The Psychology of Why You Feel Empty Traveling (and How to Change It)
Have you ever been on a long travel vacation having the time of your life and in the flick of a switch feel home-sick and ready to leave? It turns out, you’re not alone.
Whether we are traveling alone sipping a latte in Paris, France or with some friends on the beach touching our toes to the turquoise waters of Thailand, we have all felt this unexplained and slow moving feeling of crumminess.
What makes it so strange is that we’re happy and having fun but… something is just off. After traveling abroad and speaking to hundreds of others who have experienced these exact feelings, I’ve come to call this phenomenon “the mid-trip crisis.”
Why do we feel “the mid-trip crisis?”
A mid-trip crisis arises because the fundamental design of travel does not support a sense of belonging or a sense of purpose, which studies have shown are the two most impactful factors when measuring a meaningful life.
In the book, The Power of Meaning by University of Pennsylvania Professor Emily Smith, evidence is shown that people who rate their lives with the most satisfaction are people with intense feelings of belonging and purpose: two things that are fundamentally missing in 95% of travel excursions.
Why Does Traveling Lack Belonging and Purpose?
As Smith describes belonging she says; “we need to feel understood, recognized and affirmed,” and really, we just need to feel heard, by someone.
It’s no secret that traveling can be isolating.
A stereotypical getaway lasts one or two weeks and is jam packed with activities even up until the last hour. Not only does our vacation turn from relaxing to stressful but the transient nature of our vacation gives us no sense of belonging.
We stay in new places and make friendships that last for no more than a dinner or a day until we off to our next, pre-planned activity. Traveling like this guarantees our vacation to be full of surface level relationships, which subconsciously starts to eat at us.
Worse off, we likely can’t keep in touch with anyone back home be it timezone or data troubles. So there we are. Living the life on our travels until day five our brain is like, “Hey bud I want to talk to someone.”
Why hostels don’t fulfill our desire for belonging
The absence of belonging within travel isn’t anything new. This is why hostels exist, this why group travel programs exist, this is why people travel with friends. These alternatives help a lot. But, there are still fundamental flaws to all of these approaches that leave us wanting something else.
Smith’s findings cite that the greatest driver of belonging for humans is when we experience ‘close relationships.’ Supported by world-class psychologist Roy Baumeister, Smith explains that close relationships are fulfilled through consistent and non-negative interactions.
This is where hostels just do not deliver.
In a hostel, nine out of ten people we meet will be gone in five days giving no hope for consistent intimacy. While hostels are a great place to have some connection, our mind desires consistency and something deeper.
Travel programs are one of the best alternatives but not ideal for many people. Traveling in a group will help fulfill our sense of belonging through close relationships, it makes traveling extremely limited. The fundamental flaw with traveling in groups is it generally contradicts one of the greatest desires of the modern day traveler: to wander.
The definition of wander is “to walk or move in a casual or aimless way.” There is nothing about having your itinerary pre-planned for the next four weeks that fulfills a person’s desire to “wander.”
This is also why traveling with a significant other is called the marriage test… because it’s really freakin’ hard when you both want to aimlessly wander, but in different directions.
In travel, we want the freedom to wander alone, but we also need to experience close relationships to make it past day five.
What do we do?
Let’s first investigate the lack of purpose in traveling, then we’ll tackle solutions for both.
Lacking a sense of purpose while traveling won’t be a surprise to many people, either. While the loss of belonging may be mitigated by sacrificing freedom to travel in a group or staying in a hostel, finding a sense of purpose is much more difficult.
Americans know travel lacks a sense of purpose. This is why we have a travel deficiency. A week in the islands without time spent on our career? Sounds terrifying and purposeless, so we don’t do it.
The problem begins because traveling, at its core, is just an extended weekend. Yes, even if you’re ‘growing your mind’ in southeast Asia. While travel is more socially accepted, it’s basically the same as watching television.
When broken down, travel is just a long period without any sort of work and lots of time spent as the most egregious of consumers. At the end of the day, we are in a tensionless state where all of our time and effort is spent being selfish.
I don’t say selfish in a bad way. But travel and consumption are usually about our fun, our needs, and our wants. And deep down we crave impact and service.
As Smith describes, when others count on us, we feel purposeful. Smith cites research that shows when people begin engaging in lifestyles where no one is counting on us, be it family, co-workers or strangers, our quality of life starts to drop.
