I read a blog article a while ago on how travel is just another exercise in narcissism and it doesn’t make you interesting. A comment from someone below the post read “Yes! Travel is just another long holiday. Nice, but not intrinsically worthy”. I remember being struck by the absurdity of the implication that experiences could be said to have ‘intrinsic’ worth. But I was more concerned that the point was being missed, that lacking intrinsic worth doesn’t mean something is unworthy, but that the worth is subjective, i.e. defined by the person experiencing it. On the other side of the fence is a growing trend towards people ‘educating’ everybody about why they absolutely should travel (a trend which now feels it has the backing of research, in light of recent studies by Thomas Gilovich).

I have no problem with hearing about people’s experiences, they’re often useful, or with listening to others’ opinions. But I do have a particular problem with subjective opinion stated as fact and I start to lose my temper a bit when those opinions are used as a basis to pass judgement on the lives of others. Perhaps partly because I’m a scientist working in depression and addiction fields, which EVERYONE has an opinion on, but also because of the effect they have on me. I find I’m filled with doubts each time I read a strong opinion concerning something I’m doing; is it worthy or not? Tell me what to think!! At least until I recognise it for what it is and rein myself in. I worry on a more basic level about what our bombardment by opinions-as-fact does to our decision-making systems. Saturated with all this ‘information’, will we blur fact and opinion, will our brains become unable to make decisions based on the correct information or form healthy value systems? Are we losing sight of the worth of subjective value and overlooking the treasure within the process itself in favour of focusing on distal profits, goals, endpoints and quantifiable outcomes. My opinion differs depending on how I’m feeling and it’s irrelevant to this discussion but either way I felt the need to put forward a more balanced perspective.

I struggled with my decision to travel (and I struggled with the choice to blog about it) and still do from time to time. I am after all, stepping away from a privilege that only a minority can claim: I have a job that motivates me, pays well enough for me to live comfortably and which has impact both on a large and on a personal scale (I teach and mentor as well as doing research). I needed to be certain I could justify leaving that behind, albeit maybe only temporarily.

I had inter-railed around Europe when I was younger and I didn’t get a huge amount out of it. I was 21 years old and just out of University with no clue what I wanted out of life or how to go about getting it. I had a decent education but I feel that it lacked inspiring career advice, which was more along the lines of “what are you good at? Ok, do this job then”, rather than “go out and explore the world of work and find what works for you, here are ways you can do it”. So, I went travelling as it seemed like a cool thing to do, and I had nowhere pressing to be. And it was a great experience, but I don’t think it changed my life and the memories haven’t really impacted my life when I think back on it 15 years later.

Since taking the decision to travel again I’ve met a large number of adventure travellers. I had thought that these people would without exception be enlightened, youthful, questioning people without prejudices. And whilst I’ve met many who fit this description, I’ve also been surprised by how many I’ve met who are unlike this. People who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege of having the experiences they’ve had, people who slot back into their old lives after travelling and then seem to resent the world around them afresh, people who seem to have closed minded views and prejudices about people who aren’t like them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging them for this, everyone is entitled to walk their own path and I don’t know the constraints they’re under, it just surprised and saddened me…and it worried me.

I felt an increasing need to define and ensure some sort of value for my endeavour, but I knew that it would be subjective, meaning I could only know the value once I’d experienced it. But what if the article was right? Had I just taken a break from a fantastic, fulfilling career, only to indulge myself like a narcissistic, spoiled child? Had I fallen prey to the alluring internet stories of travel and the promises they make? Worse was I forcing people to read about them and imposing my uninteresting life on the world?

subjective value

I should have more faith in myself. Eventually it came to me. Whilst I’d recognised that it was a subjective experience I hadn’t stopped trying to define the end point. I didn’t need to try and define the future subjective worth of my decision. I needed to define it in the here and now. The fact was, based on a complex set of hopes, desires and past experiences, that taking the decision to travel made me happy NOW and I knew what I wanted out of it too. The same goes for my writing. It makes me happy now because it helps me to order my thoughts and get the most out of my experiences. I know what I’d like out of it – for others to relate and get something out of it – and writing for an audience helps focus the mind so why not? But the audience isn’t the sole motivator. So what am I getting at here? My point is that I realised that there is a caveat to the ‘travelling equals interesting/worthy/benefit’ equation, and it’s a big one. I need to enter into the experience in the right spirit to get the most out of it. The point being made (but never explicitly said) by the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post and by me now is an oldy but a goody: Do things for yourself, not others.

This time, I’m consciously taking the decision because it makes me happy in the here and now. I’m making the decision with a view of where I want to go and because I think travel will take me closer. But that is my only goal. It’s a tough balance to strike (for me at least) to keep only half an eye on the future but remain in the here and now. Kind of similar to riding my bike now I think about it – keep an eye on where you’re going but control the bike too. I think it requires you to know yourself more than I did at 21. It’s a totally different attitude to the first time I travelled (which I’m pretty sure was without any direction), and I am already reaping the benefits of approaching it this way (see below). I won’t pretend I’m not a bit afraid, the unknown has always freaked me out a bit and not knowing where you’ll be in a year’s time or where you’re going is a big unknown. My anxieties keep trying to run wild. But that’s OK, they do that but they don’t always get it right. And I’m also hugely excited. The prospect of having a world of endless opportunity stretch out in front of me is VERY exciting. I feel a bit like a superhero right now: I feel like I could do anything, be anything, make anything happen. It’s a heady feeling.

