There is a popular travel quote that says “travel is the only thing that you buy that makes you richer”.
Traveling certainly doesn’t make you financially better off. So what exactly are these riches that the quote refers to? What are the benefits of traveling?
There are, of course. some positive effects of traveling that are good for you. But buying and reading a good book, having dinner with friends, and taking time off work to be in the company of your loved ones, are also good ways to enrich your life.
So the quote, while it sounds very wise, is plainly wrong. There are countless things to buy that will make your life richer, and a lot of them are cheaper than traveling abroad to see other countries and cultures.
But quotes like this make us feel like we ought to be trying to travel more. Indeed, they make us feel that we should try to pack as much travel into our lives as possible to get the most value from it.
Did you ever stop to ask…
Why is traveling important?
It’s almost a consumerist axiom that traveling is good for you. But where is the evidence? Why travel at all? Are there physical health benefits? Mental health benefits? Educational benefits? Cultural benefits?
Not everyone is convinced about the importance of traveling in life, yet it’s almost taboo to say travel isn’t as important as it’s made out to be. Maybe traveling is just another thing that can be packaged up and sold to us. Maybe the benefits of traveling are accrued mainly by the companies who sell us transportation and accommodation.
Flying around the world is terrible for the environment, and flying is how most of us travel these days, so they’d better be some compelling evidence for why people should travel.
This post tries to provide a balanced look at the pros and cons of traveling.
When you are packing a suitcase you have limited space, and you need to think really carefully about what you put in it.
Likewise, when packing your life, you can’t do it all or see it all. So you need to decide how much traveling you should try to pack into your life.
Only once you understand the true benefits of traveling and what it costs can you begin to decide on the importance of traveling to you.
Hopefully, after reading this post, you’ll have a better idea about how to travel to get the most benefits out of it.
What Are The Benefits of Traveling?
The travel industry is very powerful and is constantly trying to persuade us of the advantages of traveling the world.
Generally, they have a simple message.
Traveling is good for you and the reason it’s good for you is that… it feels good.
For most people, this is all we need to hear…
What you say… It feels good? Heck! Sign me up!
This is hedonistic travel — the first “benefit” of traveling is moving away from boredom, pain or suffering and towards pleasure and happiness.
For most of human history, the idea that you needed to travel around the globe to live a fulfilling life would have been unthinkable. People were too busy surviving to worry about traveling, and for many people around the world that’s still the same today.
Today we see the adverts, the Instagram feeds, the TV shows and the glossy magazines. And the grass always looks greener on the other side.
Most places that list the supposed benefits of traveling don’t have any evidence to back up their claims. Let’s take a look at some of the common beliefs about the benefits of traveling:
- Travel Improves Your Communication Skills – I’ve often found I communicate less when I am in a foreign country, mainly because I can’t speak the local language. Yes, perhaps I learn a few words here and there, but if the goal is to improve your communication skills there are better ways to do it.
- Travel Broadens Your Horizons – There are many ways to become more educated and understand things from a different point of view. You can broaden your horizons by reading books or watching the Discovery Channel.
- Travel Boosts Your Confidence – Traveling certainly takes you out of your comfort zone. and that can increase your confidence. But your confidence can also take a hit when you return home and you’ve become a stranger in your own country. Travel will change you, but there are many confident people who never travel anywhere.
- Travel Will Create Memories For A Lifetime – Yes it probably will. But will those memories be any greater or more special than someone’s memories who never traveled? Do you think the people who stay at home don’t make any special memories? With the right attitude, some creativity and the right people around you you can make a special memory right where you are now. Don’t use travel or lack of it as an excuse.
- Travel Makes You Healthier – No. Exercising and eating well makes you healthier.
- Travel Relieves Stress – Some studies show that people feel better after a vacation. That’s because they were away from work and living a more relaxing routine. The same studies don’t take into account the fact that you might need to endure days and weeks in a stressful work environment so you can afford to take that trip!