And this is exactly what happens when we travel. We consume and slowly, just as with belonging, our subconscious mind starts to say, “Hey, dude, I am over these temples here in Asia.”
Belonging & Purpose together
As discussed earlier, studies show belonging and purpose are the most influential factors when measuring quality of life. And ironically, when we go on vacation in pursuit of living a life of high quality, we lose those things.
It takes a few days or whole week but our mind picks up on the absence of these things and that’s when the mid-trip crisis will hit and suddenly you start thinking, “okay… I am ready to go home.”
How Do We Solve the Mid-Trip Crisis?
First off, I am not hating on travel. Traveling, or just taking vacation days is well-documented to be beneficial and pretty necessary to a healthy life.
But here’s the thing. The type of travel I just described above is incredibly lopsided and it is massively weighted towards self-indulgence and consumption. Which is also fine.
One of the studies Smith cites in her work actually shows that self-indulgence is critical to enjoying a life of the highest quality. However, they also found people who invest strictly into self-indulgence rated themselves as really happy… for about five days, then their quality of life dropped to the lowest of anyone in the study.
Consider this when we think about “the mid-trip crisis.” When we travel and 90% of our energy is spent self-indulging, life is great, but then after a week or so we start to feel really crappy.
So what’s missing?
In this cited study, the people who ended up having the highest quality of life were those who had both self-indulgence and some sort of purpose in their day.
If you’ve ever heard the term “work hard, play hard,” you now have evidence to support your claim.
Applying this to traveling means: have a ton of fun and do something you care about.
Let’s see what that actually looks like in practice. Below, we have put together a few sample ideas on how you can weave both purpose and belonging into your trip.
Solutions to “the Mid-Trip Crisis”
To solve the issue of the mid-trip crisis and to ensure your travels are infinitely awesome, a few things need to happen.
First, make sure your trip allows for consistent time for building relationships (belonging). Second, make sure you schedule time for one or two activities that feel purposeful and third, have lots of fun.
As long as you deliver on these three things, you will have an unbeatable travel experience every time, whether it is two weeks or six months.
Having lots of fun while traveling isn’t hard, so I won’t really cover that. Let’s focus on belonging and purpose.
Below, I have accumulated some solutions to both purpose and belonging. Mix and match some of the ideas. Some of them can work together. Each solution delivers on purpose or belonging in a different way, it is your choice on how you want to approach this.
When traveling in a group, have a defined experience planned:
Traveling in a group helps create a sense of belonging with consistent interaction. However, we lose our sense of freedom. It is shown that a lot of happiness and life satisfaction is based on our expectation of experiences. If you are traveling in a group, book a defined and controlled experience like a safari. This clearly places the expectation for traveling wandering isn’t going to happen.
Do your normal morning routine:
Having our normal morning run, breakfast or reading gives us a sense of normalcy that enables a sense of productivity and purpose for the entire day.
Working remote is a good way to support purpose and maybe belonging. A remote job is going to have limited interaction with coworkers, being in a new country and talking TPS Sheets with Sharon from accounting isn’t going to drive a sense of belonging. However, if you work for a company who lets you work remote for an infinite runway, this can help as you immerse into your travel locations and make friends with locals.
Volunteering is a special type of travel. It can be done on a long-term basis or short-term basis. Volunteering is going to be done in a group so a sense of belonging will arise. Putting in the elbow-grease towards a cause will also support a sense of purpose. And your volunteering doesn’t have to be something altruistic. Volunteer at a winery, restaurant or bar. Putting in hours on anything will help.
Travel for five days only:
Traveling for a shorter amount of time doesn’t really solve a sense of belonging or purpose, but completely avoids needing one. 5-day travel allows you to self-indulge like crazy and come back home before your body realizes it was missing either of the two.
Travel for six months in 2–3 locations:
Conversely to the above solution, by traveling for long periods of time, we are able to fulfill both belonging and purpose. Traveling long-periods of time helps us feel a sense of belonging as we are able to make friends with locals. Delivering on purpose here is very doable as you will have to adopt some sort of a normal life. Having a routine, picking up a side job, volunteering or working remote will help you feel productive, impactful and purposeful.
The mid-trip crisis won’t apply to everyone. But for a lot of us, it’s a thing and hopefully today these writings are able to supply you with an understanding of why, giving you the power to create travel that fits your needs.
The solutions above are samples and suggestions, there are probably infinite ways to create the travel you want and the travel you need.
Get creative. We’d love to hear what you came up with.