Psychology

Where Does Wanderlust Come From?

So I’m one of these gals just traveling the world forever. And yeah, that’s my happy place. But despite coconuts at the beach and daily yoga sessions and a more or less steady income, at times (aka every night in bed) I wonder … WTF am I doing with my life?! Well, I do have a degree in psychology – the science of experiencing and behavior of humans. And I thought, my fellow travel addicts, I’m gonna help explain you all the whys and hows and wheres and whats of travel. So here ya go ladies n gents, enjoy and feel free to share your thoughts!


What is Wanderlust?

Wanderlust. Or, as we say in German, Fernweh. Itchy feet. Yearning to see distant places. Craving to leave a familiar environment and exploring the wide world.

Basically the same idea as going nuts about your favorite chocolate. Just that this luckily doesn’t kill your bank account as quickly… in most of the cases.

In a way, wanderlust is the opposite of homesickness. You’re on the go, you sometimes dream about home. When you’re home, you’re dreaming about getting out there again. But you know what I feel like? Homesickness comes, and goes. The possibility of  quickly skyping family and friends makes it easy to stay away without disconnecting.

However, wanderlust came to stay. Like a resistant virus that fought its way into the deepest corner of my whole being and infected me forever. There is no cure. Just travel to reduce the symptoms. Being home for a while is great, but 3 weeks and it was bugging me. Travel is my source of endorphins, of natural high rush. A new place is my geographical version of a crush, enticing and full of promise.

Wanderlust means being constantly hungry for the world. And I seriously got more stamps in my passport than I took exams in university.

The Grand Hotel of Stockholm.

But – in my group of friends from back home as well as in my family, I’m the only one living this lifestyle. So I wondered:

Where does Wanderlust come from?

Us travel addicts have, I imagine, a pretty fair picture of what wanderlust feels like. However, let’s look behind the scenes: What causes it? Why do some people need travel for their general well-being and go cry over pictures of their last trip in a dark corner if they can’t afford their next plane ticket – while others are happy to stay in the village they grew up in forever?

Wanderlust as a Part of Self-Development

Let’s see. Wikipedia says, wanderlust originates from the natural process of self-development gone wild, and has even been associated with bipolar disorder.

Well, considering how one second I feel like the queen of the world conquering a new country, and the next am an utterly devastated wimp crying over my missing luggage, I can see that.

What I can tell you is that German culture is shaped a lot by wanderlust and the wish for something foreign (which you all at the latest know since you met those always sun-burnt beer-lovers in every corner of the world). Growing an identity seems to be less of a constant re-assurement in the self, but the openness for the new, the different. The uprooting.

The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. – Hermann Hesse

Then came developmental psychology, studying the process of individuation – becoming one’s self. Like in Hesse’s quote above: For being born, you have to destroy a world. Meaning, the own world. Travel will foster personal growth in an endless cycle to fulfill the most basic human needs, like finding food and shelter, to the higher ones, like accomplishment and appreciation.

Fooling around during my cycling tour!

Let’s go further back though. Our roots lie in East Africa, where an unimaginable 2.000.000 years ago the first humans (not yet homo sapiens though) left to move to North Africa, Europe and Asia (Harari, 2014). Travel’s been around for a while. Maybe it’s genetic?

The Wanderlust Gene

There is a gene called DRD4 responsible for regulating dopamine levels in our brains – basically the hormone playing a major role in our pleasure and reward system and thus linked to motivation and behavior (Lichter et al, 1993).

Like it helps you to run home faster cause you’re so excited to watch the new GOT episode.

Now there’s a variation of this gene named DRD4-7R (popularly known as ‘wanderlust gene’) that shows up in more or less every 5th person. And this one is linked to restlessness, curiosity and higher risk-taking, boom! (Schilling, Walsh & Yun, 2011).

But surely you can’t reduce something as great as human exploration to just a gene. As a good scientist, one of the first things we learn: Every phenomenon goes back to genetic, environmental, personal, psychological, societal, biological, etc. predispositions altogether, not just one of those.