Strangely, whilst it sounds like I’m advocating a selfish approach to life. I’m not, far from it. I’ve found that the happier I’ve become, the more giving I can afford to be and the more open minded and less judgemental I get. Eleanor Roosevelt said: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. I would amend this slightly to ‘Happy minds discuss ideas; unhappy minds judge people’. Being judgemental of other’s choices and lives generally makes us feel superior; this is only necessary if we’re unhappy with our lot (see Brene Brown and Wood, Harms & Vazire 2010 for more on this). When you’re happy with your own life being judgemental of others is exposed as the meaningless waste of time that it is. This association is now so ingrained for me that a spike in my judgemental behaviour is a pretty accurate indicator that my happiness is dipping (being judgemental is different though to making judgements which we have to do all the time).

So the bottom line, brain, is this, forget the detractors who tell you that travel, or anything else you want to do for that matter, isn’t worthy. And don’t listen to those who tell you it is worthy either. Their opinion says volumes about what they can extract from an experience and nothing about what you will get out of it. Define the value of your own experiences. Control the things you can control with a view to future happiness but don’t seek to define the future, live in the here and now. Do things because they make you happy and they feel right. It sounds simple but it takes practice, so practice it. This might mean travelling or it might mean staying put or it might mean something totally different. Open your eyes and your mind, let the opportunities flood in and then choose which is right for you. A friend of mine told me after I’d made the decision to travel it made her re-evaluate her life. She decided that while she was truly excited about my travels she’d realised it was excitement for me and that she was really happy with where she was and with what she’d got. So making no change was the conscious decision she took to keep making herself happy. I look forward to getting to that place. Everyone has their own path, and there is no right and wrong answer. But you can ensure that you ask yourself the best questions, ‘does this make me happy’ is a good one to begin with.

And at worst, even if it doesn’t work out 100% of the time, you’ll be out there living your life while others stand still and peer in, wasting their time trying to decide whether your exploits are worthy or interesting or not while you get on with your own experiences. Who sounds like they’re better off there?

Here are five things that travel has done for me, what has it done for you?

I stop over-thinking things while travelling. As an academic I spend a lot of time thinking. I have a bit of a fear of the unknown and rather than just getting on with things to make the unknown known I overthink things and get stuck in what I call ‘brain loops’. Travel forces me into a more ‘doing’ mindset. It also forces me to face the unknown which teaches me that not everything in life is controllable but even the worst of things are cope-able with, given time. Travel forces me to make decisions, I don’t have the luxury of dithering I need to apply myself to the real problem of how to live. The more I do this, the more unconscious it becomes to think, act and assess, rather than just thinking. Travel is effortful, mentally and physically so I can’t simply coast and use my spare mental energy to worry about imagined scenarios.

Travel has built my self-confidence,when I travel, I rely on instincts much more. I’m in unfamiliar territory, I don’t know whether that area I’ve just walked into is safe or not. I have little explicit information about the places and people I encounter so I take in what information is available to me through my senses and I make judgement calls on that. This has taught me to listen, and respond to, my gut instinct which means I build confidence in my own judgement. I’m in control of the people I interact with. If I don’t want to speak to someone, they’re a stranger I will likely never see again so I have no social awkwardness about cutting contact (politely!) and leaving. Through practice, I’ve also become more used to starting conversations with people, if I don’t I’m not guaranteed social contact, and although I’m happy in my own company, I want to interact every so often!

Travel reaffirms my faith in humanity…which makes me a better person. When you travel you meet and interact with a lot of strangers. So you get direct experience that people, generally, are good and that there are very few bad people out there. You build your own experience that people are good, rather than relying on the warped media newsfeed that everyone is bad and out to get you. Additionally, travel often forces you to need the help of strangers, it makes you vulnerable. And when you’re vulnerable and people come up with the goods and help you out when it’s needed, you’re more likely to be grateful and pay it forward yourself. And this is true across cultures – our commonalities and connectedness are highlighted and reaffirmed when I travel.

Travel reinforces my true valuation system, which makes me more content. I’ve never really defined myself through status or material things but I feel the constant pull to do so in the society I inhabit. When I’m travelling I have fewer material things, meaning I habituate to living a simpler life in which I value the little things more. A good hot shower and a comfortable bed become the height of luxury. It also puts into perspective what the rest of the world have in comparison to me. My brain is happily occupied with the things I value: connecting with people, learning about new places and cultures, soaking up the information and this stops me slipping into the habit of chasing goal after goal which is a stressful place for me to be.

Travel frees me up to help others, A growing interest of mine over the last few years has been understanding the various barriers to women in a scientific career. One of the reasons I want to travel is to find out more about gender disparity around the world and understand how best to inspire and promote access for children, especially girls, into science education. Because I’m removed from a lifestyle and career that consumes energy I have more time to dream big, and focus on the things that interest me so I’m in a better position to do good as I go. Travel will also educate me about where help is needed and how to implement it for benefit.

Related material which may be of interest:

Has travel become another exercise in narcissism?
Twenty cognitive biases that colour our judgement
Some “Thing” to Talk About? Differential Story Utility From Experiential and Material Purchases
Perceiver effects as projective tests: what your perceptions of others say about you
Brene Brown: vulnerability researcher on TED