On Being Happy With Being Content

by Brenna Holeman

Happiness 7

So incredibly happy at Machu Picchu, Peru

I once went to meet an ex-boyfriend for coffee. I cared just enough to make sure I looked as good as possible – I may have even lied and said I was going out to a party later, despite the fact that I was really just going back to my hotel. We chatted about the things you chat about with someone you used to know so well – “do you still listen to that band?” or “did you ever finish watching Arrested Development?” – and, of course, about the bigger things, the jobs and accomplishments and new partners. I, of course, painted everything with a glossy sheen: “I’m so excited, I’ve just booked a one-way ticket to Thailand and I have no idea when I’ll be back. Things are just fabulousssss” or something along those lines. He hadn’t travelled much, and was working in a job he described as okay. He was living with a girl, one he had dated for a couple of years.

“So, how are you, really?” I asked. We had only dated for a short time, but we always had a strong bond; at that time, he was one of the only guys I had wondered about after we broke up, wondered if there could have been something else between us. He shrugged, stared into his coffee for a pause.

“I guess… I guess I’m content.”

I don’t remember my outward reaction to this statement. It must have been a smile, or a “cool”, something noncommittal. Inside, however, I was laughing gleefully. Nobody wants to be content. Content is boring, simple, plain. Content is acceptance of the mediocre. Content is finding a life that’s “good enough”.

Happiness 4

Loving life on the road in Cambodia

Fast forward a good four or five years and I’m sitting in my flat in London. I have had many, many moments of extreme happiness in my life, and I am grateful for them all: scuba diving with great beasts in the Galapagos, riding on the back of a motorbike with Cambodia’s pink skies as my backdrop, hearing the call to prayer for the first time while sitting on a rooftop in Istanbul, dancing like crazy on a Colombian dance floor, all those family dinners, those moments of personal achievement in school and work that have peppered my life. They are the highest highs I can think of. So many of my happiest moments have happened on the road, or with my family. But now I live in London, a stable, settled life. I am thousands of kilometres from those I love most. Although my career and my passion allows me to travel frequently, they are usually short holidays. And so, sitting in my flat in London, I found myself missing the high.

“I don’t know what is wrong with me,” I’d say to my mum over Skype. And it’s true – how much more could I possibly want or need? I have a great network of friends, a lovely flat, a career that allows for a disposable income and lots of travelling. I’m healthy, and so are all of those I love. I’m completing a degree I really enjoy. I’m dating. I have fun hobbies. I have had an incredible run in life so far. Then why, so often, am I feeling a sense that I’m missing something? That there’s something else out there?

Happiness 6

Not sure if really happy or just really drunk in Thailand

This is perhaps the curse of someone who has travelled frequently, or someone who often dreams of travelling. Travelling, in many ways, is a series of highs, of rushes of adrenaline; there is always something new, always somebody new. There are new sounds and tastes, new experiences. Even with the occasional bad day, life on the road is nearly always exhilarating, challenging, and fulfilling. I’ve mentioned before that I’m addicted to travelling, obsessed with it; it’s not a joke. What I believe I’m feeling when I get those pangs of emptiness are forms of withdrawal, of missing the action-packed life I’ve lived before. I don’t want to sound insensitive when I write this – I understand that to claim this means that my life has been pretty goddamn wonderful. I understand that to complain about feeling sad for not being able to travel all the time means my life is probably one of the most fortunate on the planet.

But I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way, especially amongst other travellers. This is nothing novel, of course; people talk about post-holiday depression all the time, and I fervently believe it to exist. Since leaving Brazil at the end of 2012, the end of my last big months-long adventure, I fall into pockets of craving more out of life. Certain trips – a few weeks in Africa last year, for example – give me that prolonged feeling of happiness, that glow that comes from your wanderlust being satiated. But it is a temporary high, and before I’d know it, I’d be back in London and looking up flights again. Forget chasing the dragon, I was constantly chasing the cheapest ticket out of town. For most of us, however, it is nearly impossible to maintain a nomadic life all the time. Physically, financially, emotionally, it can be draining.

