There are thousands of studies trying to determine whether booking a trip will lead you to happiness. However, maybe this is too simplistic. The secret of happiness lies not in the act of international travel, but in how you approach a journey abroad.
A few things are clear from happiness research. Vacations and traveling have the potential to add excitement to your life, combined with an opportunity to grow. Sometimes it can be tough, but that is an important part of building character and emotional intelligence.
After reading through articles on the science of happiness, I decided to back this research up with the thoughts of real travelers. These are the hardcore types, who spend much of their time on the road. With rose-tinted glasses tossed in the trash, these twenty-somethings offer a powerful perspective on how to travel in a way that leads to true happiness.
New Experiences and Chasing Dreams
Ewelina, discontented with her job, was a passenger on an airplane when she noticed the high-energy levels of the cabin crew. That’s when she spotted an opportunity to try something fresh and exciting.
She, like all of us, seeks happiness. She already practices yoga, exercises regularly, paints, spends time with family, and pets all the dogs she encounters. One thing she wished for was to see more of the world.
She managed to land herself a job as a flight attendant. Could there be a more perfect career for a person who loves to travel? I suppose that depends on what we mean by ‘travel.’
“I’m not really traveling,” Ewelina told me. “It’s just moving for moving. It’s not making me grow.”
When she does have the opportunity to leave the aircraft or airport hotel, her energy levels are depleted. However, this kind of lifestyle fits her well. It’s not perfect, but it has put her on the path to where she wants to be.
“I discovered that dreams can be closer than I thought, and my work can help them to come true,” she said. Her new employment has brought her closer to the kind of life she desires; a life full of new experiences.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done extensive research into the importance of novel encounters. He found that humans’ perception of time speeds up as we age, simply because fewer things are new to us.
When Ewelina switched to a career that involved taking trips, time slowed down. Life became more enjoyable. Although she feels tired after a shift, undiscovered places are adrenaline inducing, which provides her with an energy boost and a childlike sense of joy.
Eagleman’s studies revealed that when we are remembering activities that were frightening or exciting - and travel is often both - our memories are richer and more detailed. This makes it seem as if those events happened more slowly.
Another interesting psychological aspect of Ewelina’s story is her commitment to chasing dreams. Landing this new job took her one step closer to an ultimate goal.
Business Psychology Professor at University College London, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, has written about the happiness benefits of celebrating small wins. Life will never be perfect, and there will always be things to dream about. This is a wonderful thing. It means you get to enjoy every moment along the journey, rather than delaying happiness until a goal is reached.
Instead of focusing solely on a huge and crazy travel goal, consider each new destination a win in itself. This offers a deep sense of achievement.
Personal Growth and Learning What is Important
In the search for happiness, Marina has traveled throughout Canada and the USA, along with vacations to Cuba and Thailand. She can never seem to get enough.
“Every time I travel, I discover things about myself. It pushes me over my limits…in a good way! It’s a human experience and an opportunity to discover people you would never otherwise have met,” Marina explains.
Marina views travel as a chance for personal growth that is hard to achieve in what she refers to as “real life” that is, her life at home as a mother, which she describes as “perfectly clean and controlled.”
Life abroad forces her out of her comfort zone. When she first visited Thailand, she wondered how’d she’d cope. However, six weeks later she was not only surviving but truly thriving. She had discovered what she was capable of.
In Cuba, she realized that people can be happy with far less than most North Americans think they need. As the Ancient Greeks put it: “She has the most, who is most content with the least.”
The development of yourself is an important component of psychological wellbeing. It is part of a movement towards what Abraham Maslow referred to as ‘self-actualization’ or achieving your fullest potential. Without this, you don’t have the emotional maturity to form successful relationships, nor the capabilities to engage in life’s most exciting activities.
It is hard to push and expand your limits from home. Booking a trip to an unknown part of the world leaves no other option but to grow as a person.
The second lesson that Marina learned was discovering the true source of happiness. University of Pennsylvania economics professor, Richard Easterlin, did an in-depth study into this. He found that, past a certain point, the increase in wealth that North American and European countries observed over time, did not correlate with increased happiness among citizens.
Reading this study is one way to understand the concept, but nothing beats living it. When everything you own fits into a single backpack, you realize that those material possessions weren’t what you needed. It is the close bonds formed with travel buddies and true adventures that provide a sense of contentment.
Psychology professor at San Francisco State University, Ryan Howell, found that the initial joy of purchasing a car faded pretty quickly, while the memories of a pleasant experience continue to create feelings of happiness over the long-term. The initial pleasure of experience is also more intense than the satisfaction of receiving a physical item.
Finding Friendship and Smashing Bigotry
Oliver is a management consultant and is lucky enough to have clients all over Europe. However, he notes how the impact on his happiness hasn’t been wholly positive.
“I think it’s unsustainable,” he tells me. He recently relocated to Zurich but has found it hard to settle because of the frequent business trips to Germany and Austria.
“It leads to a very disorganized life. Maintaining relationships is difficult.”
Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, found that the key to happiness lies in having high-quality social relationships. His happiness research is some of the most evidence-based and academically respected available.
You certainly meet many people when out on the road, but relationships formed are often shallow and fleeting. This can come as a shock for the traveler looking for meaningful connections. The secret to happiness is to stay in touch with friends and family from home while continuing to meet new people. They could end up becoming a lifelong friend or partner.
“After a while, every hotel room looks the same; every airport is the same,” Oliver explains. I start to wonder if everything is okay with him but before I can ask, he continues, “But it’s really interesting to see the culture and spend time in a foreign city without being a tourist.”
Oliver has a unique perspective, and we can learn from his situation. Actually living in your destination, even temporarily, offers a vastly different experience to visiting as a tourist.
You hang out with local people while engaging in local customs and therefore have a deeper understanding of their culture. This is a meaningful learning curve, but it also helps you to become a more well-rounded, open-minded individual.
Mark Twain summed it up like this: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
The science seems to agree. Emeritus Professor at Illinois State University, W. Paul Vogt, found an undeniable correlation between levels of education and levels of tolerance. Although we may evolutionarily prefer our social in-groups, interacting directly with other cultures lowers prejudice against them. Being more open and less fearful of others is a guaranteed way to increase happiness in life.
Lessons for Travelers
Jetting off around the world won’t make you happy in itself. There are trade-offs that come with a life on the road. However, it can present opportunities for the excitement, meaning, and personal growth that you crave.
View your adventures as a learning opportunity, in which you discover your true self, what you are capable of, and what is possible on this incredible planet. Be thankful for what you have, live in the moment, savor the journey, and appreciate your relationships.
If travel helps you to learn these habits, then travel has made you happy.
Written by Thom Brown