It’s commonly said that people travel in order to “find themselves”. Think about it: how many blog posts, articles and Instagram stories have you seen to this effect? But really… how accurate is that?
For this article, I’ll be delving into the history of why we travel, the science behind why some choose to travel and others don’t, plus some exclusive interviews with travel writers and other travellers to find out more about why they travel and whether they’re searching for something. Some of the answers may even surprise you!
The History of Travel
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, George Santayana, a Spanish Philosopher once said.
But what does history teach us?
It’s quite simple really: we are travellers. Whether it be to find new lands, cultures, food, experiences, you name it. As a species, we are intent on travelling in order to find something. History tells us so, am I right?
Wherever you head in the world, you will somehow be affected by what has happened before you visited. Maybe you travelled to Berlin and spotted the bullet holes throughout the city? Or maybe you flew to Hawaii and found a Buddhist temple there, reminding you of Japan’s connection to this beautiful US state?
Back in the day, travel was a necessity in order to build-up the thriving empires we see today. And war, religion, finance, agriculture and tourism have all had an impact on what a country is like now versus before.
The world is built on travel.
Let’s think about this for a moment: if British explorers hadn’t visited India, we Brits probably wouldn’t love tea quite so much. If the Vikings hadn’t travelled in order to establish settlements in Iceland and Greenland, these countries wouldn’t have much going for them today other than impressive landscapes.
What all this means is that whether you love travel or prefer to be a homebody, there’s no denying that our ancestors were devout travellers – whether we’ve subsequently chosen to follow in their path or not.
The Wanderlust Gene
“Wanderlust (n): a strong desire or impulse to wander, travel or explore the world.”
The term, wanderlust comes from the German words: wandern (to hike) and Lust (desire). Wandern has often been mistranslated to mean “to wander”, giving birth to one of the most overused words within the travel circle today: wanderlust.
What I want to know is: are some people genetically predisposed to travel and a feeling of wanderlust? Science says maybe.
According to a variety of sources, including The Telegraph, researchers have repeatedly tried to link behaviour traits of exploring and risk-taking to a gene variant, with the less than glamourous name of DRD4-7R. Thankfully, marketers have since dubbed this “the wanderlust gene”, sparking a whole range of debates over whether some people are more prone to travel, simply because of their genes.
Okay, are you ready for the sciency bit? DRD4 is a dopamine receptor that helps control the levels of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is an organic chemical, which encourages us to seek novelty (or new experiences), resulting in “happy feelings”.
It’s thought that those with the “wanderlust gene” (approximately 20% of us) have a lower sensitivity to dopamine. In other words, we are more likely to seek new experiences that in turn release more dopamine, thus happy feelings.
Fun Time: The Telegraph has recently published a couple of quizzes so that you can find out a) whether you have the wanderlust gene and b) how extensively you’ve travelled. What I will say is to take these quizzes with a pinch of salt. My results were:
- “One of your relatives may have the gene, but you don’t.” (As if! I’m the most widely travelled of all of my family, aside from maybe my ex-Army Dad!)
- “You’re an average traveller – you’ve been to plenty of countries but there’s many more to explore.” (This in fairness is most definitely true… but surely we can all say that unless we’ve visited every single country in the world?!)
Anyway, back to the debate at hand.
Other than trying to baffle you with science and genetics, the point of telling you all of this about the “wanderlust gene” is that scientists are trying to claim that those of us with this gene, travel in order to seek new experiences.
Surely then this is proof that world travellers are in fact searching for something after all?!
Are World Travellers Searching for Anything?
Placing history and science aside for a moment, I decided to put this question to the test.
I asked a small sample of travellers and travel bloggers whether they were searching for something in particular when travelling, or whether they thought that they weren’t searching for anything at all. Here’s what I found out:
Over 80% of respondents confirmed they are searching for something when travelling.
But what exactly are they searching for?
In Search of… Beautiful Landscapes
Many travellers leave their hometowns in order to seek out beautiful and dramatic landscapes. This is especially the case if their homes are built-up cities, barren wastelands or a whole host of other uninspiring viewpoints.
