How Does Traveling Make You Happier (Scientific Reasons)

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Our experiences become our memories. So, they are more truly a part of ourselves than any of our possessions.

But is it all a box of travel memories that makes us happy, or is there something that science can explain?

Why do vacations make you happier for years after you return?

Traveling makes us happier by letting us break our routines, satisfy our wanderlust, try new experiences, deepen our bonds with those we travel with, and create fond memories. Traveling can reduce our stress and thereby boost our mood.

How does traveling makes you happy?
Why does traveling make you happy?

Here are the science-backed reasons why traveling boosts our happiness:

1. Traveling gives you joy before, during, and after the experience.

Positive Psychology studies show there are 3 ways why traveling makes you happy:

  • Anticipatory Joy: Before travel, you get happiness boosts while planning your holidays.
  • Joyful Experiences: During travel, you enjoy many moments of living through new experiences.
  • Happy Memories: After you are back home, you share and relive your adventures and enterprises.

Exploring other parts of our planet and learning how people live there creates new nerve connections in our brains and makes for unique memories.

“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 where I was then, where I am now, and where I ultimately want to be. It helps me understand the present and deal with it.”

— A respondent in the study Using the Past to Enhance the Present, Bryant & Smart (2005)

Then, according to happiness science, spending money on experiences rather than on material stuff is a better way to boost your happiness.

MIT neuroscientists have shown they can relieve depression by artificially reactivating joyful memories that were formed before the onset of depression.

Experiential purchases >> Materialistic purchases

Traveling to exciting places can boost our happiness more than buying stuff for the same amount.

Studies show 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.

Plus, the delight you get from buying things does not last long because it gets over-familiar (hedonic adaptation).

“What if I keep on buying more and more stuff?”

Then it could turn into an issue called compulsive shopping disorder. Psychologists link it to depression and anxiety.

travel-for-happiness-boost
Traveling can make you happier than buying things.

2. Traveling triggers the release of Serotonin, the happiness chemical.

We are happy for many reasons, and there is no single key to happiness.

But scientists have tried to identify the one thing that lies at the root of all that makes us happy.

They found 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.

We lose our inhibitions when we travel, and buy and do unusual things like eat exotic foods and play extreme sports, which can boost our serotonin levels.

However, since the serotonin surge is temporary, its aftereffect may be disappointing.

So, even if we have been eagerly awaiting an activity for a long time, our “happiness” gives way to some sadness after it’s over. This is the reason for the post-holiday blues.

The good news is that while this serotonin dip makes us unhappy, it also helps us focus on the activities of routine life.

But we may recreate the serotonin rush by telling others about our adventures, looking at our travel photos, and sharing our experiences on social media after we return home.

Beware, however, if you indulge in unhealthy activities to boost your happiness while on vacation, you may return with regrets.

Our serotonin levels also rise when we meditate, expose ourselves to bright light, and exercise. Traveling involves at least the last two of those (and the third one too if you are on a meditating holiday).

traveling-for-peace
Meditation can boost serotonin levels in our brains.

3. Traveling can help you get off the “hedonic treadmill.”

Look at the décor items in your room—you’ll notice you’ve gradually lost interest in them. Some items gave you joy for a longer time than others, but none makes you as happy now as they did at first.

That is the Hedonic Treadmill.

Hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation is the human tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness that is consistent with their personality and genetics after experiencing major positive or negative life events.

what is hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation - How Does Traveling Make You Happier (Scientific Reasons) - 1

This makes us gradually lose the joy of material possessions. So, when you “meet” your stuff daily, they don’t bring you as much joy as before.

Traveling affects hedonic adaptation.

We tend to derive more lasting happiness from experiences, such as traveling or trying new activities, rather than material possessions. These experiences provide new stimuli and situations, delaying hedonic adaptation. So, in a way, traveling can help prolong our overall sense of happiness and satisfaction, making it a useful strategy to counteract hedonic adaptation.

Another reason why traveling makes you happy is that it minimizes your tendency to compare.

When we buy something, we frequently compare it to similar purchases made by others. If they have a better item or an identical item at a lower price, we regret our decisions.

Actually, the habit of comparing with others is a happiness killer.

But it is harder to compare experiences. That’s why experiences, like holiday travels, keep us happy for a longer time.

Even if your friend says they went to the same holiday destination as you, your experience will remain uniquely yours.

Your experiences while exploring new places can keep you happy for a long. You essentially imprint them into your memory, so that even little cues like a smell or a photograph can resurface those emotions.

Traveling is important for mental growth and human happiness. — The NYU Dispatch

traveling-alone-for-joy
Traveling helps you grow mentally.

4. Unfamiliarity, novelty, and déjà vu of traveling make you happy.

Traveling allows us to test our survival instincts in new surroundings.

Most of us get stuck in ruts, repeating ourselves day after day, week after week. This mundane lifestyle does not offer the brain the challenges it needs to stay sharp and optimized.

Stepping outside routine environments puts you in a more vulnerable position. It activates your resilient brain and prepares you to adapt to new conditions.

While hedonic adaptation makes us take things and people for granted, unfamiliar and novel situations shake us out of our boring routine.

• Joy of Déjà vu

When you travel back to a holiday spot you visited a long time ago, you have a vague sense of “familiar” thrill due to a phenomenon called déjà vu.

It’s as if you’ve lived through the experience before, but in a dream or in a previous life.

Actually, déjà vu is triggered by the reactivation of lost memory pathways in the brain.

5. Travel experiences become more valuable with time.

Recall a train trip you took years ago and notice how it grew more cherished with time.

As you get older, you get busier, less able, or more insecure to travel out of your hometown. This makes all your past good experiences even fonder.

This is similar to what happened to humans during evolution.

Our ancestors were explorers by necessity. They had to travel to survive as edible/huntable things became scarce in an area.

This helped them understand our place in this vast and mysterious universe.

Then, when humans started farming about 10,000 years ago and settled, the basic element of exploration went out of their nature.

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.

— St. Augustine

Our travel experiences become a part of us, staying for most of our lives and sometimes forever changing our way of living.

Ask an old person about their favorite holiday memory and watch their eyes light up.

An inspiring real-life story:

Artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay had 12 years of collaboration.

Their final performance was “The Lovers” in 1988 on the Great Wall of China.

Then they parted ways and didn’t meet or talk to each other for the next 22 years.

Then, in 2010, Ulay unexpectedly showed up at one of Abramovic’s performances at the Museum of Modern Art.

See what happens when two former lovers meet after decades, and sit silently gazing at each other across a table.

Lovers meet for the First time After 30 years

We quote Macushla, a YouTube viewer, who left this memorable comment on the Marina and Ulay 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.”

FAQs

  1. Can traveling make you happy?

    Yes, research suggests traveling can boost our happiness. This study by Chen & Zou, 2020 found that frequent travel could make one 7% happier than those who do not travel.
    The research also found that people who believe tourism is important went on vacations more often. They were also more likely to check out travel-related information.
    If one cannot actually travel, discussing past travels or planning future trips can boost happiness.

  2. 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.

  3. How does traveling make you feel?

    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.

  4. How to plan your perfect holiday trip?

    Here is how to plan your perfect holiday 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.

traveling and your happiness
A travel experience can become part of your being.

Final Words

Our curiosity for adventure is instinctive.

We are wanderers and explorers by nature. But we seem to have put off exploring new places.

In such an anti-curious world, traveling can ignite the brain, and reveal its vast potential for making us happier.

• • •

Note: Yogi and Suchna, cross-content travelers, wrote an earlier, smaller version of this article. Extensively rewritten and edited by Sandip Roy.


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