Happiness 1

In London, England

One of the biggest lessons I learned last year then – my first year living anywhere permanently since 2009 – was to learn how to be content. Not only that, it was to learn how to be happy with being content. I’ve often written on this blog how much I love living in London, and it’s true: I love the friends I have here, the endless things to do, the feeling I get when I walk down the street with all the big lights and the big sounds. Most of the time, though, my life is just… normal. 95% of the time, it doesn’t measure up with that first time I heard the call to prayer in Istanbul, or any of the other experiences I listed above. As stupid as it seems, it’s taken me over a decade of adulthood to realise that that’s okay. That normal is okay. That I don’t always have to be planning something spectacular, as most of my 20s were consumed by a constant state of travelling or planning the next adventure. Normal – going for coffee and cleaning my flat and having meetings and buying birthday cards and reading on the tube – is pretty nice. Being content is pretty nice.

So while I will probably always have itchy feet – in fact, I can safely assume that I will never, ever cure myself of the wanderlust that whispers in my ear every day – I can now at least understand what that means. I can now understand that it is completely impossible to feel those highs all the time; hell, I’ve written before how much travelling can suck sometimes, and how travelling doesn’t necessarily guarantee a constant state of happiness. It sounds ridiculous, but for a long time I thought that I could only be happy when I was on the road, when every penny I earned was spent toward that lifestyle. 

Happiness 2

Happy days with work

I now understand that I have control over the happiness in my life (again, I’m aware of how lucky I am to be able to say that). And one of the best things I’ve discovered recently is that I can be happy with being content. Content doesn’t have to mean boring, simple, or plain. Content can mean at peace, fulfilled, and in control. One definition of content states that it is to be in a state of perpetual happiness; another defines it as being free from desiring anything more. I’ll never completely stop desiring anything more, nor do I think any ambitious person could, but I love the idea of finding that peaceful state of being. I love the idea of not relying on the huge highs that travelling gave me in order to feel like I am living.

Maybe I don’t often have those jaw-dropping, heart-exploding, crazy moments of happiness like I did when I was dancing on the beach in Thailand or seeing an African elephant in the wild for the first time, but I’m finding different happiness here: writing a paragraph I’m really proud of, going to art exhibits with Isabel, discussing books and movies with Gabriella and Claire, almost (almost but not quite) beating Matt at darts, sharing my life over coffee with Ali. And just as much as I loved those moments on the road, I love these moments, too. I also know that when I do travel again, be it for a few days or for a few years, I’ll understand the happiness I feel on the road a little more, appreciate it a little bit more; it will balance the happiness I now feel at home.

It’s true, I’ll probably always be my very happiest with the wind in my hair and a backpack on my back, but that doesn’t have to stop me from being happy with the life I’ve created here.

Happiness 3

Happiness with friends in Kent, England

And if those itchy feet ever become truly unbearable, well… I did just find a really cheap ticket to Montenegro. And another to Tunisia.

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Helen January 9, 2015 - 2:17 am

Love this Brenna. I feel EXACTLY the same way!

Think we need to discuss this in a few weeks! xxx

Brenna Holeman January 9, 2015 - 2:41 am

Yes! So excited to be each other’s Valentines. xx

Meggie Kay January 9, 2015 - 2:42 am

Great post! It’s something I often wonder about. At 24, I feel like I’m just starting. I used my first one-way ticket a few months ago and I’m doing what I can to avoid going home. But I wonder if I will always keep this up or will I be happy one day settling down a little and find happiness in a place I can call home.

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:08 pm

Don’t worry, you will definitely be happy. I think it takes some getting used to, but as I said, it’s also really fun to find a balance between settling and travelling. I think it makes appreciating all aspects of life a lot easier!

Katie January 9, 2015 - 3:11 am

So true. Contentedness is a quieter kind of happiness, not as big and showy but just as important. It’s easy to remember the days on the road for all the amazing experiences but of course, as you said, it isn’t always amazing – same with every day life. It has its ups and downs. I think that if you can appreciate the small stuff like a great cup of coffee or laughing with a friend then you can appreciate a settled life somewhere peppered with travel

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:10 pm

Totally agree with you Katie! Thanks for your comment…

Beatrice Chartrand January 9, 2015 - 3:56 am

Having just returned from two weeks in Peru and being back at work this blog post is perfect timing for me. I am a teacher and I travel on every holiday so 3 to 4 times a year. I now live in NYC which is more stable than Singapore the place I lived for 5 years before moving to NYC and closer to my family. I can really relate to your reflections in your post. Thank you for putting so eloquently into writing the thoughts that go through my mind. I love your blog.
A fellow travel addict 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:10 pm

Thank you so much, Beatrice! I always appreciate your comments and it’s really nice to know that someone relates.

