– By Jeannette Cooperman, Ph.D., writer & Mike Konzen, CEO
Virtual “live” music sustained us through lockdown, but as wonderful as those concerts were, the grids of musicians playing in their own homes felt a little hollow. What was missing was their ability to hear us; to know our response. No energy was bouncing back from the audience.
When you work in travel and tourism, you know that energy. A good hotelier, restaurateur, Uber driver, flight attendant or museum curator puts their heart into elevating a traveler’s experience, and the traveler’s gratitude redoubles that enthusiasm. If you tried to automate all the thoughtful, personal attention necessary to smooth someone’s journey, the experience would be flattened, drained of that reciprocal joy.
Even when someone embarks on a solitary adventure, the experience is social at its core. “Human beings need to learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet,” wrote the essayist George Steiner. Travel and tourism experts know how intimate the demands of hospitality can be. People humble themselves when they travel; they ask eagerly for help, comfort, information, reassurance. Responding is more than a job. It’s akin to the obligation that’s been woven into various cultures for centuries: to welcome, feed, and shelter a stranger who is traveling.
Customs of hospitality are often rooted in religious beliefs—like the extra plate set for Jesus at an Irish dinner table—and traveling itself can be a spiritual act, free of dogma but reverent toward what is experienced. Even the word “holiday,” the Brits’ term for a vacation, means a time marked by holiness; a sacred respite from ordinary life. The philosopher Josef Pieper called leisure “a condition of the soul”: a state of calm in which worries can drift away as travelers immerse themselves “in the real.”
That’s why, if you’re in the travel industry, you hunt for authenticity. And now, as the world reopens, every trip will matter more. Even fun will matter more. Pieper described leisure as “the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit”—which might mean feeling playful, or festive, or seeking out what deserves to be celebrated, or marking a special occasion. Gathering far-flung friends and family at a shared destination pulls everyone out of their routine to celebrate together, not for a few hurried, distracted hours, but wholeheartedly.
Travel and relationships are inseparable. Researchers have found that after making friends in other countries, people return home more agreeable, their mood more stable. Why be petty or irritable when life can expand so easily? Even existing friendships are strengthened by travel. Old friends can only get so much mileage out of jokes from high school, but a trip instantly adds to the repertoire. The heightened emotion of travel burns those vivid new memories into the brain, making sure they will last a lifetime. (Curious about the alchemy? A hormone released during emotional arousal “primes” nerve cells to remember events by increasing chemical sensitivity where the nerves rewire to form new memory circuits.)
Families traveling together find that the habitual squabbling drops away, and old grudges melt. Now there is more to talk about; later, there will be more shared experiences to relive. Last year’s Virtuoso Luxe Report, released before the pandemic, showed multigenerational travel as the top trend: Grandparents no longer sit in rockers telling stories; they see the world with their kids and grandkids. That is a trend bound to return.
Grandparents also babysit those grandkids so the parents can get away, restore their sanity, remember what romance felt like. Few experiences pull a couple as close and bring as many shared jokes, pleasures, and enduring memories. Experiencing a new place as partners, people learn to lean on each other in new ways. It really is the two of them against the world, and they are free from the interruptions that tug them apart.
Traveling alone is also a path toward meaningful relationship—with oneself. Adventure travel sends people into the unknown, which can strengthen their confidence and offer fresh insight. In those who “leave it all behind” to travel for an extended period, researchers have found three consistent motives: a deep inner yearning to experience other places, a need to show enough courage to make that leap, and that hunger for authenticity.
All travel is in some sense existential, giving access to deeper parts of the self. Proof lies in the motives and timing: People take journeys to prepare for a fresh start, hit a milestone age, lighten grief, recover from a broken heart, test a new love, honeymoon, or honeymoon all over again on a big anniversary. These trips punctuate life, smoothing its transitions, marking what matters, helping it all make sense.
Just as travel strengthens bonds with loved ones, it also connects strangers—even those long dead. There is a culture of remembrance, visiting sites of historic relevance and letting the truths of what transpired there seep into the bones. In Rome, Herman Melville stood in the deserted Coliseum and “repeopled” it, imagining “the frantic leaps and dismal howls of the wild, bounding beasts.” Only then could he appreciate the spectacle that faced the Dying Gladiator, whose marble statue he had seen at the Capitoline Museums. A year later, Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne saw the same statue and wrote, “I do not believe that so much pathos is wrought into any other block of stone.”
As Mark Twain observed on his journeys, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.” It opens the mind and heart at once.
The peak experience of travel, though, is the awe humans feel in the presence of something new and shockingly beautiful, wondrous, or sublime. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt wrote that awe comes when something is too vast to fit into the usual categories. “Fleeting and rare,” and far more likely to be experienced during travel than at home, “experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”
Sometimes what provokes awe is sheer, transcendent beauty; at other times it may be the brilliance of art, music, or ideas. Whatever the cause, research shows that feeling awe is extraordinarily good for us. Like travel itself, awe can heighten curiosity, lower inflammation, ease stress, counter depression, restore a sense of well-being, and make people feel closer to one another. By its very nature, awe humbles, reminding us that our problems are tiny specks in the universe, easily brushed aside. Even during stress, awe can stop the body from overreacting. Researcher Melanie Rudd took volunteers to the Swiss Alps and stuck some in a parking lot while others marveled at the view from a mountaintop. Afterward, a simple test: The two groups could choose, as thank-you gift, a bag of packaged trail mix or a chance to create their own mixture. Those who’d ridden the gondola to the mountaintop chose the DIY option, a result echoed in later experiments: Awe consistently made people more creative and energetic.
Why such a pronounced result? Because awe is one of the few states that cause the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to respond simultaneously, explains neuroscientist Andrew Newburg, “so you not only have this incredible rush of energy and joy, but also a tremendous sense of calmness and bliss.” You feel connected to the rest of the world.
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Previous article in the series: “Why our Minds and Bodies Crave Travel”
Next week: “The Innovations That Will Save Travel”