Some say travel brings great happiness. It can.
Some say travel is expensive. It can, but doesn’t have to be.
Some say that money can therefore buy happiness. It can, but often very little.
These statements come from my personal experiences, not only as someone who has published a fair bit of research on the links between money and happiness, but also as someone currently on his way to Bhutan by bicycle. I’m integrating all that I know from my research into my travels…and finding much happiness in the process.
Some say travel brings great happiness.
Travel can be a wonderfully nourishing experience – not only can travel bring moments of pleasure (hedonic happiness) but it also can bring a longer term sense of flourishing (eudaimonic happiness).
There may be feelings of amazement, wonder, and curiousness at the site of structures left by an ancient civilisation. Perhaps there will be taste sensations through encounters with delicious food never seen or tasted before. Or maybe from standing atop a mountain there will be feelings of awe at a landscape that rolls on and on as far as the eye can see. Perhaps love and compassion will develop through contact with a curious being from a completely different culture from our own.
Travel as an experience
Through travel it is possible to see ourselves in a way we perhaps couldn’t before by staying in the same place. Researchers have demonstrated that people tend to obtain more happiness from their experiences than their possessions. An experience, although likely a one off occurrence and not physically lasting like a possession does, can stretch over space and time through our memories – the happiness felt at the time can be recounted and relived. Travel is near exclusively about experiences. Thus travel, so the science implies, has a high chance of bringing happiness.
Travel can help meet universal needs
Travel, however, is not essential to happiness. Human beings have core needs, some say such needs are universal, and they include things such as physical well-being, connection, meaning, and autonomy. These needs might be somewhat hierarchical in that it is impossible to even think about meeting some needs, such as meaning or autonomy without first meeting basic physiological needs, such as physical needs like food, shelter, and warmth. When core needs are met we experience emotions such as joy, happiness, and delight, whilst we may experience sadness, distress, and anger, when core needs are not met.
Travel is not a basic human need in its own right. Rather travel represents one of many different strategies for meeting these basic human needs. As strategies go it might be argued that travel is quite a good one since it can meet our needs for physical well-being, connection, meaning, and autonomy. Thus if we have the resources to travel, and believe it to be an effective way of meeting our needs, we may choose travel and in meeting those needs we may experience happiness (both hedonic and eudaimonic forms of happiness).
Travel as challenge
But travel can bring its fair share of challenge too and can sometimes be overwhelming and stressful. Not only is it sometimes difficult to navigate through unfamiliar cultures in languages that are not one’s own but every now and then things can go quite horribly wrong – perhaps there is a physical injury or a seemingly essential item, like credit cards or passports, might go missing – and these situations often have to be dealt with without the usual support that might easily be found back home.
It is near impossible to avoid at least some challenge while travelling. Personally I try, although often unsuccessfully, to accept the challenge in a given moment exactly as it is, which includes all the anger, judgement, and sadness that I may experience in response to it. Whilst a challenging situation may not generate any happiness at the time of the situation often upon coming through the challenge there can often be some contribution to happiness in the longer term. For example, through enabling a growth (patience, acceptance, gratitude) and learning about one’s self during adversity (awareness of important needs) or perhaps simply through recounting the experience to others, which at a later date may make a humorous story to share.
Travel doesn’t have to be for everyone. Some people prefer to use their resources in different ways. However, for those that do enjoy to travel, I hope they can relate what I’ve written so far as to how travel might contribute to their happiness.
Some say travel is expensive
There are many different ways to travel and it is important that a person finds the way that supports them and their process. There is no right or wrong way but what I want to focus on here is the extent to which travel has to be costly, and question whether spending more money on travel makes for a happier travel experience. I’ll do this by taking a look at different choices within some of the main spending categories when travelling.
Getting from A to B
To get anywhere some form of transport is needed – tickets often need to be bought – but the financial cost might depend on the form of transport and the distance. There are ways to travel that can take a person quite far that are quick, such as flying, and they generally have a higher direct cost. Slower travel is sometimes more cost-effective but often needs a bigger time commitment. The really cost effective forms of travel, for example, walking, cycling, and hitchhiking, can all take a very long time to go far but have no direct financial cost.
I don’t think there is much of a correlation between how much is spent getting from A to B and happiness. From personal experience I’d actually prefer to walk, cycle, or hitchhike. Not because they don’t cost anything, except large amounts of time, but because for me they tick the box for me with respect to what is important for happiness when travelling that I described earlier – namely they form and integral part of the travel experience (values the journey over the destination), fulfil important needs (connection to people), and can bring immense challenge (hills to climb or hours to wait).
