Frequent Travel Can Make for Happier Life, Study Shows

A happy couple hands their passport to an airport worker.

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Key Takeaways

  • People who travel frequently tend to have greater life satisfaction, according to a new study.
  • Experts say that vacation-induced joy may come from taking time off from work, having new experiences, and spending quality time with loved ones.
  • People who can’t afford to travel may be able to achieve similar levels of life satisfaction through other less expensive activities.

People who’ve been bitten by the travel bug will tell you how exploring the world leads to bliss. Now, there’s some scientific evidence to support those anecdotes.

A new study published in the journal Tourism Analysis has found that frequent travelers tend to have greater life satisfaction than those who don’t take vacations often. The findings come from a study on 500 people from Taiwan. 

The research offers some insight into the role that travel can play in some people’s emotional wellbeing. But since taking a vacation can be expensive, does that mean people who can’t afford to travel might have lower life satisfaction?

Not necessarily, experts say. Here’s what to understand about the relationship between travel and happiness, along with some ways you can reap some of the psychological benefits of taking a vacation when you’re on a tight budget or stuck at home.

Findings on Travel and Happiness

The research was conducted by Chun Chu Chen, an assistant professor of hospitality business management at Washington State University, along with researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Texas A&M University.

For the study, researchers surveyed 500 people who served as a representative sample of the Taiwanese population over the course of two weeks in 2013. The participants were asked 17 questions about how important they find travel, how much attention they pay to plans for future travels, how frequently they talk about trips they’d like to take, how frequently they travel, and their overall satisfaction with their lives.

The results showed that frequent travel had a positive effect on life satisfaction. The study authors noted that the quantity of trips taken over the course of a year only explained a small percentage of higher life satisfaction, though. They added that life satisfaction from travel had more to do with the “frequency of satisfied travel” rather than how often someone took vacations.

That might mean that a stressful business trip to a beautiful destination that has you stuck inside a conference center all day might not improve life satisfaction, even though it was technically travel, because it doesn't check the boxes of a satisfying travel experience.

The study also found that people who expressed that travel was very important tended to take trips more frequently, often because they take in more travel-related information and talk about future vacations on a more regular basis. It refutes earlier tourism studies that found people only read travel information when they’re actively planning a trip.

Rashmi Parmar, MD

The more people talked about and planned vacations, the more likely they were to take them.

— Rashmi Parmar, MD

Put in other words, “The more people talked about and planned vacations, the more likely they were to take them,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry in Newark, California.

“The authors were able to demonstrate a small but perceivable link between travel-related experiences and an individual's reported life satisfaction, as well as quality of life,” Dr. Parmar adds.

It’s important to note that the study was conducted on people in Taiwan more than seven years ago. The results may be different if the same survey were conducted on groups from other countries in the present day.

“We don't want to assume there is a similarity between American and Taiwanese culture. It depends on how each culture values travel and what it means to them,” says Teri Schroeder, LCSW, counselor and co-founder of Just Mind Counseling in Austin, Texas.

Why Travel Can Boost Happiness

Experts say there are many reasons that can explain the relationship between travel and happiness. Some jetsetters may get greater life satisfaction from having new and diverse experiences. This theory is supported by a 2020 study published in the journal Nature, which found that people who see more changes in scenery day-to-day tend to be happier.

Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD

Pleasant events, such as travel, boost our mood and our life satisfaction. For many people, traveling is a pleasant event due to the novelty it offers.

— Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD

“Pleasant events, such as travel, boost our mood and our life satisfaction. For many people, traveling is a pleasant event due to the novelty it offers,” says Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “Travel offers consistently novel experiences.”

Travel can also improve a person’s life satisfaction by allowing them to step away from work and take a break from the stresses of everyday life. A 2020 study from the journal Psychology & Health found that people expressed low levels of stress related to things like childcare and finances during their vacations, which can provide emotional relief.

“One of the benefits of travel is that it allows you to carve out some time for your personal relaxation from a busy routine, which can lead to reduced stress levels,” explains Dr. Parmar. “Spending time with your partner or loved ones can also be overall fruitful in improving your relationships.”

It may also have to do with the sense of awe many travelers feel when they experience the wonders of the world, says Schroeder.

“In travels, we often experience awe in the face of utterly unfamiliar foods, art, or landscapes,” she says. “Awe in and of itself deepens one’s sense of purpose, of being connected to something greater than ourselves. Traveling can revitalize us as we meet new people, venture into new situations, and reconnect with the mystery of life.”

Finding Joy When You Can’t Travel

Most people have been stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, canceling and postponing trips they had planned for 2020 and early 2021. But prior to the pandemic, increasing levels of wealth disparity meant that many people couldn’t afford to take a vacation to begin with.

The widespread job losses and economic ramifications of the pandemic may make it difficult for people to take trips in the near future, even after traveling becomes safe again.

That doesn’t mean people who can’t travel are doomed to lower life satisfaction, though.

Teri Schroeder, LCSW

For people who are working paycheck to paycheck or don't have paid time off, it's definitely a disadvantage for taking time off. That doesn't mean they have a happiness gap, and that's a flaw in the study, in my opinion.

— Teri Schroeder, LCSW

“For people who are working paycheck to paycheck or don't have paid time off, it's definitely a disadvantage for taking time off. That doesn't mean they have a happiness gap, and that's a flaw in the study, in my opinion,” says Schroeder. 

Experts say that since travel-related happiness can come from many different mechanisms, such as time spent relaxing or experiencing something new, there are alternative ways to reap similar benefits—no long-haul flight or luxury resort accommodations required.

“In a weird way, that's a silver lining of the pandemic as it has forced us to look for the simpler things that can help bring happiness. People are realizing simple ways they can accomplish the same stuff,” says Schroeder.

Dr. Parmar suggests joining some of the virtual tours of different destinations to scratch the travel itch for free.

“You can tour anything from world heritage sites to natural wonders to famous museums to even rare things like observing the world from [someone] else’s windowsill,” she says.

If you need the stress-busting benefits of a vacation when travel’s not an option, you may be able to benefit from spending time in nature or forest bathing, says Schroeder. 

Those who are craving quality time with loved ones could try to set aside a day to spend together, playing board games, making home-cooked meals, and reminiscing over happy memories and photos.

The key to reaping the benefits of a pleasant experience, whether it’s taking a vacation or doing a puzzle with your kids, is to do it mindfully, says Dr. Cohen.

“Remember to be mindful of pleasant experiences as they are happening. Going [on] a trip or engaging in a pleasant activity doesn’t do us much good if we don’t pay attention to it,” he advises. “This means it is important to focus on a pleasant event as it is happening.”

Turn off social media, put away your phone and other distractions, and let yourself be fully immersed in the experience.

What This Means For You

While it might seem like people who can’t afford to take a vacation can’t benefit from travel, the truth is that you may be able to achieve these benefits in other ways—something that’s especially important while many people are still stuck at home during the pandemic.

Taking a virtual tour of a foreign destination could satiate wanderlust for free. You may also be able to reduce stress by spending time in nature close to home when traveling isn’t an option. If you’re craving quality time with loved ones that you would otherwise get on vacation, consider spending a day bonding together at home, sans the distractions of everyday life.

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Article Sources
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