If happiness were a drug, it would sell. If happiness were a quick fix or a click away there would be no question as to whether consumers would want it. Happiness, now more than ever, seems to be a struggle to find as “Americans are more depressed than they have been in decades,” says San Diego State University Psychologist Jean M. Twenge. And yet if it were present knowledge that traveling inherently made people happier, Americans would be slow to get in line. The national passport office records from 2016 show that there are 128.2 million passports in circulation. That's just 39% of the nation. Author and travel expert William D. Chalmers breaks down the statistics even further to dissect just how little the average American is traveling overseas every year (statistics are taken from 2009).
As a weathered backpacker, this is fascinating. Having a passport and not using it would be like having an itch and actively choosing not to scratch it. Not obtaining one also seems strange. Citizens of the USA have access to over 160 countries around the world when they carry a passport. My best guesses as to why more people from the states don’t travel boil down to people not willing to spend the money or put in the work to travel. Some people simply don’t want to travel.
So why are the 39% putting in the work? Why riffle through flight options, sell all your material things and spend the money to travel?
Well, because traveling scientifically makes you happier.
Two psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven broke the surface of this cosmic happiness question at the turn of the century. They discovered that buying experiences rather than material things leads to happier individuals. Their study tracked the general well-being of individuals in the US from all backgrounds and walks of life to uncover that money spent on experiences was money well spent.
The study, “To Do or To Have? That is The Question,” funneled three specific reasons why spending money on experiences makes people happier: experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation; experiences are more central to one’s identity; experiences have a greater social value. Bowen and Gilovich explain that “a person’s life is quite literally the sum of his or her experiences. The accumulation of rich experiences thus creates a richer life.” When interpreted through a backpacker’s lens what makes more sense than experiencing a life of travel?
This simple recipe for happiness, buying experiences rather than material possessions, is a beautiful prospect, but it can be a difficult practice, specifically for youth in America. When comparing adolescents surveyed about mental health in the 80s with adolescents now, a study uncovered that today’s youth are more depressed than the youth of the past several decades. There seems to be a valuable correlation between the launch of the internet in 1991 and the decline in mental health. The youth of the twenty-first century have more reason to attain material things because of the internet, but less of a reason to interact outside of the devices they use to linger online. Interaction among youth is now largely viral. While the internet has aided in creating a global community it has also enabled a more reclusive society. Americans are spending a minimum of five hours a day attached to their cellphones according to the Washington Post. That’s a minimum of five hours displaced from the world at hand.
The birth of the internet shifted how psychologists analyze what happiness means, especially happiness in relation to societies dependence upon access to the web. Doctor Ethan Kross, director of the psychology lab at the University of Michigan, analyzes social media platforms. Kross says that “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.” If we can draw the conclusion that a relationship with a screen isn’t enhancing well-being and societies dependency on devices isn’t leading us to an answer for youthful unhappiness, then maybe we should hold on to the tangible health habits that we know work— getting outside, actively pursuing adventure, and allowing for a richer life through greater experiences.
In other words what about travel? The study doesn’t exclusively spell out travel being the end all answer, but as an avid traveler, this balance makes perfect sense. What is more of an experience than sailing high above the clouds, headed west for adventure? Even just taking a road trip with family or exploring your own backyard, these moments of movement perpetuate a healthier relationship with the world. Having spent the last four years pursuing avenues of travel, convincing others of its value and now being on the road for 13 consecutive months half way across the world, I can say that traveling is an experience worth spending your money and sanity on.
It doesn’t have to break the bank to take the vacation of a life time either. Airfare prices are steadily declining and companies like Spirit, Southwest, and WOW are eagerly competing to take the cake for shoestring prices. Routes connecting the USA to Europe are cheaper than ever and with independent companies like WOW and Iceland Air you can even take advantage of a few days layover in Iceland on the way to Europe. Spirit has consistent flights to South America for under $300 and Southwest will get you to the cheapest international departure cities for less than $100. In other words, now is the time to travel, to claim this known slice of happiness. Whether it’s an all-inclusive vacation, a tour of Machu Picchu, or camping in Colombia, the results are the same— the experiences gained from traveling lead to a happier life.
If science isn’t enough to convince you of travel’s cathartic powers, we’ve compiled a list of the benefits, both outrageous and realistic, we’ve discovered while traveling.
Benefits of traveling.
You meet people from all over the world.
You get to try the amazing local food.
You can lounge on the beach all day or get lost in a big city.
You get to enjoy no cellphone service rather than dread it.
You get to capture the moment and live in it.
Alarms are optional and what you wear is based on comfort rather than obligation.
Valuable recharge and rest from the everyday life back home or in the office.
Experience art and music through the lens of another culture.
We’ve found that because of travel…
We have a better appreciation for nature and we want to help preserve its beauty.
We’re better listeners to one another and to those around us.
We challenge ourselves to approach anxiety with reason and a little bit of love rather than dismay.
We value personal space when we are afforded it.
We appreciate hot showers and clean beds.
We’ve learned to approach problems in life like planning an travel itinerary—thoroughly, but with an appreciation for the fact that things will change.
We understand exhaustion as a sign of a good and busy day.