The Philosophy of Travel: Are Travelers Happier People?

All I’ve ever known is travel. I flew on an airplane for the first time when I was five and by myself for the first time when I was seven. By the time I graduated high school I had been to all but a handful of U.S. states and by the time I graduated college, I had traveled abroad a few times. I’m incredibly fortunate and I owe my family so much thanks for turning me on to a love for travel. All that to say that I can’t relate at all to people who tell me they’ve never flown on a plane or don’t have a passport. I’m not pretentious about it, but I’m just taken aback because travel has always been such a significant part of my life. Yet I sometimes wonder what onlookers really think of me and other travelers who are so frequently extolling the virtues of travel.

“There goes Spencer again talking about travel. He’s drinking the Kool-Aid and he doesn’t even know it. Bless his heart.” Like are these the types of conversations that people who don’t like travel have among themselves. Do intrepid travelers have a cultish nature about them? We must not because I typed in “Are travelers a cult” into Google and no results were found – because you know if it’s not on Google it’s not real.

This question of whether travelers are happier people or not is based on observing my own travels, as well as reading comments and emails from readers who don’t have the same feelings about travel as I have. After hearing how many U.S. adults don’t use most of their vacation days, I wrote a post last year asking if Americans simply don’t like to travel.  Few posts have gotten as many comments as that one did, with some commenters describing how travel hasn’t been all that satisfying. One reader remarked that work is a lot less stressful than a one-week vacation abroad. Yet another reader commented that he didn’t see the point of travel and that it had never left an impact on his life in any way. So does travel not make people happier? Or are all of us intrepid travelers just drinking the Kool-Aid?

A Business Insider article discussed 15 scientifically-proven things that make people happier and travel was one of them. In the article, researcher Bruce Heady of the University of Melbourne stated that “prioritizing success and material goals” can be harmful to one’s life.  However, that says more about material goods than it does about travel. If we trade material possessions for travel experiences, will that in turn make us happier?

The U.S. Travel Association published an article  on the benefits of travel and taking vacation, featuring statistics from multiple sources. One such statistic was from Ypartnership’s “National Travel Leisure Monitor,” which revealed that 82% of affluent leisure travelers consider vacation important to their well-being. A study of University of Tennessee employees in Dr. Mel Borins’ book, Go Away: Just for the Health of It, revealed that life satisfaction increases during vacation and then continues upon returning. These statistics appear to point toward a correlation between travel and one’s happiness.

But if travel really does increase happiness, why don’t people travel more? Worldwide, one-third of people don’t use up all of their vacation days, with that number being much higher in some countries, according to a Reuters article. The same article cited that in the U.S., less than half of Americans use all of their vacation days. If people really are “gravitating more toward experiences than possessions”, as this New York Times article put it, then why aren’t people traveling more and why is Apple reporting record profits and doubled iPhone and iPad sales? Is it money? Because the iPad 2 starts at $499, which is the same price as a long weekend of a Living Social Escape on a British Columbia houseboat or round-trip flight this summer to St. Lucia.

A year and a half ago I merged my dreams of travel and writing into one to set off on a 9-month trip. I was a mess. I was not happy and I knew something big had to change. Knowing some of my happiest moments in life had come while traveling, such as spending the winter holidays one year in Paris and living and traveling around South Africa for two months, I decided that the big change was going to be a stint of travel. I didn’t go into it expecting  to turn my frown upside down, but went into it with few, if any expectations. The conclusion: The person I came back as 9 months later isn’t the person I left as. I came to see that the world was in fact beautiful – more beautiful than I had ever imagined and it took that trip for me to realize it. It gave me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment like nothing else ever had. No job, girl, or trophy had given me the satisfaction that that trip gave me.

If you start traveling more, will you become a happier person? I can’t answer that for you. All I know is that for me, travel makes me a better person, whether it’s a few days or a few months. I come back from a trip refreshed, invigorated, happy, and with a new outlook on the world around me. But I can’t say that it will have the same effect on you. I told you about the readers who have traveled extensively, but who haven’t been affected by it. But what I do know is that people want to do what makes them happy. Humans go to great lengths, no matter what the cost, to strive for happiness. I also know that with my final dying breaths, you will NOT hear me utter the following words: “I wish I would’ve just been at home more, spending more time working and watching television, rather than all that time spent traveling.”

What effects do you think travel has on your well-being?

16 Comments on “The Philosophy of Travel: Are Travelers Happier People?

  1. I am a much happier person when I am traveling. Now that I am working as a travel writer and traveling more than I ever have, I find myself yearning for travel when I am home! I think the main reason most people don’t travel is that they have never experienced it – it has a lot to do with how you were raised. My dad was in the Marines and I traveled my whole life. My husband, on the other hand, had never left his state and never even seen the ocean. I changed that immediately, of course!! And he’s a fellow travel lover as well now.