Sarah January 9, 2015 - 5:23 am

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I think it comes naturally with age/experience. I’m experiencing similar thoughts and feelings, sometimes even when I’m on the road. Once the novelty of the wild elephants and packed bus rides in company of chickens, kids, banana branches ect wears off, it’s hard to accept that this is now your ‘normal’. Like you said, where has the exhilaration gone?
What is normal to you is probably not normal to others. What you describe your life to be like now, is probably extremely exciting to many other people. Same goes for me, I feel like I’m leading a normal life compared to other times in the past even tough I’ve just moved to Ecuador with very little concrete plans. This has become my normal. I still have to learn to accept ‘content’. Enjoy Montenegro, it’s such a fab place. Try and visit Albania while your there; 100% worth it! 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:12 pm

I totally agree with your comment… what’s “normal” to me may be totally exciting to someone else. I always think that about other people’s lives! And I will definitely go to Albania if I can, I have heard such amazing things.

Rebekah January 9, 2015 - 5:27 am

This is such a lovely post. I think you have such a clearer view of travel then a lot of travel writers. Especially the reasons why we love travel and that we need more then just highs in our lives. We need some normality and continuous relationships. I hope to eventually settle into a life I feel content with.

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:13 pm

Thank you so much, Rebekah! That is really kind of you to say. I agree that we need normality in our lives sometimes…

Jayne January 9, 2015 - 6:23 am

Replace London with Sydney and you have exactly where I am at right now. Wish I could explain it as eloquently 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:13 pm

Thank you so much, Jayne! I love hearing about your new life there. x

Jodie Taylor January 9, 2015 - 7:16 am

Great article! It’s always interesting to read things like this for me as I have a lot of the same feelings. I’ve been “stuck” at home the past 2 years doing some further study and admittedly it has been challenging at times and I can definitely sympathise and wholeheartedly agree on a lot of the points you made and I think you are right – someone who has travelled a lot will probably never completely dull that nagging voice that leaving is the answer. I guess as with most things in life – it’s a process and you will always change and grow out of things and find new ones to replace them. I keep saying I’m having a “quarter life crisis” as I’ve hit a point where none of my values/ideas/plans from the past 5 years make sense any more, but perhaps that is just a part of edging closer to 30 :/ Xx

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:23 pm

I did definitely feel a change over the past couple of years (I’m 30), so that might be the case! Thanks a lot for your comment, Jodie, I know how it can feel to be “stuck” somewhere. Here’s to lots more travel in your future!

Melody January 9, 2015 - 8:13 am

The Travel Bug is biting again.
I get bored and want to go see something new, but being unemployed simply does not allow for much travel. Lots of time, so little money.
What I have found that works for getting the Travel Bug off my back is to go on a road trip. Driving for hours on end is certainly not for everyone, but I love it. My last road trip was a 2100 km tour around Lake Huron (Canada/USA), with a two day 592 mile train ride through remote Northern Ontario. It wasn’t the cheapest vacation, but it was far less than flying to Europe.
Last summer I went to Chicago with three friends. The train ticket was $26 one way.
Sometimes all a person needs is to get away from home, but I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be all that far from home. Chicago is only 6 hours from home, but it was far enough.
One of these days I’ll make the 4 hour drive to Niagara Falls and be a tourist in my own backyard.

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:24 pm

I totally agree with you about doing backyard travel – whenever I’m feeling restless I try to go to a new part of London, or take a day trip to somewhere close by. I love doing road trips, so I’m jealous that you have access to a car!! Thank you so much for your comment, Melody.

Melody January 11, 2015 - 7:32 am

I live 30 kilometres outside of a small (pop 75,000) city, it’s a 5 km trek to the nearest store. Everyone out here owns a vehicle out of pure necessity. I put at least 30,000 kms on my truck every year. I would never trade my out-in-the-sticks country life for a city. Bonus of owning a truck means that I can so easily pack up and go camping, and take my bicycle with me.

Shey Draw January 9, 2015 - 8:44 am

That was a great post.

While reading it, it reminded me of an article of addiction I read not to long ago. You’d be amazed about how many things one can become addicted to when the brain in constantly producing the right adrenaline and dopamine chemicals! Thats why i think post travel blues is so prominent, your brain isn’t constantly being stimulated with new, new, new, so the brain chemical highs stop.

