Our brains are differential machines. Our happiness depends largely on contrast.

As we sit on our balcony, back in California’s Inland Empire, we have had a few days to reflect on what just happened. Seven months ago we craved learning, novelty, and the open road. We needed to shake off the barnacles of track-changed documents, cell phone plans, and credit card reward points. Adventure. Insight. Challenge. Our wishes were granted in abundance. But oh how things change. Today we savored the mundane. We hung up our new shower curtain. The plastic silkiness brought us such joy. We carefully secured a reduced fat Gouda in a trustee Ziploc bag (for freshness). Who knew the euphoria awaiting us in the simple act of washing our socks, in our own washing machine, with an eco-friendly detergent? Or of watching a cat stare at the ceiling with a twitching tail? Extraordinary.

Two of the greatest lessons of our research trip have become abundantly clear. First, happiness is not “out there” – necessarily. We’ve heard this before. We are told that happiness lives inside us. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is being, not doing. All probably true, but that’s not what we mean. What this trip has taught us is that being happy is always relative. When you are stifled by the 9 to 5, happiness is a full tank of gas and a destination unknown. But when your life revolves around fitting 3.4 ounce shampoo bottles into one quart-sized, clear, plastic bag for seven months, happiness becomes a bathroom cabinet stuffed with 6.8 ounce bottles of every conceivable oil, lotion, and exfoliating gel. The lesson is, enjoy where you are...but only until it is time for change. And then move on, without question, without hesitation, towards your next happiness.

Our second great lesson is don’t judge a book by its cover. Again, the old wisdoms hold truth. Nothing is simply as it seems. Every place, every person has value. And often life will surprise you, if you only suspend your assumptions, biases, and expectations long enough to let it. Nowhere was this lesson more salient than in Mexico City, our final destination. We weren’t sure what to expect after the Yucatan – a mostly picturesque coastline dominated by tourism but interspersed with sacred ruins. We had heard that Mexico City was dangerous and polluted although its sights were notable. What we encountered was as surprising as it was humbling. The city rivals any in Europe in terms of its history, music, food, art, and intelligentsia. Every street corner is crowded with delicious morsels, whether a pozole from a street vendor or taco spread in a high end restaurant. Every musician was top notch, whether singing jazz or mariachi.

The Museo Nacional de Antropología captivated us for hours on Christmas Day with its quite unbelievable collection of Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and Olmeca treasures. To me no museum has ever come this close to the quality of the Louvre.

On a different day we were silenced by the provocative and thought-provoking murals of Diego Rivera at Palacio Nacional de Mexico before being spilled into the streets heaving with merchants peddling their wares. And who could ever forget La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo's haven in the charming Coyoacán? There is something in the way that Frida lived her life that resonates with those contemplating purpose.

Her art dangles a macabre relationship with reality before the viewer. But it was the corsets, her easel, her built up shoe…it was staring at the mirror mounted above her bed, the haemoglobin glaze of Revlon nail polish juxtaposed against the puritanical lace of an indigenous blouse that really got us. The texture and complexity of Frida is painted all over Mexico City. 

And so, these are the thoughts we are left with as we move from the physical to the intellectual and creative phases of this research journey: Leave aside judgment. Observe. Listen. Think. Talk. Share. Enquire. All is not as it seems. Beneath the Vogue layers may lie a shattered pelvis – and an iron breast.