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Tuesday
Oct072008

The Happiness of Volutourism

University of Pennsylvania Professor Dr. Martin Seligman pioneered the study of what really makes people happy.  After recently reviewing a synopsis of his work, I was amazed by how well his conclusions fit my experience with volutourism.

In a nutshell, Seligman determined that there are three levels of Happiness: Pleasure, Engagement and Meaning.  Pleasure is the sensation you get from the obvious stuff like eating chocolate, seeing a new play or, well, participating in a certain other activity.  The good news about Pleasure is that it is, for the most part, cheap and readily available; the bad news is that Pleasure is fleeting.  Partaking of pleasurable activity does, indeed, make us happy for a moment.  Experiencing Pleasure, however, has little if any lasting impact on what Seligman calls our Authentic Happiness.

The next level of happiness, Engagement, is the satisfaction that comes from immersing yourself in work you love.  The difference between doing work and doing work you love is measured by how easily and intensely you get "in the flow".  By and large, Seligman explains, we get in the flow by doing things that we are naturally good at, but that also demand our full concentration.  For some, that's thinking through hard problems and for others its performing physical feats.  One way or the other, we've all been there.  (Unfortunately, for too many getting in the flow takes an avocation rather than the vocation that's paying the bills, but that's a subject for another post!)

The final level of happiness -- the one that has the defining impact on our Authentic Happiness -- is Meaning.  Meaning is what you feel when you are not only experiencing Engagement, but are engaged in something you perceive as being genuinely greater than yourself.  For me, I know when I am experiencing Meaning when my "self" disappears and I become "one" with the moment and those with whom I share it.

So what does all this have to do with Voluntourism?  Simple.  Voluntourism is one of the rare human activities in which an individual can experience ALL THREE levels of happiness at once. 

When it comes to travel, you have at the most basic level the pleasure of seeing and doing new and exciting things.  Riding a camel.  Beholding Mt. Everest.  Viewing the Dogon Mask Dance.  Eating your first Pan.  All of these new experiences bring pleasure and having such experiences are what tourism is all about.  It's what I call the "photo ops" of any trip because it's those things with which people back home can relate if you just show them a picture.

Sightseeing alone, however, does not often deliver Engagement, unless perhaps for the bird-watcher or avid photographer.  For Engagement on holiday, you have to take that golf trip to St. Andrews, Scotland to play the game where it all started, that surfing pilgrimage to Jeffreys Bay, South Africa for the epic right-breaks or perhaps those cooking classes at Lenôtre in Paris.  Whatever you're into, there's a place that will put you in the zone.

But what about Meaning?  Will that perfect  chip, carve or chiffonade really increase your authentic happiness?  According to Seligman, unfortunately not.  Remember: to achieve true and lasting happiness, one must be not only engaged, but engaged in something greater than oneself.  When it comes to travel, only Voluntourism offers this transformational opportunity.

Voluntourism delivers Meaning because you travel with greater intentionality and deeper purpose.  In other words, you travel not only to see and experience, or to do and absorb, but also to help and improve.  In the case of voluntourism, you see the sights and do the activities, but you also engage in activities that are greater than yourself.  Feeding the hungry at a Karma Cafe in India.  Dispensing medicines with a Mobile Medical Clinic in the Sahel.  Restoring war-ravaged monestaries in Nepal.  Playing with orphaned children in Ethiopia.  Any and all of these experiences can bring Meaning to an otherwise predicable tourist adventure.       

There's no telling the right Voluntourism trip for you.  That's up to you.  But I can tell you this: whatever cause or mission that ignites your passion, there's a place to go to become so totally engaged in something bigger than yourself that there's no way you'll find the experience meaningless. 

Next time you contemplate "getting away", think twice about a vacation that's just sun and beach or spa and shopping.  Add something more, because traveling with a servant's heart will reward you in ways that the photos will never show.  To see that, your friends and family will have to look at your face instead, where they will see calm, peace and contentment -- the manifestation of your authentic happiness. 

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