This post was originally published on my old blog in August 2015. I still think it rings true today – and after writing this post I think my own attitude towards travel and why I travel shifted for the better.
Wanderlust is all the rage nowadays. I was walking through Chapters the other day and (almost ironically), their ‘back-to-school’ collection features notebooks and coffee mugs brandished with the motto “Wander Often, Wonder Always” or quotes like “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” If I open my Facebook newsfeed, I will likely scroll past no less than three articles with Buzzfeed-esque titles about why you should “drop everything and travel the world”. I would run out of fingers (maybe even toes!) if I tried to count the number of world map or compass tattoos I’ve seen on peoples forearms this year.
Travel isn’t new. But, what many in the wanderlust community like to refer to as ‘real’ travel (often juxtaposed to vacationing, say at a Palm Springs beach resort sipping on overpriced margaritas) is the latest and greatest trend. ‘Real travel’ is the kind of travel where you leave in hopes of “finding yourself”. A popular EliteDaily article posits that “Travel is being integrated into a culture that values diverting from the beaten path…Traveling means staying in hostels and befriending other travelers, as well as locals… Traveling means wanting to leave as an altered and more educated person.” The main takeaway being that you leave in order to return as someone different, as someone better.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll continue to refer to this kind of travel as ‘real’ travel (not that the other forms of travel aren’t real, or of lesser value, hence the quotation marks). Nowadays it seems as though every other 20-something-year old is jet setting off to a foreign country with nothing but a backpack and the stars in their eyes, anticipating that somehow, a grand adventure will bestow upon them a newfound appreciation for life and teach them the true meaning of happiness. Oftentimes it will. But other times it won’t.
I potentially sound like I’m criticizing the wanderlust trend. I’m not. Actually, I think promoting a more globally aware traveller is pretty awesome. In fact, I am one of those ‘real’ travellers. Heck, I’m even one of those bloggers! I do think that the way in which travel has become popularized in social media can come across as pretentious, but even though the millions of blog posts about how ‘real’ travel makes you smarter, happier, more confident etc. get old really fast, they do have some truth to them. I can honestly say that it is in large part because of travelling that I have become more culturally sensitive, am better able to adapt to unexpected situations and challenges, can easily make new friends and have overcome a lot of my shyness.
I could sing the praises of ‘real’ travel all day, but there is a caveat. As magical and enlightening your solo backpacking trip through India very well may be, you can’t expect anything about your life or your happiness or your future to change just because you bought an international airplane ticket. After finishing my graduate studies program, burned out from the past 17-years in formal education, and feeling generally listless about what to do next in life I decided to go to Australia for a month to try to get some distance from everyday life in order to gain some clarity about what to do next in life. I thought that I would come home to Canada and just know what kind of career I wanted to pursue and figure out exactly what I wanted from my relationships.
Long story short is I didn’t. Not to say I didn’t enjoy my time in Australia. It was amazing – I reconnected with my Aussie cousins, learnt how to surf, went kayaking with humpback whales, and met a family of wild koalas. But upon returning home, I found myself reverting back to my baseline level of happiness (which was not very high at the time). I have observed in myself and in those I have encountered both at home and abroad that people place far too much emphasis on external drivers to change our internal attitudes.
There are lots of ‘real’ traveller success stories that you read on Huffington Post where a couple quits their job for a year to explore the world to come home an internet sensation. Or maybe the success story isn’t quite as impressive, a frustrated college student takes a semester off to hike the Patagonia trail and discovers a talent and love of photography and realizes upon returning she should pursue her passion for the visual arts. Awesome! But this isn’t the norm, and this is the kind of false hope I am afraid the wanderlust trend is promoting – that young adults in some sense need travel in order to learn about themselves.
For each person who returns for an international adventure feeling freed from their problems, there are dozens I have encountered who do not. Most of the people I have met during my travels are trying to escape something about their real life. Disheartened students who failed their first-year courses, young adults discouraged with the bureaucracy and mundanity of their first desk job, people who just broke off an engagement to their fiancé. Yet after a month, six-months, even a year, of ‘real’ travel, they are unable to lift the cloak of heaviness off their hearts.
Seneca, the Stoic philosopher writes on precisely this phenomenon.
Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene that you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.Seneca
You get out of life (and travel) what you put into it. Nothing about your long-term happiness will change because you went skydiving for the first time or went swimming with dolphins. Seneca aptly tells his readers that
To live well, – is found everywhere… The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place.Seneca
Wanderlusters, continue to embark on your grand adventures! But also keep in mind that travel and the pursuit of inner happiness or contentment are not one in the same. They are separate activities, though mutually exclusive, are not interchangeable.
Added August 2019:
I want to just leave you with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I think perfectly captures why the pursuit of happiness (be it through travel or money or other things) is perhaps not the kind of pursuit that will actually bring true purpose or happiness to your life:
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.Ralph Waldo Emerson