Does Traveling Make Us Less Lonely?
On a recent trip to Paris, I found myself wandering down a street that I didn’t know the name of. It was long and straight with impressive Parisian facades hugging its banks and tickling a pale pink-blue sky fluffy with perfect Monet clouds.
I walked down this street, stepping along sidewalks upon which thousands (millions, maybe) have walked before me. I saw faces of all kinds. Some rushing to catch a train, others shivering with cigarettes bobbing, some red-faced and crowding into Starbucks, some mothers and fathers corralling children out of other people’s way.
As I walked, I found myself gazing up, open-mouthed and unabashedly in awe of the architecture that surrounded me. I was comforted by the idea that these buildings and this street had seen so many people before me. I felt part of something in the here and now, but I also felt part of something historically human as well.
In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown broaches the topic of loneliness.
The number of Americans who reported feeling loneliness has doubled since 1980, she says. And though Brown is referring to Americans, it’s not unique to the U.S. Great Britain just appointed a “minister of loneliness” for the first time earlier this year. On the whole, it seems, more people are lonely than in the past.
Social media seems to have made an impact on that front. Continued urbanization and the isolating anonymity of cities could also play a role. Overall, it’s our connection with others that makes a difference. “At the heart of loneliness is the absence of meaningful social interaction,” says Brown.
We’re less connected to other humans today, and it’s making us lonely.
It makes so much sense. Our communities have changed. Social media helps us stay in touch with old friends, but it doesn’t give us the same person-to-person connection we need to stay socially fulfilled.
In my case, I live far from my family, and I’m a city dweller who works from home. The trifecta of loneliness.
And yet, when I was strolling through chilly Paris along the street with no name, I felt none of that. In fact, I felt the opposite. I felt connected, inspired, in awe. I took it all in.
What is that about? Does traveling really have the power to transcend loneliness? Does being somewhere else, somewhere new, somehow make us feel differently about ourselves and our role in the world?
I would argue that it can. I’ve felt it firsthand.
It’s simple. When we travel, we’re bombarded with new information, new experiences, new ways of finding meaning all the time. We’re surprised and excited and intrigued, and our imaginations are firing on all cylinders.
In other words, we’re not bored. By extension, it’s easy to simply forget about being lonely. I certainly don’t have the brain capacity to be curious about all the new things I’m experiencing and be lonely at the same time.
So if we’re saying that traveling, even traveling alone, can keep loneliness at bay, can we not say the opposite might be true?
It is plausible that loneliness is what happens when we’re not experiencing new and exciting things. Rather, it happens when we have the time and the brain capacity to ruminate on our lives and see what’s lacking, right?
Quick caveat: I’m talking about a certain kind of travel here. I’m not talking about straight-from-the-airport-to-the-hotel-to-the-office travel, which denies us the opportunity to be tourists. In this case, I’m talking about travel in the sense of a vacationing or a wandering. The idea of going to a new place and actively taking in the sights and sounds around us with no other agenda but to take them in — that’s the kind of travel that doesn’t leave us lonely. Business travel, in my experience, is one of the loneliest activities in which we partake. It’s awful that we subject ourselves to it at all.
Here’s where I think this idea does actually tie back to Brown’s research on loneliness: When you’re using your imagination and letting yourself play, be a tourist, experience the thrill of something new, different, old, strange, foreign — you’re connected to your creativity. So, in this sense, we’re not bored. We’re using our imaginations. Our minds are busy.
But, when we travel, we also become experts at using our senses, and we become experts at finding meaning — or at least wondering about it.
Sensing and wondering — these are two things humans can do particularly well, and they are directly associated with the way our bodies work. In her book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron talks about how humans find meaning in things all day long. They create stories every moment of every day, even in the very mundane — especially in the very mundane. Being curious is innate to our survival. “What’s that rustling in the bushes?” Cron quips, reminding us that there’s a biological reason we wonder about things. It’s built into who we are as a species.
And so, when we are lucky enough to be tourists, we’re actually pushing this curiosity to its limits. We’re moving beyond the mundane for-survival-only storytelling and allowing ourselves to be curious about things that are new and different, enthralling and exciting. We connect with our biological selves in a powerful way.
So maybe, when we travel, we’re more human than ever.