Searching for happiness: Francis walks around U.S.


Paula Francis is on a 10,000-mile mission to discover what makes people happy.

The 60-year-old Montpeilier, Vermont, native has been walking around the United States in increments since 2012 and is currently on the final and longest leg of her journey as she walks from Salt Lake City to Boston.

Her walks have taken her through 26 states, across mountains and deserts, along coasts and rivers and through 14 pairs of shoes. She walked her 8,000th mile on July 16 in Seward County.

All of this has been in an effort to raise awareness for her organization Gross National Happiness USA, which she co-founded in 2009 after visiting the south Asian country of Bhutan and learning more about its Gross National Happiness index.

Gross National Happiness is a measurement of societal success used by the government of Bhutan to inform policy decisions as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product. Francis wants to see a similar index implemented in the United States.

“We need a new definition of what progress and success is and what it looks like,” Francis said. “To me, there’s no better time than now to start this conversation to really figure out where we want to head collectively. Otherwise, we’re just meandering aimlessly.”

So, Francis is walking around the country interviewing thousands of strangers, asking them one question: what really matters in life?

So far, Francis has learned, with help from the University of Vermont, that social connection is one answer to that question.

“We care about one another, and we want to make other people happy,” she said. “Kindness and generosity really do matter to people.”

Francis said other common answers include a connection to some form of a higher power and satisfaction of basic needs like health and education. She said people often answer her question by saying what does not matter most to them.

“It’s not money, and it’s not stuff,” she said.

Initially, her idea was to just walk the nearly 600 miles from Montpeilier to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is inscribed with lines from the Declaration of Independence that include “the pursuit of happiness.”

“The conversations with the people along the way were so rich and rewarding that I connected my steps and kept walking farther south a little bit at a time,” Francis said. “Eventually, it got to be, like, this is ridiculous, you know? You’re doing this. You’re walking around the country.”

So, Francis eventually gave up her home and career and made walking around the country her full-time job, something that has given her a lot of free time.

“You know, it can get monotonous, of course,” Francis said. “I mean, that’s part of the challenge, but it’s also very meditative.”

However, Francis said her situation is not all that different from others’.

“Everybody’s in the same situation every day,” she said. “We choose where we put our attention. My attention just happens to be more narrow than most, which is making the next mile or watching the traffic.”

Francis also passes the time by thinking about her family and reflecting on the many people she meets every day. Sometimes she finds more entertaining ways to pass the time.

“I just play tricks with my mind,” she said. “How many steps to that next pole?”

Francis also meditates on where she is.

“I do try to really appreciate where I am and what I am experiencing,” she said. “Even the corn fields—every one is different, and there’s beauty in that.”

While the walking itself can be fairly standard, each day as a whole varies for Francis. 

“There’s no normal,” she said. “The not knowing is really exciting to me. Although, I could show you I have a schedule from here until the end of the trip, but I make the schedule, and then I let things happen.”

Francis relies on the kindness of strangers to make it across the country. Sometimes Francis camps, but other times she is welcomed into a stranger’s home when someone overhears her conversations in coffee shops and restaurants or stops along the road to offer her assistance.

“Of course, I look a little curious,” Francis said, toting a towering backpack, wearing an orange baseball cap and cloaked in a neon yellow windbreaker emblazoned with the words Happiness Walk USA. “People are interested in what I’m doing.”

Francis has also found support by tapping into an organized network of people who welcome long-distance cyclists into their homes.

“There’s not a network of walker hosts,” she said. “Not yet.”

Francis said her favorite part of her journey has been meeting thousands of people along the way.

“People are really kind and generous,” she said. “Oftentimes, we don’t take the time to stop and listen, and I think that’s really important, and I feel blessed to be able to give people that space.”

She also enjoys “seeing this country at three miles an hour.”

“It’s a beautiful country,” she said. “There’s a lot to appreciate and a lot of beauty.”

While the serenity of the outdoors has been a highlight of Francis’ experience, Mother Nature has also given Francis some of her greatest challenges, especially in Nebraska, which she said has been tougher than she expected because of the variability in weather.

“The kind of violent storms that you have here are off the charts to me,” Francis said. “I feel like they’re chasing me sometimes, which means that I have to pick up my pace.”

Francis has walked through all types of weather: snow, hail, extreme heat and even a tornado warning. She was in Lexington in early July when the city was inundated by over seven inches of rain in an overnight storm that also left Kearney with significant flooding.

“You couldn’t walk out of town,” Francis said. “I ended up getting a ride from the sheriff.”

People can learn more about the Happiness Walk at Francis said people can contribute to her effort by helping her get connected with host families along her route, making a donation to her organization to offset costs of the walk, following along on social media and just being part of the conversation by sharing her story with friends and family.

“It’s really important that we start having this greater awareness about what really matters,” Francis said.

As for what comes next for Francis after walking 10,000 miles, her plans are still developing.

“I might just take a walk back up to Vermont where I began,” she said.

Although she has seen thousands of miles of the country, she still has not found a perfect place to resettle. 

“I just haven’t come across that one place that says, ‘this is it,’” she said. “There’s so many beautiful places that I couldn’t choose one.” 

One place Francis is interested in visiting is Spain, as she wants to walk the Camino de Santiago, a network of ancient pilgrimage routes.

“I’m thinking of taking a walk,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be a nomad for the rest of my life. We’ll see.”