The Psychology of Traveling

calama atacama desert

One of the things about me that my friends can barely understand is why I am spending most of what I earn on traveling. Contrary to most of my female friends, I seldom visit beauty shops, I wear second-hand clothes and I don’t read fashion magazines, cook recipes, trendy diets or fitness tips at all. At some point, I started questioning myself whether I’ve crossed the line. As a psychologist, I am quite open to the variety of individual preferences my friends have, but obviously, others couldn’t so easily accept mine. So here’s what I came up with after some consideration. 

travel-by-carWhy are some people more prone to traveling than others? We all have both type of friends – the backpacker and the couch potato lying at the extremes. Some are constantly looking for new places to visit, while others are pretty content with staying in their hometown for most of their lives. As long as you are reading this, I assume you fall into the former group. So here are some points of view to consider.

A biological perspective

Take climbing, for instance. Those who love the mountains cannot do it just once. They keep going back to conquering new peaks. What’s there in climbing that makes it look like an addiction? It is the altitude. Going up higher in the mountain is accompanied by a decrease of oxygen. In the human body less oxygen leads to an increase in dopamine levels in the brain and to a decrease in the serotonin levels. This in turn, makes those of us who have the corresponding genetic predisposition, feel satisfied, energized, happy, and euphoric. We often hear from our friends that the mountain is the place where they feel the best. So, no wonder they keep going back there. 

climbingFurthermore, the decreased oxygen levels prepare our body to function in a tougher environment – the body starts producing a higher amount of red blood cells, which carry the oxygen from the lungs to other tissues. Such modifications in physiology continue to have an effect for a few weeks after we come back to our default location, and this makes us work more productively and deal with everyday pressures easier.

A behavioral perspective

We all learn through our experiences. As we grow older, we react to similar stimuli in similar ways, and thus we form patterns of behavior. In our everyday lives as adults we tend to experience repetitive patterns in the workplace, at home, in the interaction with friends and family members. Traveling is like an escape from the familiar patterns of our daily routines. It casts us out of our comfort zones and we face different set of stimuli, which lead to different reactions. This is why many people claim to “discover” themselves during their trips. It doesn’t mean, of course, that they are different people now, from what they used to be; it simply means they find new traits of their characters, new abilities of their bodies, new emotions in their interactions. Those features are not thoroughly new to the individuals, they were just being inactive for a long time because prior to traveling they hadn’t been triggered very often. This is how traveling can enrich self-awareness and boost self-esteem.

A social perspective

Humans are social beings – we have a biological necessity to belong in a group. In our everyday lives we are surrounded by the same people we perceive as “us” – our friends, our families, our colleagues, our sports team, our competitors, our enemies, and the people we meet at the places we most frequently visit – the same shop assistants, bus drivers, bartenders, hairdressers, who we habitually regard as “our” too. Once we leave these circles and we arrive at a completely different destination, we shift our roles to become the “they”. We are now the outsiders, the foreigners, the tourists who do not belong in the place. We lose our sense of belonging and we start to watch out for how we behave – do we fit in, do we stand out, do we offend the locals, whose customs and social rules are different? It is a whole new world of social connection. Of course, if we are limited by language we won’t be able to experience the full range of these new social opportunities, but only the tiniest ability to interact with the locals will benefit our awareness, open-mindedness, curiosity and the perspective we hold of our own group. As social beings we constantly compare, contrast, judge, assimilate and reject parts of our social worlds. Thus, traveling provides whole new universes.

A cognitive perspective

travel-aloneWe tend to hold on to steady beliefs about ourselves, about the world around us, and about others. Spending years as a housewife within a white, ethnically homogeneous, middle-class environment, for instance, might lead a person to believe in statements, such as “I must always take care of my family”, “It’s safe to live here”, “If my family feels alright, then I’m doing well”, etc. Although such beliefs have a protective value, they do confine a person to a certain comfort zone, which limits the range of new experiences and new roles one is willing to experiment with. Thus, remaining in the same role for too long makes us prone to prejudice and stereotyping everyone and everything that doesn’t fit in. Therefore, traveling is the most effective “cure” to prejudice.

Of course, no single model can fit everyone, but taken together, all these perspectives provide a decent answer to the question “Why do you like traveling?”. I would like to read yours in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Have courage, will travel.

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