There are nearly always a range of standard accommodation options from expensive hotels to the inexpensive hostel. Expensive hotels may provide more comfort, and perhaps peace of mind with regard to perceived safety, whereas hostels might provide a little more in the way of sociability.
What I’ve noticed in observation of self and others, and research will back me up here, is that people tend to very quickly get used to their surroundings. That is people adapt. Thus the luxuries cease to become luxuries and instead become the norm that soon provides little in the way of happiness. Conversely, doing without what was once considered a norm, can also be got used to, such that eventually the lack of something won’t necessarily bring unhappiness.
There are a couple of things that are important here for money and happiness when travelling. The first is that to go to some places there are things that we will inevitably have to do without. For example, there may be limited options in small local villages. The second is that if the same option is selected each time and ceases to influence a person emotionally then it is easy to come to believe that it is essential for their happiness due to its absence creating unhappiness (a classic loss aversion effect upon which I’ve published upon). A better way to sustain happiness is by not allowing luxuries to become the norm i.e. by getting used to very basic conditions and then treating ourselves once in a while.
However, there are also options that have no financial cost. These include couch-surfing (warmshowers is the cyclists equivalent) and volunteer exchange programs (WWOOFing, Help-X, Workaway). There is some cost to these but it is often not financial. Instead there is an exchange. In the case of couch-surfing the exchange might be cultural (sharing food and experiences, and staying with a person knowledgeable of where you are), or based loosely on the idea of gifting and paying it forward (giving is receiving; if I help you, then you help the next person). Volunteer exchange programs require some work element in exchange for accommodation and food.
In relation to happiness and how accommodation choices contribute to the travel experience, fulfil important needs, and bring challenge then the different choices are likely to feed into each of these differently. All can form part of the travel experience – the amazing hotels, perhaps unaffordable in one’s homeland; the new friends made at a sociable hostel; the time spent with a local family; or contributing to the construction of say an eco-house. Any type of accommodation can also bring unexpected challenge – perhaps something expected in an expensive hotel has not been provided; there is too much noise in the hostel; it feels awkward in a stranger’s home; or too much unfulfilling work has to be done in exchange for a poor sleeping situation – but may eventually result in a deep learning about one’s self. However, when it comes to needs perhaps physical well-being, reliability, and perceived safety, these may be better served through a more expensive accommodation option but there may be less likelihood for connection than in a hostel dormitory. With some sort of exchange there perhaps might be a higher chance of experiencing meaning through travel.
Personally I like to mix it up a lot – sometimes I like the comfort of a hotel (showers have become a luxury on this cycle trip) but other times I feel lonely and enjoy the potential sociability of hostels. I also like staying with local people from time to time and sharing food and stories. However, as free accommodation goes it is the humble tent that is my current personal favourite – at the basic level just a small piece of flat soft ground is all that is required – and whilst at times lonely when alone it has opened up the most enriching of travel experiences. Just the other night I asked a dairy farmer if I could camp on his land – we could barely communicate with one another but they said yes and I was also invited in for dinner. As a travel experience it was unbeatable – no amount of money could ever buy such an experience.
Activities – how to spend one’s travel time?
How to spend one’s time when travelling can be challenging – is there time to do and also time to just be? There may be a conflict between doing and being – when in a place for a limited amount of time with the likelihood of never coming back it can be difficult to just be.
Some people like to do as much as they can in a very short space of time. They might want to do it all. While travelling this way can create a robust travel experience, fulfil some needs, and bring challenge and growth, a strong focus on doing may become very expensive very quickly. It can also be quite exhausting to travel with a focus on doing and in the process other needs might be overlooked – such as physical well-being or connection – and it can also become exhausting.
Others prefer their travel to involve a lot less doing, and perhaps more being. The being mode is more flow like and requires letting things just happen. It necessitates acknowledging that not everything can nor needs to be done and it can be a challenge because sometimes nothing might seem to be happening. But there is always something happening and by being with what is, just as doing lots of things does but in different way, is also likely to bring happiness through creating travel experiences, fulfilling some universal needs, and bringing challenge and growth.
Most importantly for this post a “being” mode of travel can be much less expensive. It can certainly be nice doing lots of things, like going to cathedrals, restaurants, museums, lots of different cities, as visits can inspire an appreciation for a places history, people, and culture. However, there is also much to gain by sitting in plazas, local markets, or cafes watching things and people go by, and maybe even striking up a conversation with someone local from time to time.
