Why We Travel For Pleasure, Explained
by JR Thorpe
Woman with mobile phone and bicycle near the Eiffel Tower, paris.
F.J. Jimenez/Moment/Getty Images

It's coming up to spring break, the point where college students from across the United States break loose, and either do good deeds or indulge in some cheerful hedonism. (OK, most of them definitely do the latter.) But in the midst of all this airport-crowding, news-dominating vacationing, it's an apropos time to wonder: why do we travel for pleasure, and how does it affect our psychology?

The notion of travel for pleasure isn't a modern invention, though its accessibility to all levels of society likely is. Travel often had distinct practical purposes in many historic civilizations, from trade to scholarship to pilgrimage, but empires in particular probably involved pleasurable movement; higher-status ancient Romans and Egyptians indulged in private travel to various places under their control. Tourism as we know it emerged out of the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th century, in which British nobility were sent around the major sites of Europe to finish their cultural education. From there, it's been a massively expanding industry, with inventions from steam trains to air to package tours gradually bringing down the price and expanding the reach of ordinary citizens without a Lordship under their belt. Famous minds have often extolled travel; the French writer Michel de Montaigne wrote extensive travelogues of his time on the Continent, including positive reviews of German heating.

But it's not all fun and games; psychological science now reveals that there are complicated undercurrents to modern travel, from how travel affects our brains to why we make the tourism choices we do.

Tourism Changes Our Perspective — And How Long We Go Away Matters

While many Americans do not currently possess a passport, there's a psychological consensus that there is significant psychological benefit in experiencing foreign places for extensive periods of time. There's an argument that travel increases basic human happiness because we are, at heart, a nomadic species, though it's unclear how much itchy feet are culturally created and how much they're inherent. That tourism seems to make us happy is borne out by an interesting study in 2013 of Chinese travelers (a very travel-happy nation), which found that people who travelled regularly saw a long-term "impact in terms of sense of being, direction in life, and well-being. Why this comes about — the fulfillment of dreams to see other places, the expansion of understandings about what a good life might mean — is still open to argument.

Brief periods of travel, however, may not be as beneficial as more extensive uprooting. It's a big point of discussion. One 2015 study, for instance, examined the creative directors of 270 fashion houses and the creativity of their latest lines (assessed by in-the-know fashion experts, not random people off the street who wouldn't know John Galliano from a baguette), and determined that, as the Atlantic reported at the time, "the brands whose creative directors had lived and worked in other countries produced more consistently creative fashion lines than those whose directors had not." And another study of undergrads who'd studied abroad for months found that they often experienced significant personality shifts, making them more open to new things and to fulfill tasks.

This creativity boost may not be about living, though, as boosts in unique thinking have also been demonstrated to happen even if people are only contemplating a foreign location in their imaginations. A study from Indiana University found that students who thought they were solving a problem based in Greece provided much more inventive answers than those who were told the problem was local.

There are also extensive questions about whether travel makes people more compassionate and tolerant because of contact with other cultures and people, expanding their "boundary of empathy." As anybody with a racist uncle who's come back from a trip abroad just as racist as ever will attest, this isn't a universal experience. Mahatma Gandhi called travel "the language of peace," but others have argued that anything less than extensive immersion in a culture over a significant period will be unlikely to broaden horizons or alter tolerance levels.

Solo Travelers Really Are A Different Breed

There's also a subsection of psychology focused on the particular experience of choosing to travel solo. This is also a highly gendered discussion, since women, for reasons of safety, are often told to travel in groups or pairs, so that individual travel is regarded as something of a gender taboo.

A study from 2015 found that individual travelers are a fast-growing sector of the travel industry, particularly because of lower costs that mean group travel isn't necessary to achieve economies of scale. The choice to travel on one's own, it discovered, was motivated by a balance of priorities in which personal indulgence and the wish to remain free of constraints were more important than togetherness or making things less expensive.

Booking Your Vacation From The Office Isn't A Good Idea

This is an intriguing aspect of human decision-making: it seems that our ability to make leisure decisions around travel while we're in a work space impedes our later enjoyment while we're a tourist. Separate studies have found that booking hotels for a holiday during business hours, while you're at work, means that you'll both likely spend more (selecting a higher-quality place to stay) and rate your own pleasure at the end of the trip as lower than if you wait until you get home and put your feet up.

Why might this be the case? Scientists behind one of the studies noted that it's likely about the psychology of a workspace; the contrast of a screen showing happy carefree tourists and a cramped office may make us more inclined to spend more and make more extravagant decisions, because it's perceived to be so desirable in the moment. In more relaxing surroundings, we can be more objective.

Too Much Travel May Be Harmful

The lifestyle of the "hypermobile" is often depicted as hugely glamorous; nomadic film stars and singers are among the members of the so-called jet set that enjoys a wide societal image of privilege and comfort. However, frequent, intense travel doesn't match the reality, various studies have found.

In 2015, researchers from the University of Surrey found that there was a considerable perception gap between people's ideas of the hypermobile lifestyle and the realities, which are often governed by jet lag, expense, estrangement from support networks, and health risks. The idea of the jet set lifestyle as highly desirable likely comes from more archaic views of travel, the days of smoking on planes. Hypermobility for the sake of business has come under specific scrutiny; you don't have to watch George Clooney go haywire in Up In The Air to realize that there are significant risks to a life on the road. Research from 2011 indicates that hypermobile business people perceive themselves to be less heavy, have a higher obesity rate and a higher BMI than people who have more localized jobs.

What can we learn from this? Being a tourist is perhaps less effective for our psychology than the travel agent slogans might indicate, but it does seem to make genuine changes in our outlook. To get the most out of your trip, book while relaxed, stay a long time in one place, and weigh up the priorities of traveling alone.