You’re not supposed to talk about your vacations.

This article says you shouldn’t do it because, frankly, people don’t want to hear about it.

But I hope you’ll let me break the rules for a minute…

because I have to tell you that nowhere in my life besides a cruise ship have I seen such a massive crowd look so utterly miserable.

I took photos to prove it, but I didn’t want to post them on the internet without the subjects’ permission. And I didn’t ask for the subjects’ permission because, honestly, would you walk up to a miserable-looking person and ask if you could post their photo in a blog post about how miserable they look?

Didn’t think so.

The ubiquitous misery on a cruise ship fascinates me because a cruise ship, of all places on this whole earth, is specifically designed to keep you happy and carefree all the time — from the 24/7 buffet food to the surprising sparseness of rules to the staff members tasked with squirting sanitizer on your hands and jovially shouting “Washy washy, happy happy!!”

When you’re not enjoying the accommodations of the ship, you’re meant to enjoy the beaches in the Bahamas or, in this case, one of the live concerts held every afternoon and evening throughout the trip.

But the more people I met on the boat, the more complaints I heard.

They think they got food poisoning that one time, so never eat at a certain particular dining hall on the ship anymore (newsflash: it all comes from one kitchen).

There’s too much ice in this drink. There’s too much sauce on that pasta.

The weather’s too hot, too cold, too rainy, too sunny.

It was better last year. It was better on X cruise.

The staff brought chocolate covered strawberries to their room — they don’t even like chocolate.

Look, I don’t strive for constant happiness. Struggle has been as integral and valuable a part of my life as the happy bits. But we’re not talking about constant happiness here. We’re talking about general happiness when one is on a cruise ship. And for many, it doesn’t seem to be there. Lots of people get stuck in an annoyed, complaining state.

A few of my acquaintances on the ship also go regularly on another cruise called The Rock Boat — a cruise with a star-studded band lineup and a general atmosphere of joviality. All of those acquaintances prefer The Rock Boat to this cruise that we just went on. They all talk about the amazing atmosphere of the TRB shows compared to the lackluster one on this boat. But then, when we all go to shows together, two or three of these same people — the very ones who complained about the non-energetic atmosphere — sit in their seats in the theater, not standing up, not dancing to the music, not even bouncing to the music, not singing along, not smiling. They just sit there and stare at the artist with eyebrows cocked as they swirl their drinks with their drinking straws. And then I feel awkward to bounce or dance or smile. I’d much rather be in the lower level, standing-room-only part of the theater with all the “non-energetic” people the Rock Boaters were complaining about — the ones waving their hands in the air and throwing their hats onto the stage and singing the words, even just the chorus if that’s all they know, and bouncing around and dancing.

As I watched unhappy people meander through the ship and float through the concerts, I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked so sad, or if I acted so sad.

Sometimes, the answer was definitely yes, and I could blame it on feeling awkward to dance when everyone was sitting silent, or on a thousand other things. Except that I can’t: I’m responsible for my own happiness. No matter where I am, no matter if it is a fantasy land specifically designed to induce happiness, there’s one major barrier that no outside cheering force can overcome. That barrier is me. I have to develop the ability to do the things that make me happy, rather than expecting my environment to take care of it for me.

It doesn’t matter how fancy the cruise ship is; it can’t make someone happy. People can make themselves happy on a cruise ship, though.

But how?

I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I have a short list of ideas. You can do these things to drastically increase your chances of enjoying yourself while you’re on a music cruise.

1. Get lots of friends. You do not have cell phone service on a cruise ship. Since you can’t get in touch with your friends, you have to walk around and rely on the probability that you will run into someone to hang out with. You can jack up this probability by knowing lots of people on the boat. If you don’t get on with a group of people you know, that’s okay. Just meet a bunch on the first night. Bring several packets of chewing gum — people love chewing gum — and offer it to anyone who looks friendly, or who showed up to the same concerts that you did. Invite strangers to dinner with you. Invite strangers to breakfast with you. You can always find someone looking lost at mealtime. If you’re far too introverted to do this fifty times in one night, just do it once. Bonus if the person you’re talking to is one of the artists or band members on the cruise. For some reason, if you’re seen talking to one of these people, suddenly everyone else approaches you. Also, you have a built in conversation topic with any artist: just ask questions about the instrument they play. Once you do this, the hardest problem you will have is shutting them up.

