On #DonnyThings | A Rant on Finding Happiness in Life

The sun rises of Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture

“Are you really interested in such things?” she asked me, blinking her eyes a few times in bewilderment at my inquiry. In my mind, the question had not been all that out of left field or anything. I mean, what traveler wouldn’t want to ask how the syncretic union of Shinto and Buddhism interplayed with the Suwa clan’s long honored Ohori tradition? What’s that you say? You have no idea what I am talking about? Well, so that we’re at least all on the same page, you should know that the locals would ritualistically evoke the spirit of their deity into the body of an eight year old boy who would then go on to serve as the Ohori (meaning high priest). To avoid going too far off on a tangent though, let’s just save explaining about the Ohori for another time and get back to talking about my query. After all, it wasn’t really all that odd, was it?

All joking aside though, I am very aware of the fact that I’m into some very weird topics considering I am a white male foreigner living in Japan. In fact, I regularly surprise many Japanese people with the types of topics I like to cover on this blog (and my close friends like to occasionally give me a good heckling for it too). Comrades who know me well, like Tourism Oita’s Yuko Yamasaki, are now numbed by my eccentric interests. Still, I can see how my passion may seem rather peculiar to others. Honestly though, I am not quite sure myself why I am so engrossed by the things I am. Perhaps it has to do with my long-held yearning for adventure and exploration? Regardless, while I cannot clearly specify the exact reasons why, I am my most ecstatic when I am chasing down lost narratives.

On that note, instead of covering another one of Japan’s seemingly endless hidden gems today, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about finding happiness in one’s life. Truth be told, when I sat down to write, I had been planning to hammer out an entirely different piece but the words just won’t come right now. You see, just moments ago, I finished listening to a podcast on the topic by Justin Nault, my trusted health and wellness coach. Though he is an extremely talented and driven dude, I think that we actually see surprisingly eye-to-eye when it comes to how to find fulfillment and contentment. Put simply, the sensation of joy that once experiences is nothing more than a neurochemical reaction taking place in the brain. Therefore, all one really needs to do is take control of the process, right?

Of course, this sounds easy enough to do on paper. Anyone who has lived even a single day on this earth can tell you, things aren’t really that simple. Society, friends, family, and lovers all have competing opinions on what they think you should be doing with your life. For example, many of my friends say that I should figure out some way to become an entrepreneur and monetize my travels. The problem with heeding their advice though is that each person has their own individual wiring for the aforementioned neurochemical process. In my case, I know that this wouldn’t make me happy given the multiple headaches involved in managing a business. If you seek a good life, you will need to remain ever-vigilant as choices resulting in neurological bliss for one can result in sheer misery for another.

While I’d encourage you to always hear out the counsel of friends and loved ones, you also need to take given advice with a grain of salt. After all, chances are high that their value matrix is vastly different from yours. While they undoubtedly mean well, following their advice may lead to you forfeiting the very things that make you happy in the first place. This is why so many people feel absolutely miserable after achieving what society defines as the trappings of success. For example, Bob may be a millionaire CEO yet secretly, he wants nothing more than to spend time with his two kids at home. Though he may be quite accomplished in the eyes of others, his achievements don’t jive well with his unique, individual wiring. Predictably, the result is nothing but neurochemical anguish.

Shockingly (sarcasm fully intended), figuring out what you actually value isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Through many bouts with existential angst, I’ve come to learn that my circuitry best fires on all cylinders when I am out in the field, sweating my ass off as I chase the trail of new narratives that I’ve uncovered. If I am not regularly traveling, I quickly become a neurotic mess. Don’t believe me? Ask any of the folks I associate with most! Alas, though they look appealing on paper, financial gains and a practical career just don’t light me up like exploring new locations. Try as I might, I simply cannot derive pleasure and motivation to pursue such things and because of this, the most I can hope for is a decent position that is synergistic with regular travel.

