Finding Happiness In The Highlands

My roommate and I had known each other for approximately four weeks when we booked our trip to the Highlands. It was one of those last minute trips; the kind that people picture when they think about studying abroad. We found a tour company, booked the trip, and waited in restless anticipation for the week to end. I had heard great things about trips to the Highlands and I googled picture after picture of the towns we were going to stop in to try and create some vague mental picture of where exactly we were going. After a few hours researching and daydreaming, I decided that the Highlands were a hybrid of a sublime painting and The Shire (note: the Highlands were far more beautiful than anything I could ever imagine). The morning of our trip arrived and my roommate and I left our dorm at the crack of freaking dawn, slowly but surely making our way to the designated departure location. We stood outside of the tour company’s store on the Royal Mile amidst groups of families, couples on romantic getaways, and a few of the classic solo adventurous travelers. The name of our tour was announced by some official-looking woman with a clipboard in her arm, and we made our way around the corner of the building, following our tall and lanky tour guide all the while.

Christie and I got on the tour bus (it was much smaller than I had anticipated) and we surveyed the rest of our group. The demographics were thus: Christie and I (the two Americans), one blonde woman (nationality unknown) and about twelve people from unspecified Asian countries. And then there was our Scottish tour guide, Rolland. After Rolland made sure everything was squared away he climbed into the van and took a look at the group. I’ll never know for sure, but Rolland seemed almost amused by the disproportion in the demographics of the van. He asked us where we were from (turns out the blonde was American, too. Her name, I kid you not, was Jolene. Like the song.) and after concluding the introductions he pointed to a huge map of Scotland that was taped to the curved part of the roof above his seat. “This” he said, pointing to the mid-east, “is where we are. Edinburgh.” He moved his finger north. “And this is where we are going.”

Before we continue, I should probably mention that when I turned 20, I developed this obsession with happiness. Not the kind of happiness that you get when you finally beat 2048 or when someone offers you a non-judgmental second piece of cake, but the kind of happiness that Buddha, or Jesus, or the Universe or whoever would want you to have; the epic, mind-blowing, life-altering kind of happiness. When I wasn’t reading or memorizing paintings for my Art History classes I was always watching TED Talks, reading articles, and doing everything I could to figure out what this so-called concept of “happiness” was. I’m not quite sure why I started this pursuit, but I nevertheless became the Indiana Jones of Happiness. The summer before I went to Edinburgh I searched for happiness in breakfast next to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, in the narrow streets of Venice, in speaking Greek with a shopkeeper in Athens, in my backyard in Oslo. I searched for happiness in the smallest gardens and the largest plazas, but to no avail. I certainly considered myself a happy person (and, moreover, I felt incredibly fortunate to search for happiness in some of the most beautiful places in the world), but I wanted—no, I needed—to know what the formulaic composition of happiness was. That was the Holy Grail, the big kahuna, the ever-present question on my lips. After a few weeks in Edinburgh, I thought I found happiness in getting lost while trying to find Princes Street, in taking tequila shots with some guy from South Africa, in being a pseudo-groupie for The Dark Jokes, a band my friends and I met at a bar called The Blind Poet.

And then Rolland comes along. Rolland: the Scot who was almost always wearing two sweaters his mom knitted for him. Rolland: the guy who never failed to have me on the edge of my seat as he told us historical fun facts, taught us drinking songs, and told us fairy tales. Rolland: the man who kindly forced my roommate and me to scale some pretty dangerous cliffs to catch a better glimpse of a shark. Rolland, I soon realized, was the kind of person we all want to be—okay, maybe it was just who I wanted to be. Rolland was fearless in every movement and every emotion, he was incredibly passionate about life, and he was almost uncommonly kind. On top of these qualities, Rolland also had an impressive travel record; he told us stories about the time he was almost attacked by a hippo in South Africa and the time that he lived in France for a while (where, incidentally, he met his perfect French girlfriend). Rolland was, and likely still is, the friend everyone wants to have.

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Photo by Sergei Solo on Unsplash

On the last day of our trip, Christie asked Rolland a simple question: What would happen if our bus broke down? Somehow this question evolved into a discussion of happiness, and Rolland, now seated back in the driver’s seat, told us another story. “I get a lot of different kinds of people on my tours,” he began. “Some of those people are very, very wealthy and they come out on these trips to relax. But they aren’t ever really relaxed, you know?” He glanced back in our direction to make sure we were following. “So—take a banker, for example,” he continued, guessing that we weren’t exactly keeping up with where the conversation was going, “they work tirelessly and constantly. Then, for vacation, they go to their summer house in Spain and drink away the stress of their job. But, still, they have a lot of money. Then there is my job: I’m certainly no banker and I definitely do not make a banker’s salary. I don’t have a house in Spain. I do, however, get to meet some pretty great people and I get to drive through the most beautiful place in the world. But I don’t make a lot of money. So, you tell me: Who is the happier man?” We never did answer that question.

It has been more than seven months since I was in the Highlands and Rolland’s question continues to haunt me. Happiness is subjective, of course, so how are we to know who was the happier man? But since Rolland’s final story, I’ve started to realize that maybe happiness is not really something that you experience in perfect linearity; it is not some permanent state of nirvana that, once achieved, lasts into infinity. Maybe the point Rolland was trying to make was not that happiness is securing the job itself, but that securing the job may not lead to security of happiness. Happiness is as fickle and unforgiving as Scottish weather; it changes constantly, it is unexpected, it comes and goes as it pleases. Happiness is easily lost and, if you’re not careful, you might only catch a glimpse of it before it’s gone. Perhaps what happiness is then is the stitching together of moments; it is having dessert for dinner in the Isle of Skye, a 3 a.m. encounter with a superhero in Dublin, a perfect dinner at a French restaurant. Perhaps happiness is the combination of catching moments by the tail and then having the perseverance to chase after the next moment. In any case, happiness is most certainly an adventure, and I have Rolland and the Highlands to thank for that.

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