Does traveling to your favorite destination make you happier than spending the same amount on a thing you can touch, like a second car? Is it all a box of memories, or is there something more that science can explain?
Our experiences become our memories. So, they are more truly a part of ourselves than any of our possessions.
A vacation, of course, boosts your mood, reduces your stress, and makes you feel more connected to Mother Earth. But what is it about traveling that makes you (and me) so happy for years to come?
Let’s dive in to better understand this science of traveling and happiness.
How Does Traveling Make You Happy
A recent study found that frequent traveling can make people 7% happier than those who do not travel (Chen & Zou, 2020). It also found that people who thought travel was important took more frequent trips. If one cannot travel, as was during the Covid outbreak, research suggests discussing past travel or planning future trips can boost happiness.
Traveling also strengthens our social and family bonds by allowing us to spend more time with our close ones and experience new adventures together.
5 Scientific Reasons Why Traveling Makes You Happier
How does traveling make you feel? As for me, after months of being in the same place and doing the same things, traveling makes me feel alive. It probably does the same to you.
A 2021 study published in the journal Tourism Analysis discovered that frequent travel could make you 7% happier with your life than those who did not travel at all.
The researchers discovered something even more intriguing: people who believed that tourism was important to them went on more frequent trips. They were also more likely to access travel-related information.
People dreaming of travel post-COVID-19 now have some scientific data to support their wanderlust. A new study shows frequent travelers are happier with their lives than people who don’t travel at all.— Will Ferguson, Washington State University
But why does traveling to a vacation destination make you happier?
1. Traveling gives you joy before, during, and after the experience.
Vacation travel is something that you remember for years, more than many other experiences. Studies in positive psychology show there are 3 ways traveling can help you become happier:
- Anticipatory Joy: before your actual travel, you get many happiness boosts as you plan your holiday sojourns.
- Joyful Experiences: during your travel, you enjoy so many moments of living through fresh experiences.
- Happy Memories: after you are back home, you relive your pleasant experiences as you share them with others.
We know the thrill of exploring far-off lands, seeing things we have never seen, and learning how people in another part of earth spend their lives. Simply said, it helps us create beautiful memories.
What makes these memories?
When we travel to a new place, the novelty of our experiences creates new nerve connections in our brains.
“Thinking of good times from the past makes me feel better about the present. It helps me appreciate things more. It gives me an idea of whereI was then, where I am now, and where I ultimately want to be. It helpsme understand the present and deal with it…These memories also give me a sense of confidence kind of a ‘‘you did it before, you can do it again’’ type of thing. If things are bad, I use my memories to start thinking of ways to make it better rather than thinking about how bad it is.”— A female respondent in the study: Using the Past to Enhance the Present, Bryant & Smart (2005)
MIT neuroscientists have shown in animal experiments that they can treat symptoms of depression by artificially reactivating joyful memories formed before the start of depression.
And then, according to happiness science:
It means spending money on experiences rather than on material stuff is a better way to boost your happiness. Traveling to new, pleasant destinations and meeting people from other cultures can increase our joy.
The happiness you experience from buying stuff, on the other hand, does not endure as long because of a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation (we discuss it later).
Studies have shown that traveling to a foreign land and culture has a higher positive impact on our happiness than any monetary purchase. (Van Boven, 2005; Carter & Gilovic, 2010; Gilovic et al., 2014).
Traveling can make you happier than buying things for the same amount of money.
Well, you might ask at this point: “What if we keep on buying?”
[By the way, here’s How To Spend Your Money When Shopping For Happiness?]
2. Traveling triggers the release of Serotonin, the happiness chemical.
Happiness doesn’t have just one key. It is many things that make us happy.
For decades, researchers have tried to figure out what actually drives joy in us. What actually lights us up, makes us smile, and feels warm and fuzzy inside? While this varies from one to another, there are some common triggers, like the release of serotonin, the happy chemical, in our brains.
Dr. Gilovic, a Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, led several studies on this (Van Boven & Gilovic, 2003; Nicolao et al., 2009; Gilovic et al., 2014, Peng & Ye, 2015). He noticed the following pattern:
There is an increase in serotonin when we purchase things, eat savory junk foods, or smoke cigarettes.
When we give in to our temptations and silence our inhibitions without regard for the consequences, we feel a surge of happiness.
When we travel, we tend to shop more than usual, eat exotic foods, and discard our habitual inhibitions, all of which are likely to raise our serotonin levels.
However, the aftereffect of a serotonin surge may be disappointing, since the spike was just temporary. So, even if it was something we had been anticipating for a long time, our “happiness” gives way to some sadness.
Actually, the brief serotonin spike nudges the brain to make a downward correction, to help us focus on the activities of routine life.
In terms of happiness, this makes us somewhat sad, which then makes us want to engage in more serotonin-releasing activities.
To get that serotonin rush again, we tell others about our adventures, browse through our travel pictures, and share our experiences on social media for some time after we return home.
But beware, if you indulged in some unhealthy behaviors on your holiday, you may carry back home some regrets. (While at it, do you think a life of ‘No Regrets’ is a good life?)
By the way, our serotonin levels also rise when we meditate, expose ourselves to bright light, and exercise. And traveling involves at least the last two of those (and the third one too if you are on a meditating holiday).
3. Traveling can help you get off the hedonic treadmill.
Look at the last things you purchased—clothes, food, or any other object. You will notice a common thread. There has been a gradual loss of interest in most of those.
This loss took place at different times. While some items brought joy longer than others, others less. None, however, had a long-term impact on your happiness.
The allure of material possessions fades fast, leaving us yearning for more and craving the next big thing.