An ink painting of a man in Japan on a boat with some cherry blossoms

Getting back to the idea of happiness, know that the problem at hand is even further complicated by there being more than just a single type. In fact, according to the ever-insightful, Tom Bilyeu, positive experiences can be divided into one of two categories. The first of these is the sensation that you get when eating a bowl of ice cream or when feeling a breeze on your skin. While it’s amazing, it’s also transitory and one’s neurochemistry soon returns to baseline. The second type of happiness is more akin to those like Jordan Peterson whereby “meaning” is often inexorably linked to personal growth. Unlike the fleeting enjoyment one gets from hedonic pleasure, this category of happiness has far more staying power.

These days, many in the startup and self-development world champion the second type of happiness while damning the first. In my mind, this is a recipe for misery. You need a certain amount of base pleasure in life so that your own DNA doesn’t rebel against you. Luckily though, when you really sit down and think about it, the things that bring the most pleasure in life are often either cheap or entirely free. What follows are some of the things that bring me the most happiness. I’d wager that you, the reader, share many similarities regarding what makes you smile too.

  • Time in Nature
    Sometimes, I find myself deliberating whether my love for all-things travel is little more than a thinly guised excuse to surround myself with nature. I love the sounds of the trees rustling in the wind, the sight of towering crags, etc. Honestly, wonders like these alone almost make life worth living in and of themselves.
  • Regular Exercise
    Neurochemistry is king and it’s really hard to be down in the dumps when you have over one-hundred kg worth of metal plates loaded on the bar. Whenever I neglect going to the gym, I’m apt to find my life devolving into an alcoholic’s worst nightmare.
  • Fun & Leisure 
    I am a lifelong gamer. I can think of no better way of unwinding after a long day than tinkering around with whatever video game is currently capturing my attention. When I don’t make time for leisure, I find that I can’t properly decompress after giving it my all.

Truth be told, I’ve found that when I’ve neglected to regularly engage in any of the above, my life tends to go completely off the rails. Like I said, you need a bit of transient pleasure in life to keep yourself sane. Yes, meaning and purpose are important but sometimes you just need a bit of frivolous fun, especially after a difficult day. At the same time though, note that things like blissfully sipping a Piña Colada on the beach aren’t on the list. While I hate to break it to you, such activities do not contribute to a recipe for happiness. Instead, these options are little more than advertisements for overpriced vacations that do little to numb the existential pain.

By the way, in light of all of this, you should know that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want in life. On the one hand, I realize that I have the potential to become one of the best digital marketers in Japan. At the same time though, I am utterly uninterested in putting in the work to get there. Though I do get some pleasure from the pursuit of knowledge, it’s just not what I want. Sure, helping people solve their problems is fun but actually getting deeply mired in doing their marketing at the expense of travel would make me very unhappy. Instead, lame as it may sound, I try to view myself as some sort of traveling sage (think Gandalf) who imparts insightful marketing wisdom and then vanishes before it becomes yet another responsibility.

Long time readers may recall that I authored a piece titled Rejecting My Ikigai during the closing months of 2018. In it, I outlined why I decided to not pursue making a living from my audience and why I opted to not work as an inbound travel consultant. Instead, as I wrote in the article, I opted to remain at the marketing agency where I’m currently employed so that I could maintain a low stress role that would allow me to focus all my spare time and energy on exploration. Unfortunately, the countless days of little to do have done nothing but sap any enjoyment that I was getting out of life. As it turns out, humans beings truly only find fulfillment in life when they are struggling towards a goal.

While nothing is final yet, I’ll likely be making a big change in the coming months in case you’re wondering. Though I’m still adamant that trying to make my own business will drive me insane, I am also coming to realize that I cannot ignore my destiny either. There are few others in the travel industry who possess both the marketing prowess and knowledge of Japan that I do. By not heeding the call, I am short-changing the world of possibilities while polluting my own soul. As such, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to team up with like-minded thinkers and doers if I am truly committed to putting Japan’s hidden gems on the map. Stay tuned for more updates in the near future…

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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