This is the case with Victoria from Follow Me Away, who says:
“When I travel, I search for beautiful landscapes in other lands! Growing up in flat Florida, it is fantastic to see the diversity in nature that the world has to offer! It is also interesting to see that although the world has differences, after you have been to a lot of mountain ranges, you can see the similarities as well as the differences! The same goes for people, culture, anything!”
Whilst Claire from Zigzag on Earth told me:
“I am looking for the most magical places. I am blown away by the work of Nature: deserts, forests, lakes, mountains, geological wonders… Admiring the unique details in shades and shapes makes me feel grateful to be alive.”
In Search of… Adventure
This really should be expected, shouldn’t it?
If the wanderlust gene exists in risk-takers, surely this means a lot of travellers are looking for a sense of adventure? I would have to agree with this… to a certain extent.
I’m not about to throw myself out of an aeroplane in search of adventure, but scuba-diving and paragliding are quite high on my list of things to try. Both of these offer adventure in different ways, namely: exploring via a birdseye view versus exploring underwater.
“I am searching for adventure, cultural, or smart luxury experiences. I love a day at the beach, scuba diving, or rappelling down a waterfall… but that is just the fun part of travel. I am also searching for cultural experiences so that I can get to know the people better and understand why they do what they do, what type of foods they eat or special drinks that they make. There is always a story or reason why they do the things they do.”
“The number 1 thing I am searching for when travelling is adventure. For me, this doesn’t always have to be something extremely daring like skydiving. Adventure can simply be trying something new. Tasting a unique food for the first time, learning a new language, seeing a landmark in person that I’ve only read about in books – each of these experiences is an adventure of its own. I love being able to experience the world, and being able to collect tales of these adventures from everywhere I go.”
In Search of… New Experiences
Travelling always presents us with new experiences, whether it be activities or just new things to see!
For instance, when exploring Finland last year, husky sledding was first on my list as something I didn’t think I’d be able to do anywhere else.
Melanie from The Wandering Darlings agrees with the concept of searching for new experiences, saying:
“I’m always searching for new experiences and places to explore. I love feeling enriched when I’m away from my normal daily life. Seeing the different landscapes, buildings, people, cultures and history of a place is what I’m searching for. I want to see beyond the list of must see places in a destination.”
Whilst Jean from Traveling Honeybird says:
“I am always searching for new experiences. I’m unmarried, no children and have no mortgage so tend to spend my money on looking for new experiences that add value to my life. Whether that be a culinary adventure or hiking in the wilderness.”
I also spoke with a non-blogger, Scott from Bristol who told me: “I travel to experience new cultures and try new things, although I wouldn’t say I’m searching for anything in particular when travelling. That said, I do like to find some decent weather, either sunshine for beach holidays or plenty of snow for skiing.”
In Search of… Balance
I’ve often heard travellers saying they’re able to find a sense of balance during their travels.
This could be balance in work versus personal life, or even instilling some sense of health into our lifestyles. Personally, I’d agree with this concept – not only does travel give us all an escape from work, but it also gives us a break from the mundane “normal day” as well!
Nanouk from Digital Nomad With Kids explains that they are always searching for balance in their lives and when travelling:
“We’re on a continuous quest for finding balance in our lives. On a daily basis, we want to decide what to do. Have time with the kids, do some work, do cultural activities, meet new people or anything else we want to do on that day. By travelling – and working location independent – we are trying to reach that balance.”
In Search of… Peace & Zen
There have been so many places I’ve travelled to that have allowed me to invoke a sense of peace and zen into my day. From wandering through the Californian redwoods, to discovering a Buddhist temple in Hawaii, finding zen differs from person to person; traveller to traveller.
But if there’s one thing to learn from travelling, it’s definitely the art of a peaceful and zen lifestyle. Maybe that’s why I’m so desperate to visit Japan: the very essence in zen!
In Search of… People & Cultures
Searching for different types of people and cultures to learn from is a pretty common answer we hear as to what people are searching for when travelling.
And it’s easy to see why!
