We all know the feeling. The anticipation of discovering far-off lands, changing our day-to-day scenery, and learning new things about how other people on the other side of the globe live their lives.
We all know we feel happier, less stressed, and more connected to Mother Earth when we travel. But, have you ever questioned why? Why does traveling make you happy?
Traveling Makes You Happy: A Fact Backed By Science
Indeed, it is true that you are better off spending your money on traveling to faraway places instead of making purchases. Experiences from visiting new geographies and encountering unfamiliar cultures can get you the best happiness boost.
When you go traveling, you get happiness in three ways:
- before your travel — as you plan it,
- during your travel — as you live through it,
- after your travel — as you remember and share it.
In contrast, the happiness you get by buying things does not last as long.
Studies by Van Boven & Gilovic in 2003, Van Boven in 2005, Carter & Gilovic in 2010, and Gilovic’s team in 2014 again, show an experience, as an exposure to a distant land and culture while traveling, has a greater bearing on our happiness than any material purchase.
1. 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.
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 the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation – a mental unfolding that happens with physical things, but in terms of happiness, always leaves us craving for more. We get to it in the next section.
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.
2. When you travel, you beat 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.
- Hedonic Treadmill: We lose the joy of owning stuff because you adapt to them via a psychological phenomenon we know as “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.
3. The novelty and unfamiliarity of travel increases your happiness.
- Challenge of Unfamiliarity: Traveling offers you a unique experience to take a step outside of 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.
4. Over time, your travel experiences become more valuable.
St. Augustine said,
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
We are wanderers and explorers by nature. Our ancestors traveled across the continents to survive and find a larger understanding of our place in this vast and mysterious universe.
Once humans started farming 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.
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 with 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.
Now, instead of using our disposable money on material goods, 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.
Once you have been vaccinated and taken care of the Covid safety precautions, don’t overthink too much. Travel out somewhere and add a chunk of happiness to 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. TheVillaEscape is their expression of soul travel. Edited and rewritten by Sandip Roy. the founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog.
• Our story: Happiness Project
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