Life Lessons: How to Make Good Days Last

Have you ever wished you could make the joy of wonderful vacation or happy holiday last for months? On a trip to Italy, a Guideposts staffer found some life lessons to help brighten her days.

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Rome, the Eternal City

In September, I went to Rome and Venice on what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I was awestruck as I walked on cobblestone streets where religious pilgrims had walked for centuries and I discovered beautiful paintings tucked into the dark recesses of small churches.  

I’ve been back home in New York City for awhile now, squeezing into the A train during rush hour, facing deadlines at work, and dealing with dirty dishes. I keep thinking, “How can I keep some of the joy that shone through those days in Italy?” It’s a problem that arises after almost any great vacation or a wonderful holiday or even a great weekend. How can you make it last? Here are 5 ways to stretch those good feelings beyond your vacation:

1) Choose Wonder, Not Worry

For me, the first step is to remember that like most everything, the trip wasn’t always wonderful. I was worried when I arrived in Italy. I don’t speak Italian and I was traveling alone. None of my friends could get time off from work to go with me.  So, I walked around Rome carrying wonder and worry, sometimes in equal measure, but, as the days went on, the wonder won out.

I realized that even back at home, I carry wonder and worry with me. In my everyday life, though, worry often gets the upper hand. As I thought about how to hang on to the best aspects of the trip, I realized that when I was traveling, there were encounters that affected me in vivid and sometimes visceral ways—moments when my perspective shifted. Those moments have become like life lessons. I keep reminding myself of these moments as I try to keep that sense of vacation joy.

2) Just Calm Down

I was standing in a train station in Venice, a rolling suitcase by my side, a bag on each shoulder and no idea where to find my train, which was leaving in 10 minutes, from Platform 7. I scanned the overhead signs repeatedly.  To my left a sign pointed to platforms 13 to 20. There were no signs for other platforms.

“How could they not have signs for platforms 1-12?” I looked around desperately. “What if I miss my train? How will I get another ticket? I don’t speak Italian.”

My internal dialogue slowed for a minute and I looked directly in front of me.  I saw a train. It was platform 12, and when I calmed down and looked around, I saw train after train, on platforms 1 through 12. If I had kept going straight, I would have walked exactly where I needed to be.

The worry monologue in my head kept me from seeing what was directly in front of me.  How often does worry cloud my vision and keep me from paying attention to some internal compass that already knows where I need to go? Or does my anxious voice keep me from seeing a sign that points me in the right direction? When that worried chatter kicks up, I try to ignore it and see what is actually happening.

3) Trust Your Curiosity

Author Elizabeth Gilbert advises people not to agonize over how to “follow your passion,” but, instead to follow your curiosity. Your curiosity will lead you to plenty of interesting places. Because I was traveling by myself, I had the chance to follow my curiosity, without balancing anyone else’s interests.

One of the highlights of my trip was seeing the Basilica of San Clemente, a 12th century church, with layers and layers of history underneath it. As I explored the excavation under the church, I saw a 4th century church, complete with baptismal font and mosaics. Then, I saw the ruins of an ancient Roman apartment building, including a site for pagan worship of a Persian deity. It was fascinating, at least to me!

A canal in Venice

As much as I would have loved to travel with friends, I know they would not have wanted to spend hours under that church—at best, they might have gone to the cafe across the street. But I loved it, and I was able spend time there because I followed my own curiosity.

Now that I’m back from my trip, it’s hard to remember that it’s still worthwhile to follow my interests. There are so many demands pressing on me, it’s easy to put my interests on the back burner until every other responsibility is met. Of course, I still need to pay the bills and clean the house, but I keep reminding myself of all those moments, like exploring the Basilica of San Clemente, so I’ll remember to follow my interests here. And whether that means going to a poetry reading or going on a hike in a state park, I have been able to find those moments of joy here, too.

4) Be Friendly

I live in Manhattan, where we don’t chat with strangers. It’s very easy for me to put on a city face and ignore people. This can be an important skill to have on the subway, but sometimes I carry it over into other areas of my life.

When I spent a few days in Venice, I had a chance to try a different approach. I signed up for a free boat ride to the nearby island of Murano, which has been a center for glass blowing for centuries. I arrived in the hotel lobby to wait for the boat and discovered a couple from Connecticut waiting too.

On vacation by myself, I was friendlier than I am in New York. The couple and I started chatting.  We rode in a water taxi, bouncing over the open water to the nearby island and spent a couple of hours wandering around Murano. Thanks to that couple from Connecticut, not only did I have good company for my day trip, I learned where to catch the vaporetto (water bus) back to Venice.

Now that I’m back, I’m not talking to strangers on the subway, but I am speaking to people in the elevator or at the store. I don’t think this realization only applies to New Yorkers. No matter where you are, it’s easy to get set in your routines, speaking only to the people you already know, focusing on your to-do list or your next deadline. I keep reminding myself, you never know what you’ll discover when you take time to be friendly.

5) Remember, It's Okay To Be Lost

A winding backstreet in Rome

I like to know where I’m going. In Italy, I carried a map with me, and I looked for landmarks as I walked, so I could find my way back. I soon learned, though, that the old cobblestone streets of Rome and Venice can be confusing. Often, I found myself walking with a general idea of where I was headed, but with no idea what street I was on or how I would actually get where I needed to go.

As I walked, I often stumbled onto something beautiful. One day, I wandered into a church in Rome. I don’t know the name of the church, but I discovered a stunning golden altar.

Now that I’m back, I’m reminded to explore, to walk down a different street or visit a nearby park, to break out of my regular commute and see what’s around me. I've accepted that it’s okay not to know exactly where the next step will take you. In fact, sometimes it’s more interesting if you don’t know.

Even with the pressure to move through life with a 5-year or 10-year plan, to check off accomplishments and network strategically for whatever you want—whether it’s a job or a new house or even a spouse—it’s okay to just keep moving in the general direction of what you want and keep your eyes open along the way.

Of course sometimes I did need to stop and check my map. That day on Murano, it started to rain. While I was grateful for my trusty rain jacket, I was tired, hungry, and lost. I wasn’t sure which direction to walk even though it’s a small island. So, I went into a café and looked over my map. I also asked directions before I left. My last life lesson from Italy? If you’re lost, take a moment and check your map, preferably in a cafe with a tasty croissant and cappuccino.

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