The Personality of Wanderlust

One of the biggest and still up to date theories about personality are the so-called Big 5 (Goldberg, 1992; McCrae & Costa, 1996):

  • Openness to experience: willingness to try new things, being vulnerable, thinking outside of the box, sometimes called intellect or imagination
  • Conscientiousness: tendency to control impulses and act in socially acceptable ways, effective organizing skills, ambitious, reliable and thorough
  • Extraversion: spectrum of how sociable, talkative and outgoing a person is, whether they recharge in alone-time or social situations
  • Agreeableness: how well people get along with others, typically trusting, modest, patient, helpful, sympathetic
  • Neuroticism: encompasses emotional stability, general temper and the factor of self-esteem, degree of being pessimistic, jealous, nervous, insecure

The true wanderlusters will score especially high in openness and low in neuroticism.

View from Mount Teide

Furthermore, I’ve personally been calling myself an ‘adrenaline junkie’ more than once. Conveniently, Zuckerman’s (1994) research revealed a personality trait of pursuing sensory excitement and taking risks to do so, while easily being bored without high levels of stimulation. One could call it an ‘addiction’ considering that, compared to low sensation-seekers, the high ones will be more stimulated by novel experiences due to a higher release in dopamine. And then feeling all happy and satisfied will induce the wish to experience it again (Joseph et al., 2009).

Wait a second.

More risks? Being vulnerable? Dopamine addiction? That doesn’t sound healthy!

Well, a team of German researches looked into the effects of traveling by comparing students going to study abroad with those staying at home and had them fill out personality tests before and after. The result: Traveling altered their personality for the better in all Big 5 domains (Neyer et al., 2014).

Basically you become more spontaneous, less judgmental, you’ll be able to adapt more easily and be more outgoing, and your comfort zone will grow exponentially. Case closed.

What to do about Wanderlust

This might seem obvious. Or is it?

The question is… how far do we have to go to actually experience what we seek? How far does our yearning for something new reach?

Well, that’s something everyone has to find out for themselves. The most important thing is: Start walking. Because if you’re not leaving, you’ll never arrive. Only if you leave your cosy place – no matter whether that means leaving your apartment or country – the world will open up to you and you’ll discover what you love. Despite all the hassles that will come along.

And at some point, I’ll find a place to arrive. Maybe here, maybe at the other end of the world. Biology will do its part anyway to put an end to it, when it’s time to strike root again.

But until then – I’ll enjoy the journey.

The right time to leave?

Now.

Where does wanderlust come from? Why do people differ in their desire to travel? This and more to be answered in my new travel psychology series!


Sources

Goldberg, L. R. (1992). The development of markers for the Big-Five factor structures. Psychological Assessment, 4, 26-42.

Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper.

Joseph, J. E., Liu, X., Jiang, Y., Lynam, D., & Kelly, T. H. (2009). Neural Correlates of Emotional Reactivity in Sensation Seeking. Psychological Science, 20(2), 215–223.

Lichter, J. B., Barr, C. L., Kennedy, J. L., Van Tol, H. H., Kidd, K. K., & Livak, K. J. (1993). A hypervariable segment in the human dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene. Human Molecular Genetics, 2(6), 767-773.

McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr. (1996). Toward a new generation of personality theories: Theoretical contexts for the five-factor model. In J. S. Wiggins (Ed.), The five-factor model of personality: Theoretical perspectives, 51-87. New York: Guilford.

Neyer, F. J., Mund, M., Zimmermann, J. & Wrzus, C. (2014). Personality- relationship transactions revisited. Journal of Personality, 82, 539-550.

Schilling, C. M., Walsh, A., & Yun, I. (2011). ADHD and criminality: A primer on the genetic, neurobiological, evolutionary, and treatment literature for criminologists. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 3-11.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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34 Comments

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Lena Ameri
    August 5, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I loved how you broke down what wanderlust is! I totally agree that it’s such an important part of self-development. I’ve learned so much about myself, the world, and my place in the world through travel.

