I recently returned from a 4-month long backpacking trip around the world. Within 3 days of being home, I took a new job and my life was already back to the way it used to be. Like most of my peers I was working all day, hitting the gym, resting up with some Netflix at night, going out on weekends, repeat. I was never super dissatisfied with this lifestyle before, but for some reason I couldn’t fight the insatiable desire to quit everything again and hit the road despite the monetary and social consequences. The first week wasn’t so bad. I saw all my friends and family that I hadn’t seen in so long. Overwhelming emotions started to hit me soon after. Memories from the trip constantly poured over me like a hot shower. I could barely make it through half a song that reminded me of my recent travels and I wouldn’t dare to look at all the photos just yet. Being at home wasn’t fully depressing, but not traveling was. It wasn’t surprising that I started planning my next trip within a month of being back home.
I started asking the question: am I addicted to travel? Is that even possible? We all know those articles that talk about how good traveling is for the brain, how new experiences make us more confident and self-assured. That is definitely true in my case, but is knowing that there is a whole world of adventure out there waiting for me keeping me from truly living in the moment at home? I thought about a few of my friends that have been traveling for years that are probably never coming home. If they did come home now, would they be worse off than me?
I decided to ask a few leading psychologists some of my burning questions. Maybe all of this traveling is making it harder and harder to stay in one place. But why? Dr. Michael Brein coined the term "psychology of travel” in 1965 and is one of the very few travel psychologists in the world. His books, stories, and publications can be found here. Dr. Art Markman’s many books and published articles explore thinking, decision making, and the influences of motivation on reasoning. His Psychology Today article “Extended Travel Effects Personality” is what led me to his work. They were both nice enough to answer my questions with extremely insightful and well thought out answers.
1. Can travel change the brain so that it starts to crave new experiences the way a heroin addict craves heroin?
Dr. Markman: Brains are already wired to respond to novelty. We orient our attention to it. Travel can be quite rewarding. Some people can find the excitement of travel similar to what other people find in the excitement in shopping. I hesitate to go so far as to argue that either of those is really an addiction with mechanisms that are the same as those for substance abuse addictions. But, there are plenty of sensation-seeking people out there who find it hard to get energized without a thrill like traveling.
Dr. Brein: I can't really prove this or make a good case, but I suspect that there probably are changes in the brains of habitual travelers. Similar changes that may occur in the brain pathways from the rewards of travel as extreme adventurers, e.g. mountain climbers, probably get from the exhilaration that results from the extreme degrees of satisfaction and accomplishment of complex physical adventurous tasks (such as mountain climbing, white water rafting, and so on).
2. Can travel act as a drug that has positive long-term effects? Negative long-term effects?
Dr. Brein: Notwithstanding, not being able to resolutely affirm brain pathway changes from travel, none the less there is a definite “psychological addition” to travel. Like any other ‘habit,’ over-dependency on just about anything certainly has its drawbacks.
In so far as travel is concerned, I believe that what is so addictive is the immediacy of ‘rewards’ that occurs as a consequence to our movements in travel. We are in what amounts to a kind of ‘time machine’ where events and activities are condensed in time—a microcosmic and kaleidoscopic cornucopia of exciting sensory experiences—all speeded up—in our own travel microcosm. Consequences of our actions are quicker. Rewards are more imminent (as are consequences). The result is that benefits and achievements are more instantaneous—we grow, we mature, we achieve much more quickly than how it happens in our typical mundane daily lives. What can be more satisfying than that!
Travel reins in the Maslow's Needs Hierarchy ladder in a condensed period of time. When the rewards flow so quickly in our travels relative to our normal existences, we certainly want more of the same. Hence, a form of addiction!
Of course, too much of a good thing, might dissuade us or deviate us from other important life quests.
The people who might suffer the most from too much 'pre-mature' travel are those younger individuals who cast aside the normal, important life quests such as education, career, marriage, and so on—the normal life activities that are important to be started in a reasonable, timely fashion.
Thus, there is the danger that the lure of travel could offset these important life activities.
Having said all of the above, I doubt that these effects are that limiting. I cannot personally see any real harmful, long-term effects of continuous travel. Perhaps, fortunately, the costs of continuous travel are self-limiting. And those of us who are fortunate to be able to do so much travel—well, we've learned how to do it, haven't we? This, in and of itself, has to be useful in normal living, I would say!
