Travel Lit

How Travel Makes People Happier

Photo by Laura Mary

I’ve been reading The Happiness Project:  Or, why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin and came across a  paragraph that got me thinking about the correlation between happiness and travel:

“My research had revealed that challenge and novelty are key elements to happiness.  The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction.  If you do new things – visit a museum for the first time, learn a new game, travel to a new place, meet new people – you’re more apt to feel happy than people who stick to more familiar activities.

This is one of the many paradoxes of happiness:  we seek to control our lives, but the unfamiliar and the unexpected are important sources of happiness.  What’s more, because novelty requires more work from the brain , dealing with novel situations evokes more intense emotional responses and makes the passage of time seem slower and richer.”

Photo by Smil

Reading this, I wondered if unfamiliar and unexpected situations make everyone happy or just certain personality types.  As someone who is curious, loves to learn and constantly craves new experiences, I’m practically a born-traveler.  When I’m feeling down, for example, instead of reaching for the cookie dough ice cream, I reach for the car keys.  Because even if I have no money or time to go on a vacation, oftentimes just getting into the car and going for a drive or walking around a neighboring town I’ve never visited, is all I need to feel better.  The mental stimulation of being somewhere new and different is enough.

But for someone who has difficulty coping with change and  prefers a stable and predictable environment, I would think that a week alone in say, Zagreb, Croatia, would result in feelings of anxiety, stress and well, anything but happiness.

Interestingly enough, in an article whose title asks the question “Will traveling make you happy?”, research is cited that links relaxing vacations and happiness, claiming that the more relaxing a vacation is, the longer the spike in post-vacation happiness will last after a person returns home.  Or in other words, people who spend a week sipping mai tais at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean will remain happier for a longer period of time after returning home than those who spend a week sipping boiled water in a yurt in Mongolia.

Photo by Michael

Though the article’s title uses the word ‘traveling’, the research referenced is about vacationing, which I would argue is a very different thing.  A vacation (in the ‘let’s relax in a hammock on the beach’ sense) is meant to be a pleasurable, rejuvenating experience.

Travel (in the ‘let’s tour these Mayan temples’ sense), on the other hand, is designed to be a challenging learning experience in which people are given an opportunity to grow into more perceptive, empathetic and culturally-sensitive human beings.

This isn’t to say that a travel experience is somehow superior to a vacation experience or visa versa; they’re just different.  In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin offers a description of the sort of happiness travel can bring when she refers to something she calls “fog happiness”.  Here’s her definition, excerpted from page 91:

“In many ways, the happiness of having children falls into the kind of happiness that could be called fog happiness.  Fog is elusive,  Fog surrounds you and transforms the atomsphere, but when you try to examine it, it vanishes.  Fog happiness is the kind of happiness you get from activities that, closely examined, don’t really seem to bring much happiness at all – yet somehow they do.” 

Photo by Bec W

Though she was referring to parenthood, I think the idea can lend itself to travel as well.  When examined up-close, the details of travel – waiting for trains, haggling with rickshaw drivers, struggling to ask for directions in a foreign language – are not enjoyable.  But travel as a whole adds depth and variety to life and with that comes a feeling of deep, encompassing self-satisfaction or ‘fog happiness’.  It may not be the same happiness felt, say, after a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, but it’s something.

What do you think?  Has traveling made you happier?  And in what way?

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