Christopher’s book can be purchased here, and you’ll find reviews of his book here. I hope you have a chance to read it on your journey.

All-focus

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