Dr. Markman: Travel has lots of potential positive long-term effects. It can make people more open to cultural differences and more open to new ideas. Research by Adam Galinsky suggests that people who live for extended periods in more than one culture are more creative (as a group) than those who live in only one culture. Travel can also expand people's appreciation for what is possible in the world.
At the same time, too much travel can make it hard for people to establish long-term relationships, because they are not in the same place for very long. They may also have difficulty engaging in long-term projects that require a home-base to be carried out.
3. Are people afraid of returning from their trips not because they are having too much fun, but because of deeper personal issues they are running away from?
Dr. Markman: Either can be true. Some people find travel to be immensely rewarding as they are doing it. However, a lot of travel is often stressful in the moment. Navigating through a new space, dealing with people when you don't speak the language, and adapting to local customs can be difficult emotionally. Often, travel is more fun when you look back on it than it was in the moment. But, there is a thrill you can get from having to solve problems as you go along while you are traveling.
That said, there are people who feel unsettled at home. They get wanderlust, because they don't take their satisfaction from family, friends, or work, which would tie them more to their community. For these people, being home may be a reminder of all of the things they don't have.
Dr. Brein: Well, this certainly is a factor. Travel does have its escapist side to it. You can run but you cannot hide forever. Hopefully, travel allows a balance whereby we have plenty of time to evaluate our lives and issues during travel. Enough so that maybe the time away can be useful for reflection and dealing with pressing issues that await our return.
4. Why do some people feel the need to always be traveling and never return home?
Dr. Brein: Those of us who are fortunate to have continuous travel-lives might be able to teach the rest of us something. You cannot come away from extensive travel without having learned some very useful, important things that have application to the rest of our lives.
5. Why do some people crave going back abroad even after they just finished a long trip?
Dr. Markman: A lot of this has to do with the sources of your life satisfaction. People who are happy at home tend to have a job they like, family or friends that they spend time with, connections to a community, and opportunities to do good things for other people. The more of these factors that are missing, the harder it is for people to feel satisfied with their life. Some people who are dissatisfied with their life use travel as a way to get away from the things that bother them. However, unless someone puts in effort to make more connections in their community, the sources of their dissatisfaction will remain even after they return. Consequently, these people will often look forward to the next trip as soon as the previous one has ended.
Dr. Brein: It's, no doubt, among other things, the exhilaration of travel. To me, it is like the first breath of fresh air upon walking out the door to the first true early morning of Spring, especially after a cold, snowy Winter. It's like the exhilaration of reaching the crest of a hill or the top of a mountain, or the view around the turn of the next corner—the natural-high rush of a magnificent view.
What can we conclude from this?
It seems the plethora of positive effects that travel has on our personalities can outweigh the negative consequences if we are traveling for the right reasons. Those that travel to escape their personal issues will have those issues waiting for them when they return, and no amount of running away will help. One good thing about that is, as Dr. Brein said, traveling can allow time to find new perspectives that can help us deal with these issues. Traveling is the ultimate high, but does not have to have the horribly long detox period that other drugs can give you. The way to prevent that is, as Dr. Markman said, having sources of satisfaction at home: a job you like, family and friends, doing good things for others, etc.
The trickiest part of all of this is balancing travel with keeping up those sources of satisfaction at home. How can you possibly manage all that while abroad? My suggestions: stay connected with friends and family while you are abroad, try to have a job or something to accomplish waiting for you when you return, volunteer on the side if you will be job searching, and plan some reunions with your friends and family as soon as you get back. What about feeling the need to go abroad again when you are still working/saving money/planning the next trip? As Dr. Markman explains in this article, try emulating what you do while traveling at home: "Pretend you are traveling in your hometown, try an activity that you would normally try only when traveling, take some day trips, learn to cook exotic foods. There are many ways to make your daily life mirror your travel life so that you can get a little bit of that high that travel gives you without actually traveling.”
What about what they said about traveling getting in the way of long-term life goals such as marriage and a career? Well if those are more important than traveling to you, by all means go for those. If you are okay with pushing them back for a while or aren’t interested in them, that is perfectly okay and traveling will only give you a broader perspective on what you want in the future. You might even meet the girl/guy of your dreams out there! A career in travel might also be a good idea for those that are ready for a long-term career but can’t stay in one place.
There are people like me that are always going to be pulled by the exhilaration of travel. We must accept ourselves, make sacrifices, plan accordingly, and let the journey take us away.