What travel teaches you about life and happiness? In May 2016, I quit my job and studies to start an indefinite round the world trip. I’ve been traveling for a while now, so I thought I’d write something about the effects this journey has had on my thinking.
Here are a 9 things solo travel has taught me about life.
1. You Need Variety
I’ll tell you a secret: traveling is often a bit boring. Sure, you can go sightseeing every day during a short holiday, but if you do that for months and months, all the rushing around gets very monotonous and tiring very quickly. Back home, you don’t want your every day to be fully booked and exhausting. Why would life on the road be any different?
Here, the key to happiness is variety. Instead of just doing the same thing everyday, fill your daily life with various meaningful tasks. This also makes your life more balanced and less vulnerable to hardships. If your life is all about your work and you loose your job, you’re left with nothing.
2. Having a Purpose Makes You Happier
Every now and then, you’ll ask yourself: Why am I doing this? If you can easily come up with an answer, it will help you endure the dreary periods. Having reasons for your actions also bring happiness. You feel a sense of progress when you live by your values and approach your goals.
Quitting my studies and leaving my old life behind was a big decision. I’ve had to ask myself if I’ve done the right choice. Was it foolish to drop out of a steady life to pursue my other goals? I’ve lost many things, buts I’ve also gained things that I couldn’t have otherwise. And yes, I believe I chose the right path.
3. You Are the Same, Wherever You are
Many people dream of a big getaway, thinking that their life will change completely if they do it. While there are times when changing the environment can have a huge impact, I’m also a bit skeptical after all the things traveling has taught me.
As my trip goes on (and on… and on…), I occasionally notice how my current life starts to resemble the life I left behind. If I wasn’t at ease with myself, I might find this disappointing. Now, it’s mostly amusing. For example, I sometimes joke that quitting my job and studies had no impact on my amount of work. I keep myself busy, wherever I am. And that’s completely fine for me.
4. There Are More Choices Than You Realize
As my life started to follow familiar paths, it made me think. Why does this happen? If the environment is completely different, there’s only one thing that keeps elements the same: myself. I wasn’t the most outgoing person before my trip, and I’ve had periods when I’ve felt quite lonely during the trip.
However, I’ve now come to realize my own role in my solitude. I have plenty of chances to be social, but I quite often prefer to be on my own. For example, I’m now writing this blog post in a hostel, surrounded by numerous other backpackers. But right now, this is what I prefer to do. My unconscious way of behaviour has turned into an active choice.
If I wanted to be more social today, I know I could just put down my laptop and join the conversations around me. There are more options available than you first realize.
5. Freedom Is Not All Good
There’s no such thing as a complete freedom. And if there was, it wouldn’t be a completely good thing. During my trip, I’ve often found the vast amount of possibilities more stressful than inspiring. I’ve changed my plans countless of times, as I haven’t been able to pick just a few things I want to do. During these moments, I’ve found the limitations of schedules and seasons a relief that help me narrow down my choices.
Freedom is a two-sided coin, and there’s always an element of detachment included. Responsibilities can be burdening, but when you get rid of them, you will miss the connection to your surroundings that they gave.
6. Your Brain Creates Imaginary Limitations
With too much freedom, it’s helpful to have some limitations. However, the way your brain filters your choices can also cause suffering if you don’t notice what’s happening. When I’ve been in low spirits during my round-the-world trip, I’ve often felt sad about things I can’t have when I’m traveling. Hobbies, studying, get-together parties, I miss some of those things.
Then, I’ve become aware that my trip doesn’t completely limit me – I just think it does. If I wanted to study, I could take online courses. I’m also often following my own plans too strictly – not understanding that I’m free to change my itinerary at any time.
7. Craving Is the Problem
It’s okay to want new things. If you’re buried waist-deep in a cold swamp, you might want to find a way up. However, your desire to reach your goal in the future shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the present. In other words, you shouldn’t painfully crave for things you wish had, because it doesn’t help you in any way. Instead, it just takes your mind away from the current moment, limiting your enjoyment.
Craving has been a common travel companion of mine. I’ve worked on projects, waiting for them to end. I’ve dreamt of things I could do after the trip is over (ironically, many of these plans involve traveling). So, what’s the cure for craving? Instead of dreaming of the finish line, you should learn to enjoy the progress. A quote from my favourite psychology book, “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt sums this up quite well:
“The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.”
8. You Can Endure More Than You Think
Whether it’s sleeping with rodents, surviving the traffic of India or eating weird parts of animals, traveling will kick you out of your comfort zone. And that’s a good thing. Once you try new things, you realize how much you can actually handle.
What travel teaches you is endurance. Besides learning how much you can take, you also learn how little you need. Things that felt vital back home become trivial, as you survive with just a few of the luxuries that you used to have.
9. Happiness Loves Company
Yes, I just borrowed that title from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Living a happy and meaningful life is almost impossible without strong social connections with other people. Solo travel teaches you to see this more clearly.
When I talk about the benefits of relationships, I don’t just mean connections where I “get” something from others. Sure, it’s nice to know people who ask me how I’m doing and care about me, but the opposite side of communication is perhaps even more important. I feel good when I’m able to make others happy, show how much I care about them or if I’m just able to help in any way.
Keeping in contact with friends and family is a bit more difficult now that I’m not able to meet them face-to-face. However, modern technology has made staying in touch possible, no matter the geographical distance. In fact, I even feel that I’ve grown closer with some people during my trip. I can’t expect to run into my mates downtown, so keeping contact has become more of a deliberate choice.