As most schools signal the end of a semester, and send out their caged, drained-out students into the world again, I notice most of the people around me are making plans to go here and there, wishing to be off wandering around the world.
The “hippy wanderer” trope has been spreading around the world for many years, and is hitting hard on Cambodia. Young people, like me, can never wait for a chance to take a break to be sitting in a midst of a sea breeze, or lost in the multi-colored sights of a strange new place. I’ve been in this trope since the day I earned my first month of salary. In fact, my dream, at one point, was to travel the world. Countless attempts and a huge percentage of my pay check have been used so that I could taste a new dish, meet a new face, and see a new sight in another place. That is, until I came upon this quote from Bertrand Russell in his book, The Conquest of Happiness:
“Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place.”
It certainly hit home. Why did I seek to go to Hoi An, Vietnam to sit in one of its numerous coffee shops and expected to enjoy it more than my old favorite café in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?
Doubts started to creep into my mind regarding my innate desire to be always on the move.
I had to stop planning my break-vacation to Laos, and spend some time thinking it through. Is it worth it? To spend time and energy travelling instead of say, pursue writing or creative painting at home? Thus, my researching journey starts, and here is what I found.
First of all, let’s take a closer look at the main (quite obvious) stated benefits of travelling, the ones that I had 100% confidence in just a few days ago. There is no doubt that travelling is beneficial. I have no doubt you have read and actually realized the transformational power of a good adventurous travel. People often cite knowledge or experience as the number one gain from travelling to a new place. Let’s take an even closer look at it. The researches cited are from a literature review conducted by Matthew J. Stone and James F. Petrick (2013).
There are three main types of knowledge that are cited to be earned from travelling, and they include:
- Intellectual growth:
The number one reason many young people travel is to extend their own bank of knowledge. Research seems to back this up as Chieffo (2007) found out that 85% of exchange students learned new information about political/social issues, people, geography, history and culture of another country even in a short-term study abroad. It seems true enough. We learn some pretty interesting facts along the way of our travel.
- Personal growth
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for travelling is that people, the young ones especially, believe travelling can make them a better person, more-equipped to take on the world, and they are not wrong in their beliefs. Lasubscher’s (1994) study found that both objective and objective-less travel lead to personal development, new perspectives, autonomy, independence, self confidence and many other generic skills.
- Cultural appreciation
Cultural tourism is one of the most prominent kinds of tourism. People flock to the Himalayas, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, or the pyramids of Egypt because they would like a taste of an “exotic” culture. Travelling certainly makes you step out of your normal comfort zone, and living another culture first-hand.
Now, there’s no doubt being on the go and experiencing new places are a great source of knowledge and experiences that have the potential to transform a person. It makes a very strong case for travelling because some of the educational benefits (such as confidence and autonomy) might never be earned if you go about your daily routines every goddamn day.
However, you can’t just decide to travel the world, and expect to gain a worldly wisdom as a result. According to Kolb (1984), the experiential learning theory holds that a combination of experience perception, cognition and behaviors creates learning.
Do you know what is a pivotal point of knowledge attainment in in this learning theory? It’s reflection. Without reflecting upon the information you’ve received, you have by no means gained any knowledge. Some young people travel as if they are on a race with the speed of light, always on the move to the next exotic place, rarely stopping to reflect upon what they have seen. That might lead to a lack of reflection that is crucial for conceptualization. You might end the trip with hundred of photos, yet barely hold any memorable lesson from it.
The other benefits of travelling that most people seem to instinctively know is that it positively affects our well-being. Just how true is it? There are two types of well-being, emotional and physical. The researches cited for well-being are from a literature review conducted by Chun-Chu Chen and James F. Petrick (2013).
Now, let’s examine them more closely:
- Emotional well-being
Many people would occasionally hop on a plane for a 1-week vacation wishing to burn off the stress they have accumulated from school or work for the past months. That seems reasonable enough. In fact, many researches from de Bloom (2010); de Bloom (2011); Etzion (2003); Westman and Eden (1997) have concluded that travelling can make us better, mentally. Employees report lower level of stress, burn out, and absenteeism after even a short trip. However, there’s a catch here. These researches also found that the positive effects induced by travelling wear off two or three weeks after the trip. In some certain cases, the effects only linger for a few days as employees come back to their “real life”, and try to catch up with the work that has piled up in their absence. It seems that there is not any research that indicates travelling leads to a long-term positive emotional impact.
