I touched the crystal ocean with my bare toes and gazed across the tiny island. I was the only person there, except for a dozen pink flamingoes, each balanced on a single leg, totally showing off, because seriously, why else would they do that?
Blue skies. Perfect temps. It felt surreal, and not only because I'd thought pink flamingoes were make-believe, like unicorns, until I was 30. This private island, Renaissance Island, part of the Renaissance Marina Hotel in Oranjestad, Aruba, was plucked out of a fantasy.
I saw a hammock waiting for me, draped between two palm trees at the end of a tiny inlet.
That's when I started to cry.
I stood in Aruba's warm salt water and sobbed, big, stupid, horrible tears that spooked the flamingoes, and I wondered if I was the first person ever to cry in the happiest place in the world.
I had traveled across the country and far south in search of the definitive source of happiness. What was the key to an enjoyable life? What brings humans the most long-term, meaningful feelings of subjective satisfaction?
How could I find joy -- and never lose it?
I'd decided to ask the experts.
I signed up for the Happiness 360 Conference, held in collaboration with the United Nations World Tourism Organization. It presented world-renowned speakers on the topic of happiness, including arguably the world's foremost expert, Robert Waldinger, who heads up the world's longest-running study on happiness at Harvard University. You may recognize Waldinger from his TED Talk, "What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness," the 20th most popular Ted Talk in history and the most viral TedX speaker in history of Ted. In six days, his video hit one million views. In just under three weeks, it landed on three million.
Obviously, I couldn't miss this opportunity, not even after I learned it coincided with my 10-year anniversary with my husband.
As an aspiring beach bum, it was hard for him to let me go to the Caribbean without him, over our big anniversary. Especially since I don't swim or like sunshine, because I am actually a nocturnal Gothic vampire corpse with transparent skin. But it was a work trip, and someone had to get our daughter to first grade, and I totally scored a one-on-one meeting with Aruba's Prime Minister Mike Eman; that doesn't just happen. I had to go.
My husband let me go, because if you love someone, let them go to Aruba, for if they return, they were always yours, and if they don't, they never were.
The conference shared research from Aruba's five-year Happiness Index Study, which found 78 percent of Arubans were happy and 76 percent expressed longer-term satisfaction with life.
Compare this with the United Nations' 2016 World Happiness Report, which measured the happiness of 157 larger countries (tiny Aruba not included). Here, Denmark scored the highest, with 75.3 percent of residents reporting happiness. (The United States was ranked 13th, although as we draw nearer to Election Day, I'm feeling like we're on a sinking ship to last place.)
Aruba ranked higher than them all. This new data statistically backed up Aruba's long-time slogan, "One happy island."
And I felt it, firsthand.
You know how if you watch dancers perform, you can tell if they truly love doing it, even from your chair in the audience, even without a word exchanged? It's in their energy, in the subtlety of their movements and in everything they create. That's how it felt walking through the streets of Aruba.
But the real question was why? What was the source of that emotional response?
That's what I asked Harvard's expert, Waldinger.
He told me about the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed two groups of people (one group from Boston's poorest neighborhoods and the other, advantaged Harvard undergrads) from their teenage years into old age. Today, a handful are still alive, and the average age is 96.
Over the course of their lives, researchers routinely surveyed them, checked their medical records, scanned their brains, drew their blood, talked to their family, filmed them interacting with their partners, asked them about their fears and worries.
"What we learned: It wasn't that the happiest were the wealthiest, the most famous or the hardest-working," Waldinger said. "The people who were the happiest -- and the healthiest -- were the people most connected to other people: to friends, family and community."
The study found that people who felt lonely or less connected developed illnesses sooner, their brains and bodies declined faster, and so did their memories.
It wasn't white sand beaches. It wasn't sunshine. It wasn't pink flamingos.The single key to happiness in life was the quality of a person's relationships.
That's why I cried.
I had it all, right before me as I stood on magical flamingo island -- but I had nothing, because I had no one to share it with. No one to watch swimming while I cowered under the shade of the palm tree painted in SPF 1,000. No one to take my photo with the flamingos and probably unicorns around the corner.
I had flown across the world in search of happiness, only to learn I had left my own personal mainline alone at home. On my own one happy island in the mountains.
Luckily, irony and beer makes my husband happy. Because I brought him home my tears and 10 cans of every brew on the island, one for every year he's had to put up with me.