I first came across the phrase ‘experienced wellbeing’ in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The psychologist and Nobel Prize winner uses it to explain some facts about happiness, the most intriguing of which is that a person’s level of happiness increases with the amount of money they earn – but only up to a household income of $75,000 (£46,000) per year. After that, the increase of wellbeing in relation to increased wealth is, on average, zero.
In plain language, a multi-millionaire isn’t much happier than a person earning $75,000 per year. He may be more ‘satisfied’ with life in general but his ‘experienced wellbeing’ – that is, how happy and content he feels on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis – is roughly the same as his less wealthy counterpart. I’ve thought of this concept several times over the past few months. I had a good life in London. I had a huge family that I laughed with lots, a partner that made me feel safe and loved, an interesting and challenging job at Penguin Random House and, that pinnacle of London residency, property a minute away from the tube. Despite this, I rarely stopped and thought “I feel so happy right now.”
Travelling through London’s subterranean abyss for two hours every weekday, dealing with rush hour rudeness, breathing air that wasn’t clean, eating food that wasn’t fresh, yearning for sun that rarely shone all had an effect on my experienced wellbeing. I love London, I really do, and I will return to her rusty spires I’m sure, but two months into our trip of a lifetime I’m struck by the frequency with which I feel happiness, whether it’s sailing though stunning waters, waking up to a beautiful view, or doing something that truly scares me.
I feel wonder and awe more frequently than I ever have before. Yesterday, it was looking over a first edition of Treasure Island in Robert Louis Stevenson’s home, the one in which he lived and died. Today, it was rushing down the Papase’ea sliding rocks in Samoa. Tomorrow, it will be something new.
I know this isn’t real life. I know it can’t be sustained. Even if I had the means to travel forever, it would eventually cease to be novel. It seems obvious to say that the best thing about travel is that it makes you happy, of course it does, but the frequency with which it does so – the increase in experienced wellbeing – is, empirically, worth more than a million dollars. So, while I’m sure the romance and novelty of the road will wear off, two months in it feels like the best decision I ever made.