I’m happy you recognized the problem and the solution. content can be a good thing. 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:18 pm

Thank you so much! And I believe that it’s a real thing, I imagine you can get addicted to anything. I have certainly felt post-holiday depression more times than I’d care to remember…

Thanks again for your comment!

Taylor Hearts Travel January 9, 2015 - 9:49 am

I adore this post, Brenna! You’ve managed to explain exactly how I feel with such ease and clarity. It’s reassuring to know it’s not just me <3 x

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:16 pm

Thank you, Char! I like knowing that others can relate, too.

Alison January 9, 2015 - 10:10 am

yes to this. I’m such a restless soul and like to mix things up a bit with a change of scenery. I’ve done a lot of longterm travelling but have been back home in liverpool for two years now and up until recently I felt a constant pull to get on the road again asap. It must be age (I turned 30 this year) that’s contributed to me actually wanting to feel settled and content at home rather than take the nomadic route… with as much travel as possible thrown in there as well 😉

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:20 pm

I feel the same way… and I also turned 30 recently! Maybe it is the age when we start to want different things, although I also like to think that age isn’t anything but a number. I think, for the most part, I’ll be happiest in a settled life with, as you said, as much travel thrown in there as possible. 😉

Katrinka January 9, 2015 - 3:13 pm

I totally get this– the travel addiction and the tenuous acceptance of being content. It’s a balancing act! But the most important thing is that you’re happy in your life. So you’re doing well, Brenna!

And I’ll totally follow you to Tunisia… 😀

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:16 pm

It totally is a balancing act! And, um, want to plan a trip to Tunisia with me?!

Katrinka January 11, 2015 - 1:09 am


Brenna Holeman January 11, 2015 - 2:32 am


Amy Lynne Hayes January 9, 2015 - 4:11 pm

Again, something I can relate to entirely!! As a former expat who spent the last 7 years chasing the international dream, I among back in my home state of Florida… not a bad place by many’s standards, but a bit too “safe” for my tastes. I thrive on the challenge of foreign places and new experiences. But, I’ve learned to look at it as a new sort of adventure, and to appreciate the benefits that a little stability will bring. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be checking all the cheap flights to the Caribbean. 😉

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:28 pm

Yes, I totally agree! I think it’s okay to feel restless, as long as we, as you said, appreciate the benefits that a little stability will bring. Here’s to checking flights! 😉

Ashley January 9, 2015 - 4:41 pm

Great post, Brenna! This line really resonated with me- ‘I love the idea of not relying on the huge highs that travelling gave me in order to feel like I am living’- and it made me realize that I definitely rely on the highs that come with travelling to make me feel that I’m actually living instead of merely existing. I guess it’s one of the reasons travel has become such an addiction.

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:28 pm

Totally – I am so addicted to those highs! Thank you so much for your comment, Ashley.

Jacquie January 9, 2015 - 6:23 pm

Brenna I looooove this post.

I would definitely describe my life as “content”, but sometimes it feels like such a negative thing to me. I feel like we’re bombarding with social media and articles telling us that each and every day should be AMAZING and if it’s not then we’re clearly doing something wrong. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve cried more times than I can count on days that are just “neutral”. You know, that FOMO feeling.

In reality, I have an amazing partner who makes things like grocery shopping fun. A beautiful Burmese cat who loves to play with me every day. A great job with awesome coworkers that make me feel glad when it’s Monday morning. Not to mention the face that I’ve just paid off $23,000 worth of debt and will now be able to finance 2 international trips per year.

But on one of those regular rainy Tuesdays where you have a headache and are eating the same boring thing for lunch, it’s hard to remember the big picture.

Thanks for reminding me, and for making “content” sound so much more positive in my mind 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:30 pm

Thank you so much, Jacquie! Your life sounds wonderful – I’m jealous of many aspects of it, which just goes to show that what we have can always seem really exciting to somebody else. I think it’s great to try to make every day amazing, but it’s also realistic to realise that some days will just be kind of… blah.

Thanks again for your comment!

Anna January 9, 2015 - 6:54 pm

I love this post for so many reasons, but especially because your gratitude is so evident. I’m glad to have discovered your blog 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:14 pm

Thank you, Anna! I really try to be grateful every day.