2. Get fit. This will make you much more confident in general, and it will also help you feel more comfortable going to the beach, swimming pool, or hot tub. Secret tip: you don’t actually have to be fit. You just have to be fit relative to how fit you have been over the past while. So you weigh 400 pounds? Lose 5 of ’em. Or don’t lose any of ’em, but lift some weights so you feel stronger. You’ll be proud of yourself, and you’ll get lots of the confidence benefits even though you don’t look like Heidi Powell.

3. Find out which artists are on the boat before you go, and learn their songs. This is the most important one, because it dictates how much you get to participate in the shows. If you want to be able to dance and sing along, you have to do this. Also, if you’ve never heard the lyrics before, it’s not likely that you’ll understand what the singers are saying at a live show. But you can learn the songs beforehand. I recommend putting them on a playlist with Youtube or Spotify and listening to them during work or on your commute.

Instead of expecting the cruise to make you happy, you can set yourself up to have fun during your vacation.

But the point isn’t really creating your own happiness on your vacation, is it? We’re not on vacation that often. Most of the time we’re off vacation, living our lives. And we’re responsible for creating our own happiness then, too.

They say a person’s general happiness level is partially a result of genetics. I’ve often wondered where I lie on the genetic predisposition-to-happiness scale. Low, I think. Neither of my parents are especially happy people, nor were any of my four grandparents.

Once again, pursuit of constant happiness isn’t the goal, but I wonder if a person predisposed to not-happiness can make themselves happier. I don’t know, and I’m far from an expert in this field. That said, my laughably uninformed hypothesis on happiness is that the kernel of the thing is one’s ability to focus on the present. I know that I have a tendency to dwell on both the past (If I had said X then Y person wouldn’t have dumped me, I was so embarrassed when Z happened in that taxicab, I wonder if so-and-so hates me now) and the future (What happens when my job finds out I’m an imposter, am I overcommitting myself at home, will I get fat at Christmas?). I have discovered that my concerns about the past and the future tend to be what’s on my mind when I catch myself feeling down.

There is a correlation between focusing on the present and general happiness: frequent meditators, for example, kick ass at both. From what I’ve read, though, we have not confirmed that one causes the other.

In my imagination, having a routine presents more opportunity to focus on the present than having a life that’s all over the place. Monks keep very strict routines, and many super-meditators hail from monk communities. So perhaps it’s worth trying to keep a consistent daily routine.

I have also tried diversifying my energy portfolio. I have a few different pursuits going on in my life at any given time, so if one of them becomes frustrating, then the frustration does not consume all of my time and energy. I can instead put the frustrating thing inside of a container that only gets a finite amount of my time, and when that time is up I stop focusing on that part of my life and focus instead on a different part. For example, if something at work is eating at me, I deliberately plan time with my friends, or time for working on cold brew recipes, or time for writing. This approach strikes the techy/treppy world I where I work as unfocused and unproductive. I disagree. It is, in fact, very deliberately focused, and it takes a while to build up the discipline to focus away from something that is bothering you and onto something else productive.

I can’t pretend that I have figured out exactly how to create happiness yet. But I’m learning to acknowledge that I can, and must, create it. It’s scary to face the fact that I need to do something that I don’t know how to do.

But it’s also comforting to realize that, besides knowledge, I already have everything I need. I don’t have to go to some exotic place or some amazing event to find happiness. I don’t have to meet some particular person or accomplish some gargantuan feat.

And once I learn how it works, I’ll have that knowledge for the rest of my life — which is hopefully a heck of a lot longer than just about any cruise.

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