- Physical well-being
Although people seem to perceive that they are in a better shape after a trip, there are not many objective research that finds links between travelling and actual better physical health. The result is still inconclusive.
Now, what to make up with all of these? It seems to conclude that even though there are bursts of happiness we can get from travelling, they may not last that long.
Alright, let’s examine the other side of the argument- the disadvantages of travelling. There is not many research on this topic; therefore, I will use common sense and findings from famous books to make the case instead.
First of all, it’s a known fact that travelling needs money. I know more than a few people who have used more than half of their earning income on travelling (as do I).
It is also physically and emotionally exhausting to be always on your backpack, going from one place to another.
In his book, The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell says that fatigue is a modern illness. Although, we are working lesser hours than people did in the past, most of us feel like we are perpetually tired. He claims one of the reasons behind such seemingly unexplainable fatigue is the love of excitement.
“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually strong stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”
It’s darn right travelling gives us excitement. There are always fresh sights, sounds, smells, faces, and fresh acquaintances to be made. It gives us a high. However, when we don’t travel, it makes our real life duller in comparison. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Can’t we just become nomads, jumping from one pleasure to another, exhausting world wonders and never stop? That way, we can always be high. That sounds very tempting, for sure, but if we consider the fact that no great work can be done without us being bored at the job more than half the time, we realize maybe pleasure-seeking is not the sole reason to live life. Look at the great work of human civilization, were they made on the go? Socrates spent most of his life quietly with Xanthippe, and the company of a few close friends. The revolutionary biologist, Charles Darwin spent the rest of his life in his own house producing the famous book, The Origin of Species, after his trip around the world. Jane Austen, a virgin who rarely travelled, with only her family’s sitting room, and books as her source of inspiration was able to produce masterpieces such as Pride and Prejudice out of her own reflection. These works are the products of dedication, and hours upon hours of grinding until they almost reached perfection. Would they have achieved it if they were always on the go? What would have happened to the Origin of Species if Darwin had spent his entire life travelling around the world?
Perhaps, no one knows the pain of overwhelming influx of information during a trip than a travel writer. In his book, The Art of Stillness, the famous travel writer, Pico Iyer concludes that only by going nowhere can one really achieve a deeper sense of appreciation. He has been to every corner of the world, yet, he still advocated for people to stop, take a step back, and look at the big picture instead of getting flooded with all the sights and smells of the travel.
“It’s the perspective we choose- not the places we visit- that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”
(Watch his TED talk on the subject here)
These ideas also make perfect sense with the experiential learning theory. One can make sense of one’s experiences, and thoughts and consequently create beautiful conclusions and work only after reflection, sometimes for days, months, or even years. To be constantly moving from one place to another make us shallowly taste the milk of life because we’ve only got so much time to churn our reflections before the next feast of senses start.
So, what is the point of this post? I just want you, my readers, to ask yourself as you are planning your next trip to this island or that country what the purpose of your trip is. Stress release? Sightseeing? Making new friends? Adrenaline rush? Self transformation? Or are you just running away from your problems, just to face them yet again when they come back? Are you doing it for an awesome Instagram post so that people can be jealous of your perfect life? Is your purpose worthy of such time, energy and capital resources? Will the happiness you get from such trip be long lasting? Or will you have to set out again when the high comes off? If you feel like you are perpetually stuck in this cycle of pleasure seeking, consider reading the famous Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell which seeks to give us a better way of finding a longer-lasting state of happiness. Hint, hint: travelling helps, but not very much.
Also, take a look at this beautiful poem.
All the researches mentioned here can be found at the “references” section of these two journals:
Chen, C., & Petrick, J. (2013). Health and wellness benefits of travel experiences: a literature review. Journal of Travel Research, 52 (6), 709-719. Doi: 10.1177/0047287513496477
Stone, M., & Petrick, J. (2013). The educational benefits of travel experiences: a literature review. Journal of Travel Research, 52 (6), 731-744. Doi: 10.1177/0047287513500588