Nina January 9, 2015 - 7:18 pm

The timing of your post couldn’t be more apt for me. I’m currently in my second year of living abroad in Spain, and while the first year it was an adventure I’ve now fallen into routine and comfort due to being here for so long. And I feel like I’m not satisfied. For me personally, I realize that part of me seems to be unable to be happy in my environment, but it also stems from a lack of internal happiness. But I also appreciate your pointing out that it’s because as travelers who are constantly hopping around we get hooked on that high of a new culture, new setting, etc. Now I can understand my sense of dissatisfaction a bit more. Thanks so much for expressing this so clearly!

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:31 pm

Thank you for your comment, Nina! It’s nice to know that different people can relate – even people doing something as exciting as living in Spain!

Nadine January 10, 2015 - 1:07 am

Such a beautiful post! As someone who has recently returned from an amazing adventure (walking for 5-weeks on the Camino de Santiago in Spain!), I’ve been restless and unsatisfied since I’ve returned home.

I often tell myself: my life is great. I have a good job. Good vacation time. Great friends and family. Health. Hobbies. Love for life. But it hasn’t felt like enough, I’m craving those ‘highs’ that I had on the road.

This post is such a great reminder to appreciate life: all of life. I’d like to think that at the end of my life, I’m going to look back on the travels and adventures AND the every day joys (coffee and Netflix and brunches and dancing to music in my kitchen) and love them equally. And recognize that they both gave me unbelievable happiness.

Thank you for this reminder. 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:34 pm

Thank you so much, Nadine! I love your last statement: that every moment in life, the super exciting and the “normal”, can both bring unbelievable happiness. All the best to you!

Anna @ shenANNAgans January 10, 2015 - 1:23 pm

What a brill post, it sure is nice to know I’m not alone feeling the way I do. 🙂
Where did you find the really cheap tickets to Montenegro and Tunisia?

Brenna Holeman January 10, 2015 - 5:14 pm

Thank you, Anna! I always look up my tickets on Expedia. 🙂

Gemma @ Fleeting Planet January 10, 2015 - 7:14 pm

It’s so easy to get into the cycle of excitedness/happiness/withdrawal that comes from planning trips, living them and coming home again. I appreciate and agree with much of your post, as these are things I’ve experienced and I’ve had to learn after coming back from a massive trip how to appreciate the little things. If I’m always off in my head planning a future trip, it means I’m not appreciating the now.

But even my regular life is amazing and it took me a while to live/be in the present and be content and appreciate what I have. My regular life is pretty fantastic. Even on terrible days, I still have moments of total perfection; the first cup of coffee in the morning, or being able to delve into a beautifully written book.

I still appreciate and love the joy that comes from seeing something so outside my normal life experience that I’m genuinely made awestruck, but I can appreciate the other moments in between.

It’s been so interesting to read your thoughts on this and to see I’m not alone in thinking this way.


Brenna Holeman January 12, 2015 - 4:57 pm

Thank you so much for this comment, Gemma! I agree – if I’m always thinking of the future, and where I’ll travel, I miss what’s around me here and now.

Rachel January 11, 2015 - 12:15 pm

I’m pretty sure any traveller out there could relate to this post, I sat here nodding to everything!

Contentment is such an ethereal thing, I find it really hard to pin down. I am aware how content I feel when I’m travelling, but any long period of settled-ness and the discontentment starts creeping in, and you are right it’s a vague emptiness, a longing for ‘something else’.

Brenna Holeman January 12, 2015 - 4:56 pm

Aw, thanks a lot, Rachel! I agree that contentment is an ethereal thing, and very hard to pin down or define.

Scarlett January 12, 2015 - 12:03 pm

This is such a great post! I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who feels restless really easily, I lived in Sweden last year and it was beautiful and I loved my life there but it didn’t make me any less restless, I still wanted to travel as much as possible. I’m so glad you like London though, it’s such an exciting city!

Brenna Holeman January 12, 2015 - 4:55 pm

Thank you so much, Scarlett! It is always nice to know that someone relates.

Umang Trivedi January 21, 2015 - 6:06 am

You know, each of your travel pics virtually took me on a trip to different countries. I am not sure why I didn’t discover your blog until now. Looking forward for more posts. I also have a travel blog and you have surely inspired me to travel more and write about it! Cheers!

Brenna Holeman January 21, 2015 - 3:41 pm

Thank you so much! That’s such a nice comment. Have fun with the travel blog, it’s such an amazing hobby/passion! 😉

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