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The science behind why people have missed traveling

There’s science behind why people missed travel so much and are returning to it so eagerly.aanbetta - stock.adobe.com

Adam Johnson used part of his enforced free time over the last year to scroll wistfully through photos and social media posts about his pre-pandemic travels, join a Boston travel Meetup group, and dream about future trips.

The son of schoolteachers who swapped houses in the summers with people in other countries, Johnson, a museum art educator who lives in Dorchester, spent much of his childhood traveling. “They instilled the travel bug in me really early on,” he said.

To this day, travel “is kind of a cornerstone of our lives,” said Johnson. He and his husband “are happy not living in the fashionable neighborhood. We’re happy having a car we’re going to drive until it breaks down. We’re going to spend any cash we have seeing the world.”


Consumed though people are about where they’ll travel and when they’ll travel as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lift, the disruption has made many think more deeply than they ever have about another question: why they travel.

“This year has deeply reinforced that travel is not a luxury. It is a necessity, for lives and livelihoods, for families, as well as for economic and mental health,” said Gavin Tollman, CEO of the global guided tour company Trafalgar. “Never again should we forget that travel is truly one of the greatest gifts for so many reasons beyond just a vacation.”

You don’t have to take it from a travel industry executive. There’s science behind why people missed travel so much and are returning to it so eagerly.

Travel forces the brain to do such things as navigate unfamiliar places or communicate in other languages, for example, which research shows can bolster creativity and focus. It disrupts routine and exposes people to new things, activating the naturally occurring “feel-good” neurochemical dopamine, which boosts mood and motivation.


“On a basic level, travel helps us to experience life in a more vibrant, vital way — a change of pace from your everyday existence,” said Jean Kim, a psychiatrist and travel lover. “For some people it’s just an important part of feeling fulfilled.”

Another effect is also underestimated, Kim said: that even after people come home, their memories of travel can create a “zen space” to which they can retreat when seeking an escape from the anxiety of daily life.

There’s some anxiety in traveling, too, of course, which can involve making complex transportation connections and understanding cultural differences. But these are different than the daily stresses people face, said Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. Life would be “totally boring” without them, Yeager said.

Travel, he said, “has become one of the few times that we totally unplug, and that’s really important. Vacations get you off the Internet and away from your e-mail, away from your TV. It really does reboot your brain.”

Even before the pandemic, people started after the last financial crisis to prioritize experiences over material possessions, a phenomenon accelerated by social media, said Jason Guggenheim, senior partner and global leader of travel and tourism at Boston Consulting Group.

“You saw a shift away from accumulating things to accumulating memories,” Guggenheim said.

People can accumulate memories in their own backyards. But “the ability to make memories with different cultures, different foods, different art — those happen less often for us,” he said. Travel memories “are more rare. They’re more unique.”


Which is among the reasons travel is among the things that people missed so much in the pandemic, isolated as they generally were within the same four walls and away from extended family and friends.

“People travel to see places, but also to see people,” Guggenheim said. “That underpins part of the reason why why we miss it.”

Many simply crave a change of scenery — a mountain view, for instance, or a waterside escape. Asked during the pandemic about vacationing near an ocean, lake, or river, 77 percent of people said it gave them a boost in happiness and 69 percent said it provided a reduction in stress, according to a survey by the river cruise and scuba company Aggressor Adventures.

It’s “more than a fun pastime,” said Wayne Brown, the company’s CEO. “It is a natural way to rest and recharge.”

Seventy percent of 5,000 travelers surveyed by Trafalgar said they plan to finally take their dream trip as soon as they can travel again. But how much people missed travel is coming into sharper definition from another, more surprising trend: Unlike before the pandemic, many are less interested in where they go than that they just go somewhere.

Two-thirds of respondents said they would book a “mystery ticket” to go anywhere, according to a separate survey by the travel company Contiki.

These days, customers aren’t calling about some destination they’ve already decided on, said Tollman, the Trafalgar CEO; they’re calling to ask, “Where can I go?”


Even the anticipation of traveling can trigger happiness, said Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Walf doesn’t need surveys or research studies to see how much people are doing that. She hears it in conversations with her friends and sees it on their social media.

And she gets it. When people travel, especially for pleasure, Walf said, it reduces their stress. A laid-back beach trip means “staying at a hotel, going to restaurants, no need to clean. When we travel, especially for pleasure, we are momentarily away from our daily hassles and stressors right in front of us, like a huge pile of laundry to be folded.”

Even business travelers who in normal times complained of long lines and uncomfortable flights have discovered that it was really all about the destination.

Alan Weiss, an author, speaker, and consultant from East Greenwich, R.I., calls this the threshold principle.

“If you have a toothache, you go to the dentist knowing it’s going to be painful. But you’re doing it because, after you pass that threshold, it’s not going to hurt anymore,” said Weiss.

By the same token, after slogging through security and sitting on long flights in cramped seats, “you schlep to the hotel and the next day you’re going to be tired. But you’re over the threshold. It’s not like you’re going to be in meetings for eight hours a day. You’re on an expense account. And the client is going to take you to a really great restaurant.”


Fifty-nine percent of business travelers are looking forward to getting back in the air, according to a survey by the business management company SAP Concur. Jaded though you’d think they’d be, a third say they’re excited to travel. And as a practical matter, 92 percent said being unable to meet customers in person has hurt business.

“Human-to-human connections can never be replaced by a Zoom call,” said Virginia Messina, senior vice president for advocacy at the World Travel & Tourism Council, speaking from a long-delayed in-person international industry conference in Cancun. (The closing party on the beach under a big full moon “just felt so good,” Messina said.)

There seem to be as many other reasons people value travel as there are places in the world to go.

Weiss, one of whose degrees is in psychology, cites “existential angst. People are realizing how mortal they are and how short life is.”

As for Johnson, back in Dorchester, he’s waiting impatiently for his first flight since the start of the pandemic — to California, to visit family — and planning a trip to Ireland.

While travel was on hold, he said, “there was a real sense of loss.” The pandemic “has been so much about uncertainty, and lack of control. Travel is the positive flip side of that. You may not know what’s coming around the corner but you know that what’s coming around the corner is going to be good.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.