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

      I agree! If I think back to 18 year old me embarking on my first solo adventure, compared to 6 years later (omg I feel old now), I couldn’t be more grateful for the experiences I made – the good and the bad.

  • Reply
    Cherene Saradar
    August 5, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    As someone with a science and medical background, this was really interesting and makes sense. I’m curious to read more about that gene!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:47 am

      I’m glad to hear you could relate to the article! Like I said, it’s quite popular science, but it was replicated in a variety of research. Should get my genes tested one day haha!

  • Reply
    Siarra | Wander.Focus.Love
    August 5, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    1) Love that you cited…that took me back to my psychology courses in college. 2) I love this post–I’m curious to know how privilege (or lack thereof) can temper or enhance wanderlust. For example, someone who truly believes they cannot or should not travel (because of SES, race, culture, gender, etc), does it squash the wanderlust that broods inside them, or does it motivate them to break that “wall” they believed limited them to begin with? So many people in my life believe they can’t afford to travel or, more often, women feel they can’t safely travel alone << but does this turn their lust off? Good post. Looking forward to reading more here. 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Yay! This series has made me meet so many fellow psychologist among the travel tribe, while I barely come across any in real life. Maybe I just hang out at the wrong places lol.
      To 2) – you might have heard about the stereotype threat effect – which means, people who are aware of stereotypes targeted at the group they identify with are likely to perform worse (the initial research aimed at job interviews). I could imagine this is to some extent transferrable to the travel reality… I doubt there will be a lot of proper research but I’m happy to get into it – thanks so much for your feedback Siarra!

  • Reply
    Tina
    August 5, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Wow! Interestingly, I read a similar article in the Telegraph that talked about the wanderlust gene! So glad to hear it’s “genetic”! Now I know what to blame it on!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:54 am

      Right?! Next time mom & dad are complaining about me never being home I’ll tell them they should have done a better job at which genes to pass on haha.

  • Reply
    Lolo
    August 5, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    What a fascinating post to read! It’s so strange how some people always feel the need to go, go, go (me) and others are some completely content never to leave their hometowns. The Germans always have the best words for things that we just don’t have in English! Love living in Germany! #blogpostsaturday

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:56 am

      Haha you’re so right Lolo! Wanderlust, Heimweh, Fernweh, Sehnsucht, and I recently taught my friends Streichholzschächtelchen. Just a random fun fact. Glad you enjoy Germany!

  • Reply
    Rohan Cahill-Fleury
    August 5, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Very interesting read. I could relate to so much of this. I also studied psychology but never thought of combining it with travel -great idea!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:54 am

      Thanks a lot Rohan, I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 And so happy to meet a fellow psychologist in the travel tribe!

  • Reply
    Bernadette Jackson
    August 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    That’s fascinating stuff. It made me think too about how much is nature or nurture, my expat mum would have undoubtedly scored massively on openness, and I think I’m following her lead.

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 11:59 am

      That’s likely – a big deal of personality factors are actually passed on through generations. But like said in the post, there’s always other influences like environment, society one grew up in, etc. – it’s hard to point it down to just this or that 🙂

  • Reply
    Carolina
    August 5, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Love the german translation of wanderlust!
    Where are you on the picture with your bike? Yesterday I biked into Senegal from Mauritania, such a relief to leave the desert!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      WTF that sounds like an epic trip Carolina! I was cycling for a week through central Germany, the Bundesland Hessen in particular. It was a gorgeous trip along old train tracks, Germany has amazing cycling infrastructure. Enjoy your ride, will def give you a follow!

