Why Do We Travel?

We Take A Look At The Science And Psychology Behind Your Summer Holiday

Words by Sam Haddad, main illustration by Matt Ward

It’s deepest, dankest January. And I have the misfortune of being on a packed commuter train which has stalled just outside London in morning rush hour. We’re all late. No one is smiling. Everyone is hating life. Except the couple opposite me, that is. They’re discussing where to go on their summer holiday this year.

“Morocco…France…Greece…” he says. Her face lighting up for each. “Mmm that beach in the Peloponnese…” she replies, “and that view from the gorge we mountain biked up…”

“Where the goats climbed the trees!” he laughs.

And they’re off, wistful eyes and thousand-yard stares even though the window has so much grime and condensation you can barely see out. All for a two-week trip that is still six months away. The wait will be 12 times as long as the trip itself but that yearning for an escape from the everyday is all part of the fun. Welcome to the holiday mythology.

Are you going away this summer? Sweet if so! Though have you ever thought about why? It seems such an instinctive thing, to lust after a holiday abroad, to ache to travel and see the world. To take a gap year or even just a mini-weekend break with your mates. To tattoo the Mercator projection map on your back…ok maybe not that last one. But to walk on a beach, to swim in the sea, to adventure elsewhere…

Yet there’s nothing “natural or obvious” about taking a holiday as Yuval Noah Harari says in his new book Sapiens:

“A chimpanzee alpha-male would never think of utilising his power in order to go on vacation into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but almost none of them thought of travelling for a summer-sale in Babylon or a ski vacation in Phoenicia.”

However, one in five British people see taking a holiday as a necessity, according to a 2013 survey by ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents. Folk would rather forgo new clothing, gadgets, and eating out than sacrifice their annual break. Add to that pensions and rainy day savings. And I am one of their number. I find it hard to operate without a trip on the horizon, however long away that mission may be. (I should add I count myself as extremely lucky to have been born at a time and in a country where I can go away anywhere at all).

But why wish for it? Because it’s a fun thing to do? Or is it embedded in our neural pathways from an early age as a fun thing to do? Through family yarns and rituals, and a culture that constantly promotes holidays as a fun thing to do. Or is perhaps a combination of the two.

Popular travel as we know it started in the 18th century, when “to be well-travelled meant to be well-educated and vice versa,” according to Dr. Ania de Berg, a specialist in Tourism and Cultural Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. “The British gentry sent their sons on the European Grand Tour that usually ended up in Italy, which back then was considered to be the cradle of modern European culture.”

The 20th century saw the growth of the British seaside holiday and then Thomas Cook brought in the foreign package holiday in the 1950s. The hippie trail of the 1960s and 1970s popularised backpacking and living-like-a-local travelling as distinct from tourism, while Easyjet and other low-cost airlines encouraged more frequent short breaks around Europe. Adventure and experiential travel are pretty hot right now.

And the internet has added yet another dimension. For at any given time they’ll be someone on your feed having a blast on holiday somewhere and making sure you know about it. Travel companies, hotels and room-sharing sites such as Airbnb have slicker design and more inviting photos than ever before. While sites such as Buzzfeed seem to both fetishise and stoke wanderlust like never before with lists such as 31 signs you’re a traveller at heart, and 32 tattoos that will make you want to travel the world, while also putting you off tattoos for life.

We travel to places we’ve already seen countless times on screens. We collect the countries we’ve been to, and the experiences we’ve had there, so we can tell a story about ourselves, both for our own benefit and for our social standing amongst friends. Albeit subconsciously. We also do it to bond with potential partners, with a “love of international travel” as a much sought after quality desired in a romantic partner, nicely spoofed in this Onion piece.

Where you choose to go might amplify those parts of your identity that you wish to shout about, and there is certainly a social bragging element to travel, especially amongst the 1 per cent see for example the Rich Kids Of Instagram. But it’s the fact you go away at all that brings the real benefits to your brain. Voyaging lets you escape the everyday and hit refresh in a way our computer promises but never actually can.

We remember moments from our holidays better than those from our regular life. Psychology lecturer Claudia Hammond told the British Psychological Society in 2012 that in normal life we only commit six to nine experiences a fortnight to memory, where as on holiday it’s more like six to nine things a day. New experiences lead to lots of new memories. Which is also an argument for not visiting the same place twice.

In March this year, The Atlantic posted a piece on how travel benefits the brain creatively. It said:

“In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely what many people have already learned anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change. In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired.

Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalise the mind.”

The Atlantic cite a study from Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, which showed that fashion designers who had lived and worked abroad produced more creative lines than those who hadn’t.

While the same article also mentions a study by professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at the University of Southern California, which shows that immersing yourself in other cultures when travelling can enhance your sense of self. She says:

“What a lot of psychological research has shown now is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self.”

A 2009 study from Lile Jia at Indiana University, reported in the Scientific American, showed that psychological distance helps our brains solve problems more creatively, which may explain why we have so many life epiphanies on holiday.

Such science is great but the travel writer Pico Iyer sums things up a little more poetically saying:

“For me the first great joy of travelling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing)… can be both novelty and revelation.

Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit.”

In the future some people think we won’t even need to physically take holidays, with virtual reality supplanting the experience. Others such as Dr. Kaku, in his book The Future Of The Mind, imagine a future where other people’s holidays could even be uploaded to our minds. Whether that would convey the same brain benefits remains to be seen.

Escaping your regular life through travel also relies on it being a temporary thing. As any pro surfer or snowboarder will tell you (while also being at pains to say they’re not complaining!) being permanently on the move is tough, as the hotel-hopping itself becomes your routine. Ditto for those who switch city life to live out their days in paradise. As George Clooney’s character Matt King in the film The Descendants puts it:

“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here, sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we are immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartache less painful?”


Do you still need to escape when you live in the place that people escape to? In my experience of once living in an awesome ski resort and now residing in a pebbly seaside fun town, of course you do, though perhaps less than you do when you live somewhere that really sucks. For when the place you escaped to becomes part of your daily routine, you lose the freshness and benefits that distance was providing. The solution? Don’t be a chimp – get planning your next trip!

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