I was miserable until I was thirty-four.

I kept searching for happiness in all the wrong places. I felt like I was missing out on what my life was supposed to be about.

I was trapped in the city I lived in and in the life I had created for myself (more about that in this story). I couldn’t find a way out. I had a million excuses for why I couldn’t improve my life. I didn’t have the money, the time or a place to go. I couldn’t leave the country because I had a new boyfriend, a new work assignment or a new apartment. There was always something.

Happiness was the mirage in the desert, always just ahead of me. I didn’t know where it was. To me, happiness was a destination that didn’t have a name or a pin on the map.

At thirty-four, in desperation to get out of a bad relationship and to put my foot down about this happiness thing, I decided that even though I may not know where happiness is, I can’t just sit here and whine about it.

So I did the most obvious thing you can do when you are looking for happiness; I bought a ticket to Italy.

Italy has it all; fascinating history, constant sunlight, to-die-for-ice-cream, delicious wine, coffee that ruins you forever, food to devour like you have never eaten before, a language that is clearly the most beautiful in the world and it’s just gorgeous and has amazing views in every town. In short; it’s heaven.

Italy was the perfect gateway drug for me (in the best possible way). With a trip like that, it was impossible to go back to misery again.

I am not saying that all you need to do to find happiness is to go to Italy, but for me, that trip definitely triggered something.

When my time was up and I had to go back home, I had already decided that I was leaving again. I would not stay at home. But as there were no jobs in Italy, a friend suggested that I go to Spain instead.

Three months later, my bags were packed, my boss was notified and I had said goodbye to my friends and to the city up north once more. This time, I had no return ticket.

Checking out the view of Barcelona in 2007.

I arrived in Spain in April 2007. I was now officially residing and working in Barcelona, a city that almost seems like it was created for the pure pleasure of tourists.

A couple of months later I walked into a Starbucks in the old city center, as I always did on Sundays. What happened next shifted something in me to the point of no return.

Before you get your expectations up — this is nothing new. In fact, it’s so cliché it’s printed on coffee mugs and t-shirts all over the world.

Happiness is, just as everyone says, all about enjoying the small things in life.

I know, I know. I see you sighing deeply and rolling your eyes. I know it’s annoying. I got annoyed too when people told me this before I had experienced it myself.

Let’s be clear. It was just a moment. A moment of joy. Or bliss even. How can that lead to happiness in life? I will get to that, but first back to Starbucks…

There I was, looking out the window at the old streets that were packed with tourists and lined with shops, restaurants and cafés. I just sat there with my coffee, people-watching. I detached myself from the environment and observed it as though I wasn’t a part of it myself.

The tourists were running around with their maps trying to tick off all the items on their sightseeing checklists. The locals were also running around, trying to do their errands and get everything ready for the Sunday family dinner. But not me. I was just sitting there.

I was feeling relaxed, comfortable and proud to be handling my day-to-day life in a new country. I was feeling inspired and creative. I was feeling blessed that I had found this opportunity to move to Barcelona and that I could indulge in a lifestyle that allowed me to spend an entire afternoon at Starbucks without any pressure to run off to the next thing. I felt so incredibly free.

It was at that very moment that this intense, overwhelming sensation came to me. It was as if all these feelings shot into my brain at the same time and collided in a big explosion of emotion. Call it an epiphany or a spiritual awakening if you want. The sense of absolute joy was so strong in that moment that I literally didn’t know what to do with it. I wanted to cry, laugh and scream, all at the same time, but even that wouldn’t have been enough. It was like an orgasm of the soul. That is really the only way to describe it.

I sat there, in the middle of a crowd at Starbucks on a busy street in the tourist haven of Barcelona and my mind had a freakin’ orgasm! I put my hands over my mouth just to make sure that I didn’t laugh out loud. I wanted to jump up and down. It was the strangest and most wonderful feeling.

It only lasted a few seconds. But it opened up another mindset for me. I realized then that I cannot run to happiness, only from it.

We are moving at a pace that doesn’t allow our brains to rest or our bodies to feel. We are working, driving, listening to music, watching TV, Facebooking, talking, running errands and playing games. Preferably simultaneously. We are all so busy doing what we believe to be pursuing happiness, we are actually missing it.

Happiness can only appear when we slow down and look at it, feel it, smell it and taste it. We have forgotten to truly enjoy and appreciate the things around us.

Just as with love, we can’t chase happiness and we can’t hold onto it. But if we give it enough space, it will come to us. We would see it if we weren’t always heading somewhere else.

Nowadays, I give my mind space when walking. I look at the grass, the sea and the trees. I let my thoughts run free. I smell the air and take deep breaths. I can almost hear my brain taking a deep breath of its own and letting it out with a big “Ahhh”. Finally, a break! With all that input we get in a day, our brains need some alone-time too.

I can’t will my brain to have another orgasm, but what I can do is to deliberately create moments when it could happen. And by doing that, I also enhance the quality of my life in general. In addition to giving my brain empty time slots, I write and take on other creative tasks in which I can lose track of time and space, allowing my mind to be free for a few minutes or even hours.

Another big door opener for happiness is gratitude. What did I enjoy today? What did I learn? Wasn’t that cup of coffee awesome? What do I love about the people in my life? It can be anything, no matter how small. A great book, a friendly conversation or the nice weather.

I have started to write this down at the end of each day. I do that simply so that I don’t forget to think about it and to give it more focus. When I focus on it, it becomes more significant and allows my happiness to grow with it.

These are the small gems that build up a happy life.

It’s never about money or status. My apartment in Barcelona was the size of a shoe box and I had a salary that no sensible person would accept at entry level (and I was in my mid-thirties, managing 15 employees). None of that mattered to me. Money couldn’t buy me that feeling of total freedom and happiness. Money can’t buy the moments of joy.

As much as Starbucks would love to offer it on the menu, we can’t just all rush over there and buy ourselves a cup of happiness. But we can wake up and smell the coffee.

And even though it did in fact take a trip in my case, happiness is not at a specific place, nor is it a destination in itself. Happiness is, however, a lot of other things. Here are a few that I have found;

Happiness is constant personal improvements.

Happiness is a way in which you see your life.

Happiness is doing as much as possible of what you enjoy.

Happiness is being in an environment that feels safe and beautiful to you.

Happiness is experiencing love.

Happiness is leaving space for small moments of joy.

Some of which may blow your mind while you’re sipping on your morning coffee…

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Originally published at medium.com