Like anything it is perhaps important to strike a balance but one thing I have certainly noticed is that the longer I travel the easier it has become to just be.
The need to eat is something that all humans have to do and so food can be an important gateway into people’s lives and their cultures. For some food might even be their main purpose for travel – taste sensations that may never otherwise be experienced.
Whether travelling or not people have to eat and unless there is some non-monetary exchange going on can be very difficult to get for free. Thus of course some money needs to be spent on food when travelling how much more needs to be spent than would usually be spent on food to secure happiness while travelling?
Some of what I wrote about with regard to happiness for accommodation applies to food. There is nearly always an abundance of options with a whole range of prices. There is adaptation – eating out in restaurants every day can be expensive. Some restaurants that cater for tourists will probably be more expensive and have minimal local food and near certainly have no locals eating in them. Food that people are more familiar with can be comforting and perhaps seem more trustworthy, therefore influencing our happiness. However, there is also much to be gained from experiencing street food or going to busy, sometimes seemingly chaotic, local markets to buy food at local prices and eat as the people that live there do each day.
Personally I wouldn’t eat out all the time at home. Much of the food found at restaurants is the creamy oily salty sort, designed to maximise eating pleasure but isn’t the sort of thing I want in my body all the time as this may affect my longer term happiness. There are normally healthier options available but I also like to cook – to ensure I’m getting a balanced diet – and most hostels have kitchens. Also I am currently travelling with a stove, which is quite a necessity when camping and I have had many a wonderful dinner whilst looking out onto a beautiful landscape, but I also make use of this from time to time when I’m staying in hotels. Of course this way of eating is less expensive, but I think it seems to nourish my body a little better.
Risk, the price of fear, and overcoming challenge
Sometimes when a decision about how to travel is being made questions of safety may arise. For example, will there be health risks with unfamiliar food (both short and long term), is it unsafe being in busy places with so many unfamiliar people, or is being alone in a tent by the side of the road dangerous?
Fear can often arise when travelling – much like life really. Sometimes a fear might arise from a risk that is very real but it also might just be perceived from thinking a lot about all the what ifs that may have come from what other people have said or believe. Whatever the origin of the fear, and it is often very hard to know and accept a fear’s origin at times, the fear can stop people doing certain things.
Personally I worry a lot, yet to have had some of my experiences I’ve needed to get past a lot of fears. Sometimes I’ve struggled to pluck up the courage to free-camp because of a perceived menacing look from someone in the street earlier in the day or a worried local person telling me to take care because there are bad people out there. At times I have been so overwhelmed by worry that I’ve taken a hotel instead. Actually I didn’t camp for over a month after I got bitten by a dog as I became very fearful of life.
What I’ve noticed is that fear encourages me to spend more money than I otherwise would, and doing so can give me a perception of safety. There is nothing wrong with that in itself – on some level I’ve needed that feeling of safety at the time – but sometimes pushing through the fear has provided some very enriching travel experiences. Added to that I’ve also found it quite psychologically illuminating to inspect my process around fear.
All of life’s choices carry some risk and each person needs to strike their own balance between the need for feeling safety and their other needs while travelling. Sufficient money can help with feeling safe. Money may also be useful when something does go wrong, or at least knowing that there is money to help if something goes wrong. Money might help in a challenging situation.
However, having money may block other ways of dealing with fear and challenge that may encourage more growth and longer lasting happiness. For example, requesting support from other people – travellers or locals – and having others only too glad to help creating deep connections, or exercising one’s creativity to find solutions.
Travel can be expensive, but doesn’t have to be.
To sum up this section money can enable travelling and some money is almost definitely needed, but it doesn’t need to cost a lot and can be compensated with the use of a more important resource – time. Whether lots of money is spent travelling or very little there will still be experiences had, needs met, and challenge to overcome, they may just come in different forms. There can be good experiences in inexpensive places and bad experiences in expensive places. I’ve seen that money can act as both a barrier to some experiences – preventing us doing things because we don’t really have to – but also allowing other experiences not always accessible without money. They are all at bottom experiences – no worse, no better than each other.
However, if a person’s approach to travel is expensive then perhaps there is only so much travelling that can be done if funds are limited. By using less one may be able to travel further and for longer, and therefore perhaps need to work less in the first place to finance the travel.
Some say that money can therefore buy happiness.An argument that I have heard many times is that if happiness is experienced when engaged in some activity, and if that activity costs a lot, then that must mean money brings happiness. This is a short-sighted argument.