Most of the so-called scientific benefits of travel are from correlation studies. Yes, people who travel may be healthier but it doesn’t mean that travel is the cause of their health.
The second “benefit” of travel is about status. Travel buys you an element of kudos. You can become the envy of your peers and regale them with tales of your experiences and subtly let everyone know how culturally sophisticated you are.
For those that find a sports car too crass a trip to India might just paint you in just the right light. Even if you’re the only one paying attention.
So travel can make you feel good about yourself. It can be pleasurable and status-enhancing both in how you see yourself and how others see you.
But it could be argued that the desire to travel is actually an overall source of unhappiness. Because who can afford to go on all the trips were are told we should be taking?
We want to travel (believing that it’s going to be life-changing and awesome), but we can’t travel (work commitments, lack of funds). We spend more time being frustrated about being unable to travel than we do enjoying traveling.
So, is it really worthwhile to chase travel experiences as a means to attaining happiness?
Does Traveling Really Make You Happy?
The problem with hedonistic travel is that its effects wear off very quickly!
Hedonistic travel is empty travel. It’s travel that might feel good at the time, give you something to boast about, but that is ultimately unfulfilling.
No sooner are you back home, your memories are fading, and your stress levels are back up and your bank balance has taken a big hit. You start dreaming about your next trip to escape the hole.
Perhaps hedonistic traveling overall just makes us more stressed out, disappointed and poorer than we would have been if we’d stayed at home and never dreamed of a foreign adventure in the first place.
I realize that so far I’ve been pretty negative about travel… especially for a travel blog. I’m not against travel, I’m just not convinced that traveling with no strong intent or purpose has any long term benefits to your happiness.
“Positive Travel” is a term I’ve borrowed from the field of Positive Psychology. It’s traveling better. It’s travel that supports the activities in your life that do help your happiness and long term well-being.
Traveling won’t make you happy, but travel can be a part of a happy and meaningful life.
These benefits of traveling are actually backed by experimental science. In recent decades psychologists have been spending more time studying what makes us happy. And they have come up with something called the PERMA model, a scientific theory of happiness.
The PERMA model isn’t perfect, but to discover the true value of traveling and it’s scientific benefits I examined travel through the PERMA model.
This wasn’t theoretical for me. I’ve been traveling full-time for the last 3 years. I’ve had some great experiences but I’ve felt that my relationships with friends and family has suffered from being away.
I wanted to see if travel really could help people live a life full of happiness and meaning or if travel was a distraction from the more important things in life.
Travel Viewed Through The PERMA Model Of Happiness
I’ve come to the conclusion that travel alone won’t make you happy. But you can use travel as a means to support aspects of your life that do bring happiness.
If you want travel to truly enrich your life rather than give you momentary relief then you should travel in a way that supports the PERMA elements of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.
Let’s dig into each of these elements now.
Travel To Strengthen Positive Emotion
This is the part of the happiness puzzle that you are familiar with. Positive emotion is the fancy term Psychologists use for “feeling good”.
Some people are born happy and others are born miserable and grumpy. We each have a range that is normal for us and the range isn’t that wide. Some people live in the “miserable to okay” region. Most people somewhere in the middle. And others are perpetually “happy to ecstatic”.
We can’t change what type of person we are. A person whose genetics means their default mode is on the grumpy side of the spectrum can’t do much to change their personality.
This is actually why travel doesn’t make you happy. We take a trip, it makes us feel a bit happier for a while, but then we settle back to our default level of grumpiness.
We can use some mental tricks to help keep ourselves at the top of our natural range. But you need to learn how to do it to be good at it.
These are the cognitive skills that you need to develop to keep at the top of your range:
- When thinking about the past, practice forgiveness and gratitude.
- When thinking about the present, practice mindfulness, learn to savor the moment.
- When thinking about the future, practice hope and optimism.
If you can arrange for your travel to involve developing these skills you’ll be doing yourself a favor. You can learn the mental tricks to talk yourself out of a funk, to soothe yourself and make yourself feel better.