By venturing outside of our comfort zones and into other cultures, we can learn so much from others and how their society works. It’s an interesting premise to learn all this about other people, but it’s also wise to remember that things aren’t all that different between us all really.
What do you think – are we so different from our French, American, Indian etc neighbours?
Anyway, back to the question at hand. Nathan from Foodie Flash Packer is always on the hunt to learn from other cultures, saying:
“I wouldn’t say that I’m searching for any one thing in particular, but having been on the road for quite a while now, I travel because of the things I know I’ll continue to find. Things like interesting new people, places I’ve read about but never imagined I would actually see, and tasty new local dishes. I’ve met some people on the road doing amazing things and I’ve gone on to stay friends with so many of them. These are the things that keep me travelling.”
Whilst Kristen from Travels and Treats likes to establish good connections with those she meets when travelling:
“I’m always looking to have conversations with locals when I travel. The food and sights are definitely a huge part of my travel experience, but it has always been my interactions with real people who live in the places I travel to that send me home feeling the most satisfied, enriched and educated. That said, I guess I’m constantly in search of a destination’s truth, whatever that may be. It’s easy to look at pretty, colourful, scenic photos of a place and develop a desire to go there. And don’t get me wrong, I love coming home with beautiful photos. But what’s the story behind these places? That, I’ve found, is something that best comes from the people who have a lifetime full of history in a place; they are the ones who can share stories and information that we may have no other way of obtaining. This is what I search for while travelling, because it expands my mind and heart in ways that not many other things are able to.”
In Search of… Stories to Tell
This is definitely an interesting concept.
When we travel, we come back with so many stories to tell. Why do you think there are so many travel writers out there? Or photographers? However you decide to share your travel story, there are always going to be a good number of ears willing to listen.
Take Suman from Nomadic Shoes as an example. When coming home from travelling, her students are always on the lookout for her stories:
“I search for experiences, which includes people, food and culture. I look forward to learning something new each time I travel. And, I bring home a bag full of stories to tell my students and share how the world is beautiful outside our comfort zones.”
In Search of… Learning
This answer goes hand in hand with the people and cultures side of things as there can be so much to learn from them. But not only that, there is also much we can learn from nature and the environment too.
Olga from Latinas Who Travel says:
“I travel to expand my horizons, to learn about other cultures and to interact with the locals. Travelling feeds my hunger and curiosity for life like nothing else. It’s the best university in life and has made me growh not only personally but also professionally.”
Whilst Priyadarshini from Glorious Sunrise enjoys a spot of people-watching during her travels:
“I search for the local hotspots as I love people-watching. I can learn so much about the locals and their culture that way. Also the food is guaranteed to be great in the places that the locals frequent. I ask for locals’ suggestions for things to do :)”
And finally, Alejandra from Euless in Texas is on the hunt for something when travelling. He told me he goes travelling to: “Learn the local culture, history and gastronomy.” Alejandra prefers to “go to places less travelled by tourists, like the local dives and hangouts.” He told me that this allows him to “meet new people and exchange thoughts and experiences.”
In Search of… Living a Life Less Ordinary
When travelling, planning travels, and when coming home from travels; these are the times when I feel like I’m in my element. These are my own moments to shine as an individual and put my own kind of stamp on the world.
Without travel, I hate to think that I could be a mere shell of a woman… And what kind of life would that be like to live? Thus, for me, I travel in search of living a life less ordinary.
With all this said though, should we even be asking the question: what are world travellers searching for? Rishabh and Nirali from Gypsy Couple suggest not:
“This is a difficult question to answer. We are both searching and not searching for a particular thing while travelling and the complexity of the balance between the two is what makes travel so interesting. We research our destination but still search for something new. While revisiting a favourite destination, we are searching for the same experience that made it so dear to us while not searching for anything else at all. At best, it’s a difficult question and one we shouldn’t attempt to search for an answer, because that’s what makes travel so interesting.”
But what do you think? What are you looking for when travelling? And should we even be asking the question of what people are searching for when travelling? Let me know in the comments…
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