Guest Post: Being Grateful and Finding Happiness While Walking The Camino
We are a mother-daughter team on a 500 mile walking quest to learn more about ourselves and others through gratefulness. This past summer, we headed to Spain to walk the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage with a plan to interview someone each day to find out what they were grateful for and to practice daily gratitude ourselves. The El Camino pilgrimage is traditionally a religious pilgrimage with pilgrims walking from all across Europe to visit the sacred burial site of St. James. Today, people from around the world choose to walk the El Camino for a variety of reasons from personal self-discovery, spiritual reasons, or for a physical challenge. We chose the traditional Frances route which challenged us to begin our journey hiking up the steep French Pyrenees. We continued walking across northern Spain, through forests, along sunflower fields, through vineyards, in and out of villages and cities, and along farms. Finally, after 30 days of walking and growing, we arrived at our destination, the city of Santiago de Compostela.
With our intentions set, we found that by walking, our bodies were naturally helping us along the way to become more grateful. With each step, our natural hormones were released, increasing our happiness and helping us to build strong bonds with the people we walked with.
Enlisting Those Natural Endorphins with Exercise
To prepare for the Camino, we would try to walk for one or two hours every evening. Unfortunately, our walks had not adequately prepare us for the reality of the Camino. Walking the Camino was much tougher and much better than we had ever anticipated.
As we hiked, our feet became swollen and blistered. Our backs were tired and sore from carrying our backpacks, yet we felt happy. Our happiness took us a bit off guard. We somewhat understand how our bodies naturally release endorphins when we exercise; however, we were surprised as to just how much we were laughing, smiling, and feeling increasingly happy as we walked each day. Our gratefulness journey soon also became our happiness hike.
Developing Dopamine through Accomplishments
Following our guidebook, we had a destination goal for each day. No two days were alike and each day came with unique challenges and rewards. We followed the trail which was well-marked with shell signs and arrows. We had expected the hiking to get easy after the first week, but instead, there were just different challenges to face. As we walked, we passed through the different regions in Spain. We were in awe of the countryside, exhausted from the weather and strain on our bodies; yet, so very proud when we reached our destination each day. With that sense of accomplishment, our bodies seem to naturally produce dopamine hormones increasing our happiness.
Halfway through of pilgrimage, we had a tough climb to O'Cebreiro. The sun was beating on us, we were climbing 1300 meters in elevation, our shins ached, and we were exhausted. We had been hiking for 24 days and we were discouraged that the hills were still a challenge. However, when we reached the top, we were met with the most stunning view and we felt so proud of our accomplishments. That day that had seemed so discouraging turned out to be one of our best days.
Orchestrating Oxytocin and Serotonin through Social Interaction
To beat the scorching afternoon sun, we woke at around 5:30 am and walked for one or two hours before stopping for our morning coffee. Having to earn our breakfast with a brisk morning walk seemed to only make the coffee and food taste better. As we sat eating our breakfast at a cafe, we would soon be joined by other pilgrims. Meeting other pilgrims from all over the world and sharing our experiences together created bonds which naturally produced serotonin in our bodies making those times of sharing filled with more happiness, laughter, and comradery.
Each night, we checked into the municipal albergue (hostel for pilgrims) which cost from 5-13 Euros per person and provided us with our simple needs of a bed, shower, and use of a kitchen. We rotated between cooking communal meals with other pilgrims and joining others to eat at local restaurants. Living and eating with others seemed to naturally produce more serotonin in our bodies. Additionally, as we developed deeper bonds with other pilgrims, our trust increased which made it safe to be vulnerable which, of course, naturally release oxytocin in our bodies. It became impossible to ignore how utterly happy we felt. We are so grateful to have made friends for a lifetime!
Growing with Gratefulness
As we asked other pilgrims why they were walking the El Camino and what they were grateful for, we quickly realized that we were all searching for something deeper inside of ourselves. At churches, we were blessed and asked to set our intention for our journey. Walking each day gave us time to think about our intentions and reflect on the person we choose to be. Living out of a backpack for 30 days made us realize how little we really need and we are encouraged to live a simpler, less materialistic life as we return home. We also discovered the importance of self-love and taking the time for ourselves. Exercise and movement are essential to happiness and the release of all those naturally occurring hormones that make us feel happy, less anxious, and loved. Finally, our gratefulness practice deepened our self-understanding and helped us celebrate the big and little positive events in our daily lives. As we became more grateful, our goals and wishes became more achievable. We reached Santiago physically and mentally stronger; much happier than when we began our journey.
We thank our guest bloggers Brenda and Tierra Stokes for sharing their El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage experience with Fitneff. Brenda Stokes is a professor at NAIT in the Business Administration department and Tierra Stokes works in promoting sustainable organic agriculture in Alberta. Read more about their month long eye-opening physical and spiritual journey and interviews with fellow hikers on their blog, 500 Miles of Gratefulness.