Perhaps you could take a trip to participate in the American culture of Thanksgiving, learning more about this tradition and how to give thanks.
Retreat type experiences also spring to mind. There are many retreats that focus on learning such skills. For example, you can learn Vipassana meditation at free retreats all over the world.
I find places that are awe-inspiring make me grateful for the world and existence. If you’re like that too visit awe-inspiring places and say thanks.
The people of China are the most optimistic in the world, what could you learn from the locals if you took a visit to China expressly for this purpose? A trip to learn about Chinese hope and optimism might just teach you something useful.
There is also a difference between pleasure and enjoyment.
Pure Hedonistic Travel is about pleasure. Pleasure satisfies bodily needs like hunger or thirst or having a restful sleep after working too hard.
Positive Travel is about enjoyment. Enjoyment is achieved by intellectual stimulation and creativity
I would like to encourage you to travel with a sense of pilgrimage.
You don’t need to be religious to go on a pilgrimage. A Pilgrim is just someone who journeys to a place of special significance to them.
For example, many Beatles fans make a pilgrimage to Liverpool to visit the city where the Beatles were born. It’s a devotional tour full of meaning and significance to them.
And Pilgrims don’t just go an look like gawking tourists. They go and practice gratitude, they pay great attention to the experience and savor the moment, and they practice hope and optimism.
You can travel somewhere not just to tick it off a list and say you’ve been. Travel with reverence to pay your respects.
Using travel in this sense will help to nurture positive emotions in your mind. You’ll become a person more full of the good feelings that lead to a life worth living.
I know this sounds spiritual. But it doesn’t need to be spiritual. If you like a particular wine or whiskey. Make a journey to the place they make it and personally thank the people who make the product that you love. Your life will be richer for travel taken with this attitude.
I use these spiritual terms simply because they are the best way to describe the attitude you should travel with.
If you choose travel destinations that fit with this attitude, and you make your travel about cultivating this attitude you’ll be doing all you can to stay at the top end of your innate range of grumpiness/happiness.
Some people are naturally happy and other naturally less so, and travel will only briefly change that.
But thankfully, there are 4 other roads to happiness. With planning, you can travel these roads too towards well-being and a satisfying life.
Travel To Become More Engaged In The Here And Now
Many people live their life jumping from once crisis to the next. Typically these people are either worrying about the future or sad or angry about the past.
On the other hand, people who report great life satisfaction have often acquired the ability to become engrossed in a flow state, where they are absorbed fully in a skilled task.
An example would be painting. When an artist is busy painting a landscape their mind is absorbed by the task of putting paint on to the canvas. They are not upset about the argument that happened last night or anxious about the meeting they will go to tomorrow. They are in flow, absorbed, relaxed and content.
Painting is just one example. There are many. If you become a master at something you will have a place that you can go where your troubles slip away. Where your are only focused on using your acquired skill.
You will find activities where you can ‘get in the zone’ in the fields of:
Travel can be a way to help you reach these flow states. For example, the painter mentioned above can travel to find landscapes to paint. A surfer can travel the world trying to find the surf where only the moment exists.
If you can incorporate travel into these hobbies and use travel as a way to deepen your engagement then you’ll be using travel as a way to enrich your life.
Travel that helps you acquire complex skills that allow you to enter into a state of flow will have a real benefit to your well being, and this type of travel can be important to a healthy fulfilling life.
Travel To Strengthen Relationships
Relationships and social bonds are vitally important to meaningful lives.
This is an area where traveling can be a benefit but also potentially a negative force.
If we prioritize travel over our friends and family back home then we risk damaging one of the things with the greatest potential to make us happy.
You can potentially meet lifelong friends when traveling. And you should try to meet like-minded people and don’t isolate yourself.
But be warned that some of these people might be transient friends who are in your life one minute and out the next. This doesn’t mean these people are not real friends, but they are no substitute for solid relationships.
