Travel Insights Blog
Travel Insights Blog
Over the past three years, Google searches for “digital nomad” have tripled in the US, which points to our collective fascination with travel as a lifestyle.
Maybe it’s human nature, maybe it’s “Eat, Pray, Love”, but there’s a common idea floating around: traveling makes you a better person. The image of the young solo backpacker setting off on a life-changing adventure, or the mid-career professional who gives it all up to circle the world and rediscover themselves, has captured our cultural imagination. Over the past three years, Google searches for “digital nomad” have tripled in the US, which points to our collective fascination with travel as a lifestyle.
For the majority of us who can’t — or don’t want to — uproot our lives in the name of full-time adventure, this image still shapes our vision of what travel can and should look like. Instead of spending a week tanning at a resort, more and more Millennial and Gen Z travelers are seeking out experiences that teach us something new about other cultures and other people, about the environment, and about ourselves. Popular reality shows like Netflix’s “Down to Earth”, starring High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron, emphasize the transformation that comes with learning about the best environmental practices of people all around the world; and we, the viewers, get to benefit vicariously from our living rooms.
Traveling for self-improvement is hardly a new idea. Humans have linked the idea of travel with personal transformation for millennia. As far back as ancient Greek and Roman times, religious pilgrims have set off on long journeys to challenge, heal, and push themselves forward on their spiritual paths. Long before today’s college study abroad programs and backpacking through Europe, upper-class European men from the late 1500s to the French Revolution took a Grand Tour of major cultural capitals like London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome for a first-hand experience of Western art, music and culture. Traveling for an average of three years, these men capped off their classical education before returning home and beginning careers in politics, law or business. In both of these cases, like today, traveling long and far was seen as a major milestone that marked a permanent transformation for the next stage of life, spiritual or professional.
Modern research supports claims that travel can make you a better person, or at least inspire lasting change. In today’s busy world, most people don’t have the time or resources to spend years on the road. But some decide to make it happen anyway, packing their bags and quitting their jobs for self-discovery. In the 2019 book Learning by Going: Transformative Learning Through Long-Term Independent Travel, Dr. Birgit Phillips interviewed more than 40 people who left their homes to travel for at least 6 months at a time. Most participants came from middle-class backgrounds in wealthy Western countries, had undergraduate-level education or higher, and were anywhere from their 20s to their 40s. In the interviews, travelers reported many lasting changes in their beliefs and personalities.
Most of these reflect a higher level of awareness of their personal values and an increased understanding and appreciation of the world around them:
• Increased appreciationfor the natural environment, and more eco-conscious behavior
• Increased awareness ofsocioeconomic inequalities around the world
• Increased appreciationfor living standards at home (food, healthcare, education, etc.)
• A desire to simplifytheir life
• A desire for morefulfillment and flexibility out of work
• Enhanced understanding oftheir own values, which led them to carefully evaluate their activities andcommitments at home
• Enhanced confidence andself-efficacy (the belief that they have the ability to reach their goals)
• Increased mentalflexibility, empathy, and communication skills.
While these changes are overwhelmingly positive, there are some potential downsides to the change in perspective that travel inspires, including:
• A more critical attitudetowards materialistic attitudes and the breakdown of community and socialrelationships at home
• Feelings of alienationfrom their social circle at home.
Not necessarily. Other research examines the effects of short-term travel on personality development. In a 2020 study, psychology researchers Ahrisue Choi, Kristin Bongcaras and Edward Hoffman polled more than 200 people aged 18 to 39 about their travel-related “peak experiences,” most of which happened on vacation. More than 80% reported that travel helped them improve their problem solving and decision making. Traveling took them out of their daily routines, and as a result, participants said they found time and space for deeper reflection, inspiring broader perspectives on life and positive feelings like optimism, calm, gratitude, self-discovery and self-empowerment.
Other studies go even further, taking an existential approach to travel. A 2016 article by Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Y. Letho, and Liping Cai, “Existential Authenticity and Anxiety as Outcomes: The Tourist in the Experience Economy,” analyzes the effects of different kinds of travel on tourists in terms of “existential authenticity” (the feeling of knowing and being aligned with your true self) and “existential anxiety” (the feeling of angst about the meaning and purpose of life). They found that travel increases both: “Offering a liminal space, tourism experience distances individuals from the everydayness and removes the protective shield to expose angst. Anxiety makes one face existential predicaments and initiate actions toward reclaiming one’s personal value system.” In other words, travel can push us to live more authentic lives by taking us out of the familiar routines that keep us from exploring our deeper values. Most importantly, the study found that people who perceived their trips as more meaningful reported higher existential effects afterwards. So it might not be the travel experience itself, but how we interpret it, that inspires transformation and growth.
So, has the science spoken? Does traveling really make you a better person? Should you book a plane ticket instead of a therapy appointment? Not necessarily, digital nomad Anthony J. Yeung argues in a provocatively titled Medium article, “Why Travel Doesn’t Make You a Better Person.” If you’re traveling mostly for external motivations like Instagram likes and stories to tell at parties, you probably won’t get far in terms of self-improvement, Yeung writes. You might learn new skills through new experiences, but this doesn’t automatically make you “better.” And if you want to work on improving your personality, you have everything you need at home. As the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.”
In short, traveling might make you a better person — depending on what that means to you. We’ll save that philosophical discussion for another day; in the meantime, traveling still seems like a safe bet. You might not come back as a totally new person, but if you’re open to a little existential angst, you can learn a lot about yourself and the world.
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