    • Good point Jan. I think for a lot of people, they know travel based on what they see in media and it’s not always a good picture for them or it’s seen as being too expensive. I was very fortunate to be raised in a family that valued travel so much. I’ve learned and experienced more of the world through travel that anything else.

  2. I think so. I think travelers are eternal optimists. Even if we were to get Shanghai’d in Shanghai, there is no way in hell that would make us stop exploring the world. We have thirst for discovering something new, brilliant and life affirming and traveling allows us to do that. I think I have an appreciation for other cultures having experienced it first hand. I think it makes me well rounded which does wonders for my general outlook on life. I’d like to think that travelers are generally a happy lot and the plane ride just brings it to the surface more frequently. However, if you are and have always been a bitch on wheels, chances are those will be the people that you see that are aptly described as an ugly american or whatever nationality you may be.

    • Good words Renee. Reminds me of the quote that not all who wander are lost. I love the outlooks on life I come back with from my travels. It’s so fresh and it’s because of that, that I don’t want to ever stop traveling!

  3. Spencer,

    This is a very thought provoking post. I’ve always thought that Americans don’t like to travel, at least not as much as other cultures. You have probably noticed this in your travels as well. It seems like we’re one of the only cultures in the world that doesn’t incorporate an extended period of travel into our lives. Aussies have the Gap Year. Israeli’s travel after they serve in the military. Unfortunately our education system is structured in such a way that these extended periods of travel are not really likely for us because we have to often pay off our debts from school.

    Now, are travelers happier? That’s a tough one. I think that there’s no doubt that travel is something that makes me happier. But I don’t know if it’s for everybody. You and I even discussed just how ready were to return home from CR after about month 4. To me, the optimal travel situation would be this. Have a home base in LA and travel whenever I want. Great article. I think there will be lots of great discussions on this one.

    • Always appreciate your perspective Srini! I’m still figuring out what travel looks like for me. I know that it’s more than just a weekend trip here and there, but I also know that it’s not months/years on end of travel. I’m liking the scenario I’ve created for myself like you describe, where I have a home base and then travel as I please. The next big one is a few weeks this summer in Europe.

  4. I am not a world class traveler, or even a whole USA traveler. I don’t have the time or money to travel as I would wish. That being said, I do travel some and I do visit family and they do not live close to me. I have plenty of relatives who don’t travel much at all.
    I think a real traveler is a person who is adaptive. They figure out how to fit into and adapt to their surroundings and enjoy it in spite of the weather, the food, the accommodations or because of it. That also means they can take off from work, and come back to work understanding that it will be there when they come back, but that’s okay too. My job requires me to be in the office too much for extended travel, but maybe someday I will get there, I hope to.

    • Thank you for the comment Diana. I could have made a bit more distinction between the types of travel. I don’t think length has THAT much to do with it. Of course someone on a longer trip that covers multiple countries can have some really broad and far-reaching experiences, but the person traveling for a week can have many of the same.

  5. I’d hate to speak for anyone else in general, but I know I am happier when I am traveling. In fact, I am much happier when I have a trip planned in the future. I think I am the least happy when I feel trapped, not traveling, and with no solid concrete travel plans in the future. Obviously, I try to minimize those periods. I feel so bad for my wife during those times…

    • I like what you said even about planning Erik. There’s a certain joy of just having a trip that I know I’m going on, even if it isn’t here yet. It’s something to work toward and knowing that it’s on the horizon and not something out of reach. Thanks!

  6. I like to have a home base and I LOVE to travel. My solution to combining the two: move abroad! I am always happier when I am away from where I was raised (which I consider home only because of the few people there I care about, not because I actually like the place) in the Deep South, as I am about as opposite from a “typical” Southerner as you could get.

  7. I don’t know how traveling couldn’t make you happier. I know that some people fall in love with cities and so they move there and are really happy. Even so, I think you have to travel around some in order to truly appreciate what you have.

  8. Interesting. My first thought is that I see plenty of unhappy people traveling: those people who complain and whine about everything being different from home, the ones who should really just stay home. But I think that having time to rest and recharge, to explore new places physically and mentally, to challenge ourselves by getting lost or trying new things–those are good things. Those are healthy things. Those contribute to happiness. Am I happier than my friends who have never left the country and who work 80 hours a week? Hard to say. But I can say that I’m happy, and I suppose that’s all that really matters.

  9. Like you, I have been traveling from an early age on. I can’t imagine life without…My greatest fear is to die before I have seen all I want to see. On the other hand, I’ll die in my travel boots, so hopefully, my last moments will be happy ones.

  10. Great article. Me and the wife have this discussion from time to time since the start of our 6month trip in January. To us, traveling contributes to our lives and adds to our happiness. We’ve seen people traveling who are absolutely miserable and are using travel to escape issues/problems. All in all, traveling can be positive reinforcement in helping to show people that there is a world that is living, breathing, and moving.

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