As I argued earlier with regard to travel not being a basic human need but a strategy for meeting basic human needs the same applies to money. It is just a strategy. One of many strategies but a popular and very convenient one. If a person wishes to use all their time to make money to then use to fulfil needs, then that’s OK – it just might not always be the most efficient way to obtain happiness once basic needs have been met. Many ways in which people spend their money don’t fulfil basic needs that were not already fulfilled before in perhaps a simpler more cost-effective way. Time itself can also be effectively used – growing, building, sharing, giving, receiving, creating – to meet one’s needs.
Adaptation, as I talked about earlier, is important to consider for this argument. Just because some activity or object brings some happiness now it doesn’t mean repeated use will continue to bring that same level of happiness. Repeated use lessons the impact on people’s happiness and perhaps in time it may even bring frustration and annoyance. Things once a luxury become a norm, and then whilst the thing may not bring the happiness once remembered its presence may just act to prevent unhappiness from not having it. Related to this, humans compare with one another and unhappiness can occur when someone doesn’t have something that others have and this can motivate people to spend more than is perhaps optimal.
In addition to this the research consistently demonstrates that under certain circumstance money may generally bring some happiness but even if it does the effect is often very small. There are other things that seem to consistently bring greater well-being such as physical and mental health, relationships, stability of daily purpose, and a person’s personality. If more happiness is required in life then focusing on these things, rather than pursuing happiness through money and consumption, may be more effective.
Personal experiences so far
My own way of travelling has evolved over the years. Other than a day trip to France with school I didn’t leave the UK until I was 17 – I was often envious of friends who seemed to always be going to faraway places whilst I had to make do with Norfolk, Dorset, and Cornwall. So some might say I began “travelling” quite late and I’ve since travelled further afield. However, probably the single most important thing I’ve learnt over the years is that I don’t need to go far to get happiness from my travels. For many years I overlooked the beauty on my doorstep and since I moved to Scotland I know that a lifetime there wouldn’t be enough. Beauty can be found everywhere.
A journey to BhutanHowever, local aside, I am currently on way to Bhutan – a far flung place – by bike. It is a long journey and has sometimes been arduous. I don’t really care so much if I make it to Bhutan. It is about the journey, the moments, the flow, being, and it is a journey with happiness at its centre – through personal experience and the challenge, through being in places where a culture has evolved around happiness, and by sharing happiness with others. A journey in which I chose to maximise the chance of experiences I would otherwise never have, to fulfil needs that are important to me (connection, physical well-being, meaning autonomy), and that brings daily challenge that I seem to work my way through eventually.
I am undertaking this trip whilst trying to fully represent the words I write here about money and happiness in the travel situation. How much do I need to spend? I’ve been on the road now for 5 months and I’ve spent £3,750 since I left Scotland (it doesn’t include equipment, which I built up over the years for previous trips, nor does it include the flight and boat I took to Buenos Aires, which was another £1,000). Is that a lot? I don’t know. It seems so. I try to limit my spending to $15 each day to meet my day to day needs – sometimes it is much more if I treat myself to a tour or specific attraction, sometimes it is next to nothing as I’ve got my own transport and can make a little home almost anywhere. People don’t talk about money so much so it is hard to gauge whether my spending is low or high – comparisons with others is one way. I meet some people who seem to be spending much more than I but I also meet those who seem to get by on much much less. Everyone seems to be doing what is necessary for them in that time and space. Some seem happy, some seem less so.
On my journey to Bhutan I have experienced many happy moments. However, the happiest moments – such as sitting in my tent at night alone cooking my dinner whilst watching the sunset over mountains, watching the daily life of a people in a busy sun-lit plaza, whizzing down a hill on my bike saying hello to onlookers that I pass, or having a deep conversation about life with a local – have cost next to nothing.
The minimal life before enabled the travel now
After years of living very minimally and in line with my research on money and happiness I built up quite a healthy bank balance. Therefore, I have sufficient money to travel as I’m doing now. I could probably continue for some time and the more minimal I travel the longer I can travel if I need to.
It is reassuring to know that money is there if I need it but I stay conscious of what I’m spending and tend to only spend on the things that seem very important for me to do. Some I’ve spoken to about my ideas on money and happiness have suggested I try to travel with no money at all, and to truly practice what I preach give up my savings. It’s a good idea and I don’t doubt it would take my journey in a very different and interesting direction, opening up a whole host of new experiences, but perhaps I’m not quite ready for that. I could certainly get by on much less. Perhaps if I need to stay on the road for long enough I will have to….one day…
***Here are some previous posts I have written that relate to this article that might be of interest