• Hedonic Treadmill
The “hedonic treadmill” or hedonic adaption is a psychological phenomenon in which we lose the joy of our owned things as we adapt to them. In simple terms, it means once you get a little too familiar with your possessions, they no longer give you a cheer.
• Déjà vu
According to studies, this sense of déjà vu (the feeling that one has lived through the situation before) is one of the top sources of happiness, bringing us back to some of the happiest moments of our lives.
When we buy a material thing, we often compare it to similar things that other people possess. When we realize that others have better things, or have acquired the same things in a better deal, it typically feeds our regret and leads us to overthink our decisions.
However, it is harder to compare experiences. Experiences, like traveling, keep us happy for a longer time.
For example, no matter how satisfied you are with your smartphone, you can still compare it with the latest release on the block — and lose some of that satisfaction you originally had.
On the flip side, experience buying has a different effect. You cannot compare the taste of an apple with the taste of an orange. So, even if our friend says they went to the same place as us, our experience is
Experiences, like those that we gain while traveling to new horizons, keep our happiness alive longer. We practically ingrained them into our memory, so we can get those feelings to resurface with just small reminders, like a smell or a photograph.
Traveling is important for mental growth and human happiness. — The NYU Dispatch
4. Unfamiliarity and novelty of traveling increase your happiness.
• Challenge of Unfamiliarity
Traveling offers a unique experience—an opportunity to adapt our survival instincts in the face of novelty and unfamiliarity.
Taking a step outside your routine hangouts puts you in a more vulnerable position than you are used to. It calls up your resilient brain and wakes you up to adapt to new challenges.
It is generally easy for most of us to fall into a routine, doing the same thing day in and day out, week after week, year after year. This humdrum of living doesn’t give the brain the opportunity it needs to stay much happier.
• Reward of Novelty
Besides the adrenaline rush and the sensations that come along with curiosity, those who travel out far from their routine world get rewarded with a richly positive experience.
This is because you can see how others live, and find it fascinating to compare your life to theirs. This gives you the chance to step back and take a good look at your life and how you live it.
5. Travel experiences become more valuable with time.
A pleasant memory becomes more cherished with the passage of time. This is sometimes more true of our travel experiences. Recall a train journey you took years back and note how it makes you feel fonder.
We are, by nature, wanderers, and explorers.
As the edible and huntable things in an area became scarce, our ancestors had to travel across continents to survive. This led them to a more profound understanding of our place in this vast and mysterious universe.
Traveling and exploring new landscapes for food and shelter helped us become the only species intelligent enough to study our own brains.
[Did you know that you can actually find out if someone is highly intelligent without making them take IQ tests?]
Once humans started farming about 10,000 years ago and settled, the basic element of exploration went out, and it left them with a void to fill. We tried to fill that void with comfort food and possessing things.
Then recently, came the Covid pandemic that shut us inside our homes for months. Gradually, we are rediscovering the lost art of traveling and exploring.
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.— St. Augustine
Experiences are unique in that they rarely die out, remaining with us for most of our lives. Ask an old person about their first love and see their eyes light up!
Experiences gleaned from traveling become a part of us, sometimes changing our perspective or way of living life forever.
Artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay met in a MoMA retrospective 30 years after they split up. Macushla, a YouTube viewer, left this lovely comment on the video:
“I know this look. It passes from the eyes, penetrates the heart, and coils two souls together until you don’t know where one ends or the other begins. You look so intensely into one another’s being (that) you fade into to each other. This is a love so true, so pure, so honest…there is nothing more magical than being in the presence of your soulmate. It is life changing. Nothing will ever compare.”
How To Plan Your Traveling Holiday
We all work and have stresses and responsibilities. But once we’re done handling them, we go out shopping. And the things we buy are often things that might end up in second-hand pawnshops a few years down the line.
However, instead of using our disposable money on material purchases, if we were to invest in travel, we can give ourselves a more direct and long-lasting positive effect on happiness.
We are better off spending money on experiences to make ourselves happier, so why not take the chance and book yourself a trip?
Plan it a few months ahead. Pick a place. Buy the tickets and book the hotels. Allow yourself to be excited about it. Read and watch the travel guides to your destination. Pack the essentials. And make that trip, even if it is only to the next town over.
Don’t overthink if you should make that trip. Get vaccinated and follow the Covid-19 safety precautions. Then travel out and bring some happiness into your life.
It’s really the simple things in life that matter much for your happiness.
Are people who travel a lot happy?
Frequent traveling can make people happier, according to a survey of 500 Taiwanese people. It found that frequent travelers are more satisfied with their lives. It also found that people who place a high personal value on tourism are more likely to gather travel-relevant information, resulting in more frequent travel. The study authors Chen & Zou (2021) suggest that travel and tourism can be one key life domain that influences how people rate their overall quality of life.
What does traveling do to a person?
Traveling can help us become more creative, develop more cognitive flexibility, and be more receptive to new ideas. While traveling, we give our brain many new challenges, such as navigating new places and making sense of new experiences, and it tries to solve them by growing new nerve connections. Neuroscientists call this remodeling power of the brain neuroplasticity.
Traveling is a great way to escape the day-to-day routine and explore new places. But we seem to have put off exploring new places that drive our curiosity.
- First, we are busier than ever after a global pandemic, in fear of more possible global viral outbreaks, and a looming recession.
- Second, most things that might intrigue us can no longer intrigue us because everything is just a web search away.
In such an anti-curious world, traveling can ignite the brain, prompting its wheels to turn and revealing its vast potential.
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Authors’ Bios: Edited expanded, and rewritten by Sandip Roy, a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism). Yogi and Suchna, cross-content travelers, wrote an earlier, smaller version of this article.
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