People who travel are happier than people who don’t

The happiness issue: What science says about travel and happiness: people who travel are happier than those who don’t

In a world increasingly driven by work and routine, the pursuit of happiness may lead us to look to travel, with its promise of new experiences and escape from the daily grind. Does it work? Of course. Here’s what the research says:

The more you travel, the happier you are

In a 2022 study at the University of Alabama designed to examine the relationships between the beach, travel, and happiness, researchers found that people are significantly happier when actively anticipating or planning a vacation and that more is better, up to a point. 

Key findings included:

1. Planning a vacation makes you happy. “People who are planning a vacation are significantly happier than those who aren’t,” said Dr. Jameson Hayes, one of the researchers.

2. Beaches were the preferred vacation destination among the majority of respondents, with mountain vacations coming in second. “But the data shows that one’s happiness increases regardless of the type of destination.”

3. The more you travel, the happier you are – but only up to a point. “Respondents who traveled for pleasure 15-21 days per year reported the highest levels of happiness. Those traveling less than two weeks per year or more than three weeks per year, reported being less happy.”

The excitement of the anticipation

Research by The Let’s Go There Coalition and happiness researcher Michelle Gielan from the Institute for Applied Positive Research supports the idea that just planning travel increases happiness. The team found that 97% of survey respondents said having a trip planned makes them happier. Eighty two percent said a booked trip makes them “moderately” or “significantly” happier, and 71% reported feeling greater levels of energy knowing they had a trip planned in the next six months.

Respondents strongly agreed with the statements “Simply knowing there was something to look forward to would bring me joy” (95%) and “Planning travel for some time in the next six months would bring me happiness” (80%).

The importance of travel for wellbeing

We know from separate studies, particularly the Harvard Study of Adult Development, that relationships are the main key to happiness overall. And travel can help with that. According to a 2020 Amex Trendex study from American Express, 91% of respondents say that the ability to travel is important to their overall happiness, while 86% say travel is important to maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends.

But that’s obviously not all it’s good for. A 2022 study by Japanese researchers designed to investigate the effects of a winter vacation on individuals’ wellbeing found that people who traveled had higher subjective levels of wellbeing than those who did not. 

The authors wrote that the findings underline the importance of taking vacations and savoring recovery experiences while off work. They also highlighted the importance of “mastery experiences,” which are activities performed that distract from one’s job by providing challenging experiences and learning opportunities in other areas and offer opportunities to experience competence and proficiency. “People place a high value on learning new skills and knowledge and hard-won experiences while on vacation, and such experiences may help improve wellbeing,” they wrote, also noting that simply experiencing something out of the ordinary enhances wellbeing.

Another study backs up the idea that the more we travel the happier we are. A 2021 study from the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University found that frequent travelers are happier with their lives than people who don’t travel at all. Researchers found that survey participants who reported regularly traveling at least 75 miles away from home reported being about 7% happier when asked about their overall wellbeing than those who reported traveling very rarely or not at all.

“While things like work, family life and friends play a bigger role in overall reports of wellbeing, the accumulation of travel experiences does appear to have a small yet noticeable effect on self-reported life satisfaction,” study author Chu-Chu Chen said. “It really illustrates the importance of being able to get out of your routine and experience new things.”

Finding of previous research by Chen found that taking a leisure trip provides opportunities for relaxation, detachment from work, mastery experience, and personal control. The research examined the role of tourism experiences as a stress reliever and as recovery and found that these trips had positive effects on life satisfaction. Short trips were found to help people recover from work stress, while longer trips provide more opportunities for recovery experiences.

The role of novel experiences in happiness

Some of the benefits are derived from a human desire to seek out new experiences. A 2021 study from New York University found that new and diverse experiences are linked to enhanced happiness, and that this relationship is associated with greater correlation of brain activity. The results, authors said, revealed a previously unknown connection between our daily physical environments and our sense of wellbeing.

“Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines – when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” said researcher Catherine Hartley. 

The study tracked people by GPS and found that those who had more variability in their physical location reported feeling more positive: “happy,” “excited,” “strong,” “relaxed,” and/or “attentive.” Subjects also underwent MRI scans and results showed that people for whom this effect was the strongest exhibited greater correlation between activity in brain regions associated with the processing of novelty and reward.

Collectively, these studies underscore the significant positive impact of travel and vacation planning on overall happiness and wellbeing. Whether it’s the anticipation, the variety of new experiences, or the act of traveling itself, each aspect contributes to enhancing life satisfaction and mental health.

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