We all know the feeling: the excitement of exploring far-off lands, seeing things other than our everyday surroundings, and learning about how other people on another side of the world live their lives.
A holiday trip gives us a happiness boost, takes off our stress, and makes us feel more connected to Mother Earth. Do you ever wonder why is it that traveling makes you and me happy?
When we travel to unfamiliar places, the novelty of our experiences builds new neural connections in our brains. Neuroscientists call it neuroplasticity. It increases our creativity, cognitive flexibility, and receptivity to new ideas. Traveling also strengthens our social and family bonds. This makes us enjoy traveling.
Let’s dive in to understand this science of traveling and happiness better.
Scientific Reasons Why Traveling Makes You Happy
Traveling makes me feel alive and probably does the same to you.
A 2021 study published in the journal Tourism Analysis shows frequent travelers are 7% happier with their lives than those who do not travel at all.
Now, the fun thing the researchers found was that people who believed that tourism is important to them were more likely to access travel-related information and went on more frequent trips. (“Frequent travel could make you 7% happier.” ScienceDaily, January 2021).
But why do vacations make you happier?
1. Positive Psychology explains the joy of traveling.
Studies in positive psychology found that there are 3 ways that traveling can help you become happier:
- Before your travel — you get many happiness boosts as you plan your holiday sojourns (anticipatory joy).
- During your travel — you enjoy the moments as you live through the fresh experiences (joyful experiences).
- After your travel — you relive your pleasant experiences as you share them with others (joyful memories).
MIT neuroscientists have shown in animal experiments that they can treat depression symptoms by artificially reactivating joyful memories formed before the start of depression.
When it comes to enhancing your joy, the Science of Happiness recommends that you spend your money on trips to pleasant destinations rather than on material goods. Traveling to new places and meeting people from unfamiliar cultures can give you the biggest happiness boost.
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 show that traveling to a foreign land and culture has a higher positive impact on our happiness than any monetary purchase. (Van Boven & Gilovic, 2003; Van Boven, 2005; Carter & Gilovic, 2010; Gilovic et al., 2014).
Traveling to new places makes you happier than buying things.
[By the way, here’s How To Spend Your Money When Shopping For Happiness?]
Traveling is important for mental growth and human happiness. — The NYU Dispatch
2. Traveling triggers the release of Serotonin, the happiness chemical.
Happiness doesn’t have only a single key, to be clear. Many things make us happy.
For decades, studies have tried to reveal what lights us up, makes us smile, and feels warm and fuzzy inside. While this differs from person to person, there are some common things that trigger the release of serotonin, the happy chemical, in our brains.
Dr. Gilovich, a Cornell University Professor of Psychology, has led several studies (Van Boven & Gilovic, 2003; Nicolao et al., 2009; Gilovic et al., 2014, Peng & Ye, 2015)) and observed a 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.
However, the after-effect might be a huge letdown. Because this release of serotonin and this feeling of “happiness” is only temporary, even if it’s something we have been anticipating for a long time.
This quick uptick can be more damaging than what some may believe, as it also pushes the brain to a quick downward adjustment and makes it part of its normal, daily processes.
This is when a kind of mental unfolding happens with physical things. In terms of happiness, it makes us want to do more activities that would release more serotonin.
Well, you might ask at this point: “What if we keep on buying?”
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.
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. This took place at different times. While some items brought joy longer than others, however, there was no lasting effect on happiness.
The allure of material possessions fades fast, leaving us yearning for more and craving the next big thing.
• Hedonic Treadmill: We lose the joy of owning stuff because we adapt to them via a psychological phenomenon called the “hedonic treadmill” or hedonic adaption. In simple terms, it means once you get a little too familiar with the stuff you own, 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.
• Comparison—The Happiness Killer: When we buy material stuff, we often end up comparing it with other similar stuff, mostly what others have. This tends to feed our regret and rumination. But it’s harder to compare experiences, as opposed to the physical stuff.
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, buying an experience has a different effect. You cannot exactly compare the taste of an apple with the taste of an orange.
Experiences, like those that we gain while traveling to new horizons, tend to keep our happiness last longer. As we practically ingrained them into our memory, we can get those feelings to resurface with just small reminders, like a smell or a photograph.
4. Novelty and unfamiliarity of travel increase your happiness.
• Challenge of Unfamiliarity: Traveling offers you a unique experience to take a step outside your normal life and puts you in a more vulnerable situation than what you’re used to.
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. Traveling experiences become more valuable as time passes.
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 wanderers and explorers by nature. 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 deeper understanding of our place in this vast and mysterious universe.
That is how we came to be the only species smart enough to study our own brain.
Once humans started farming approximately 10,000 years ago and settled, the basic element of exploration went out, and it left them with a void to fill. We have been trying to fill that void with comfort food and impulse possessions. Then we rediscovered traveling and exploring.
St. Augustine said,
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Experiences gleaned from traveling become a part of us, sometimes changing our point of view or way of living life forever.
Experiences are unique because they do not tend to get old, remaining with us almost throughout our entire lives. Unlike material things, which are separate entities from the human body, experiences are part of the being — with the brain, the heart, the gut, and the nose.
The advancement of technology has only made this void larger, doing away with the need to think too deeply or seek things that drive our curiosity. Most of the things that ought to intrigue us, but don’t, because everything is just a web search away.
In such an anti-curious world, traveling can ignite that curiosity in the human brain, causing its wheels to turn and allowing it to reveal its powerful potential.
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 up a place, pack the essentials, and make that trip — even if it is only to the neighboring town. Realize it’s really the simple things in life that matter a lot for your happiness.
Don’t overthink it; get vaccinated and take care of the other Covid-19 safety precautions. Then make plans to travel out somewhere and bring some happiness into your life.
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Following your passion isn’t always the bridge to reach where you want to be. What succeeds better is curiosity—find out more about how curiosity fuels success.
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Authors’ Bio: Yogi and Suchna, for over a decade, have mapped their way across various continents, sniffed out unusual routes, discovered new flavors, and stayed at quirky hostels. The Villa Escape is their expression of soul travel. Edited and rewritten by Sandip Roy, founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog.
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