You can mitigate this risk by choosing wisely how you travel, how long for, and who you travel with.
Plan your travel to strengthen the relationships and connections between yourself and the people who are important in your life.
Use travel as a tool to become more connected, more intimate, and more loving with the people in your life.
Don’t allow yourself to become disconnected from home. Keep the channels of communication open. It takes work!
Travel To Support The Meaning Of Your Life
What do you get out of bed for in the morning?
Why keep on living? Have you found your passion yet?
To live a good life we should try to figure out the purpose of our life. Usually, this involves a sense of something bigger than ourselves.
Even empty travel without meaning could be way to recharge your batteries so that you can go back and continue your true lives purpose. But then it’s a vacation to recharge so you have the strength to “continue the good fight”. You have connected your travel to a greater sense of meaning.
The purpose of your life does not need to be grand and dramatic i.e “save the planet”. Many a quiet life has been lived full of purpose as people strive to be a great mum, dad, son or daughter. Or, to be a good member of a community.
If you have clearly thought about and defined the meaning of your life you can start to try to use travel to support your purpose.
For example, a person whose life mission is to make a great home, to cook and nourish their family could go on a cooking vacation to learn better recipes and bring more joy to their dinner table. It’s not complicated, but it’s travel that is connected to the meaning of your life. And in that sense, it’s not time wasted.
By defining the meaning of your life you’ll know your life’s destination. You’ll know where you want to go in life. And if you know where you want to go in life it will be much easier to make good decisions about travel destinations and activities that support your life goals.
You will not wander aimlessly, being disappointed by the sights that you see. Each destination and experience will be connected to your ultimate destination, to your growth as a person and to your “why”.
Travel To Grow Your Sense Of Achievement
The fifth factor that contributes to life happiness is a sense of achievement.
It’s having realistic goals and hitting those goals.
When you are planning a travel experience ask yourself what you will achieve by taking this journey?
Choose travel adventures that require you to push yourself, that you can be proud of. Choose to go on trips that will make you say… “I did it!”
If your travel leaves you with a sense of accomplishment you will feel happier and more fulfilled.
Positive Travel Pays Off
I’m not against hedonistic travel. If people want to use travel to avoid pain and seek out pleasure then I’m all for it.
But I also think positive travel can be even more powerful. You can still create pleasurable travel experiences but fit them into a larger plan of your growth as a person.
To finish up, here is my summary of truly beneficial travel:
- Travel to develop your positive emotions of hope, gratitude, and benevolence. Travel to develop your sense of respect and awe towards the planet, the people that live here and the particular places or people that resonate with you.
- Travel to develop skills and knowledge that allow you to go in to deeper into zones of engagement. These zones are places of refuge and peace in our minds where time and worries slip away. Everyone should have a place where they are in the zone and content. Use travel to find or develop your place of flow.
- Travel to visit family, friends and strengthen the ties that bind. Relationships are vital to a life well lived and travel can be a great tool to help relationships flourish.
- Use travel as a tool to discover or further your purpose in life. The meaning of your life is what you choose to make it. Let travel support the meaning of your life.
- Travel to hit goals that give you a sense of well-being. A sense of achievement goes a long way to feeling your life was well-lived. Make sure your travel aligns with your goals.
This is positive travel, a type of travel that you’ll not see marketed as heavily. It requires deeper thought on your part to get the most out of it.
But if you choose positive travel over hedonistic travel you’ll see much greater benefits in the long term.
If you simply travel for pleasure, for the sheer enjoyment of chasing novelty and stimulation, it’s likely that you will experience some of the long term positive benefits traveling by happenstance.
You might get a sense of achievement by conquering the goals that you set for yourself. You might accidentally discover the purpose of your life out there on the road. You might stumble upon new lifelong relationships. You might experiment with new things and discover states of flow where time, place and troubles slip away.
If you step onto the road there’s no knowing where you might get swept off to.
But why leave it to luck?