  • Reply
    Inge
    August 5, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Oh my, Christina. This is spot on! I’ve always been saying it’s a genetic thing, and apparently it is. Love the scientific evidence, I’m a sucker for wanderlust science. I’m your newest fan 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:01 pm

      Haha yay Inge, thanks so much! This had me order another piece of cake to celebrate, so at least I can blame the extra calories on someone else this time 😛

  • Reply
    Kavey Favelle
    August 5, 2017 at 10:49 am

    An interesting way to explore wanderlust. I think it’s a basic human condition — after all, our ancestors spread across the globe thanks in part to their curiosity and wanderlust — as well as the search for new territories, food and so on. In some of us, that ancestral instinct is still alive and kicking, in others it’s faded away! That’s how I think of it anyway!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:03 pm

      You’re very spot on! I read a paper that connected the distance our first ancestors migrated initially, and the likelihood of having this “wanderlust gene” today. The further they traveled, the more this openness to new experiences and “itchy feet” are present in us today.

  • Reply
    Danie
    August 5, 2017 at 10:15 am

    Super interesting, wonderful start to a series! I remember how people would question mt choice when I first started traveling full time.. they didnt.understand it, essentially bc it wasn’t what they felt.

    Looking forward to more posts in this series

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks so much Danie, I’m honored you can identify with the post 🙂 Hope the following ones will inform you just as much!

  • Reply
    Anna
    August 5, 2017 at 9:07 am

    This was an absolutely fascinating post and I can’t wait to read more of the series! I’ve never really thought of why I love to travel but others are content with home. Or why I prefer adventurous tours while others are content with a beach visit. I always just thought they were silly, but now there’s an explanation I should just leave them to it! Thanks so much for sharing 😊

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:06 pm

      Haha believe me Anna, I can relate to this a lot! I think more friends have called me “crazy” than anything else. But each to their own – while people who like a stable lifestyle will find like-minded people right there, we find our tribe while doing what we love: traveling, exploring, adventuring around the world. And that’s just fine, I’d say 🙂 Thanks for your feedback!

  • Reply
    Penny
    August 5, 2017 at 6:46 am

    I’ve never really thought of wanderlust in quite that way before. Oddly enough I don’t suffer from homesickness any more. I miss my cat yes! That is as far is it goes. The internet has brought family closer and I’ve gotten used to staying far away.

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      Haha I can relate. I miss my dog so much. Just gotta be satisfied with cuddling other people’s pets wherever I travel to I guess. I’m def grateful for the connection back home that modern technology provides, dunno if I could live this long abroad otherwise. Thanks for your feedback Penny 🙂

  • Reply
    Janice
    August 5, 2017 at 6:01 am

    This is so on point! When I started traveling, I have no idea it would have such a huge impact in my life. People would say I should’ve just saved my money for more important things like for my future. But for me, what’s important is now. Traveling has taught me lessons that me myself can only found out, it’s sure the best decision I’ve made for myself 🙂

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      Now your comment is absolutely on point, Janice! Couldn’t agree more. Some people just have the opinion that a car and an apartment are the “important” things to save for, for me this is travel gear and plane tickets, lol. That’s where my happiness comes from. That’s where I meet likeminded people and as for today, my closest friends. That’s just my reality and I’m living it with all the highs and lows, and that’s how it’s supposed to be I’d say 🙂

  • Reply
    Tasha Amy
    August 5, 2017 at 5:46 am

    Super interesting read! I had no idea there was a wanderlust gene! mind blown.

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 5, 2017 at 5:59 am

      Thanks a bunch Tasha! Like said, to call it wanderlust gene is quite a PR thing, but still it has been repeatedly connected to these kind of personality traits which I find pretty darn interesting. Happy you enjoyed the post!

  • Reply
    David
    August 4, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    When you’re away, “you sometimes dream about home. When you’re home, you’re dreaming about getting out there again.”
    “Homesickness comes and goes,” but a quick skyping (or phone call or text) makes the homesickness go away.
    3 weeks at home and my feet start to get itchy.
    “A new place is my geographical version of a crush.”
    Yeah, that’s me. Great article, Christina!

    • Reply
      Christina
      August 5, 2017 at 6:00 am

      Woohoo, glad you can identify with it 🙂 That’s what I love about social media and all this. To connect to like-minded people I might otherwise never ever meet. Thanks for your feedback David!

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