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.
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.
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.
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?
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.