On Travel and Escapism
The impulse to travel can be cryptic; sometimes it seems to be a kind of knee-jerk escapist tendency, while other times it is based more on a wish for expansion — for broader and more novel experiences. Actually deciphering the impulse can be tricky, though, as it’s not always clear if it — and the fulfilment of it — is based on escapism or not.
I’ve written before about travelling as a form of escapism and the Stoic perspective on the urge to travel — with both articles delving into why escaping doesn’t always work. Taking a ‘holiday from the self’ often fails. But even if successful, the relief is temporary; familiar problems and emotional distress that one attempts to escape through travel will tend to return once back home.
I was reading an article about the rise and fall of the so-called ‘hippie trail’ — the overland route from Europe to the Middle East and Asia taken by many young travellers in the 60s and 70s — and I was struck by this statement from Rama Tiwari, quoted in Rory MacLean’s book Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India:
But hippies made one mistake, and it broke them. They imagined peace of mind was not with their families or in their home countries. They didn’t see we can only live in happiness if we conquer the restless dream that paradise is in a world other than our own.
This applies to many travellers today as well, of course, and it encapsulates the false promise of going somewhere far away for a long time: the idea that this kind of travel will be a magic bullet for our problems.
On the other hand, one’s environment (including social, cultural, and political factors) can be a root cause of emotional distress. Escapism stemming from these issues is completely understandable, and the solutions require environmental change. Sometimes, the habits and lifestyle typical of one’s culture, including the normalisation of unfriendliness and busyness, can encourage one to seek out alternative ways of living and relating to others. The Stoics, who warned against relying on travel to deal with mental unease and unrest, did not believe that acceptance should make us passive, apathetic, and apolitical. What they advocated for was the rationality of accepting what we cannot change and concentrating only on what is truly in our control. For example, Seneca — one of the great Stoic philosophers — said the following in Letter 28 to Lucilius:
Could there be a scene of greater turmoil than the City? Yet even there, if need be, you are free to lead a life of peace. Given a choice of posting, though, I should flee a long way from the vicinity, let alone the sight of the City. For in the same way as there are unpleasant climates which are trying even to the most robust constitutions, there are others which are none too wholesome for the mind, even though it be a sound one, when it is still in an imperfect state and building up its strength. I do not agree with those who recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if he must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s.
There are many occasions, nonetheless, when projecting dissatisfaction onto one’s environment can be a way of avoiding the true causes of that distress, which are manifold. These causes may include existential crises, major losses, feelings of loneliness or disconnection, unfulfilling work, or chronic stress. Restlessness may require changes to the internal environment, not the external one, or perhaps different life choices at home (which ultimately result in the psychological changes that matter).
It’s important, then, to try to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy impulses to travel. Does one need a change of mind — internal feelings of rest and peace — or a change of scenery? However, the situation is not that black and white, I believe, since even if travel is used as escapism, as a coping mechanism in that respect, it is still better than many other forms of escapism — abuse of or addiction to alcohol, substances, TV, or social media — since these don’t leave you with the rich and valuable memories that travel offers. In terms of travel, the need to escape can also work in tandem with other needs and desires.
The psychological perspective on using travel to escape is worth exploring, as this can help illuminate whether an obsession with travel comes from a place of dissatisfaction (and, in turn, avoidance) or if it is a natural passion based on personal traits like openness to experience and risk-taking or the healthy desire for novelty, challenges, connection to nature, feelings of awe, and direct experience of different cultures. Food, for instance, can be a major reason why people travel, which has nothing to do with avoiding personal problems back home.
For many people, travel can be a positive form of escape, in that it acts as a break from routine, work, and responsibilities. Karen Stein, a sociologist who studies culture and travel, writes:
Travel and vacations are a means to reshift and reorganize identities. We can use travel as a way to reexamine our priorities and devote our time and attention to identities and commitments that we, unwillingly, have to put in the background in our daily lives.
But what about if you are always thinking about getting away? Is the identity of being a ‘traveller’ — and constantly chasing new destinations — just a glorified form of escapism? If escapism is defined as a desire or behaviour to ignore, evade, or avoid reality, then there will be many instances when travelling is a way to run away from underlying problems one doesn’t want to address. And this is common because travel is, for the most part, a way to be free of the burdens of life.
Like other escapist behaviours, when something stressful occurs, a habitual pattern sets in. This might be immediately looking up flights and planning trips. The travel-to-escape feeling is like a fight-or-flight reaction (“I need to get out of here”). It is a completely normal message that is triggered when dealing with difficult emotions, situations, and experiences. Creating a physical distance between sources of discomfort can create a feeling of safety. Moreover, the challenges of travel — language and cultural barriers, navigating new surroundings, dealing with the stresses of travel — can all serve as distractions from the issues one is escaping. Yet, to reiterate, these distractions do offer tangible benefits that other forms of distraction don’t. Dr Michael Brein, a psychologist who specialises in travel, states:
Travel escapism that invites you to increase your feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence…tends to ground you in the present and requires you to deal with virtually everything that is normally mindless back home. The net result is that you are, in effect, a problem-solver, dealing successfully with virtually everything you normally take for granted.
Nevertheless, the advantages of travel escapism — and even the mental health benefits — may still come at a cost, which is leaving certain issues unaddressed. There may also come a point where one is travelling solely or mostly in order to escape. For some travellers, however, this motivation exists during those first trips, and those travel experiences may motivate them to create a more authentic and fulfilling life back home, with subsequent trips then being less about escapism and more focused on personal interests.
Speaking personally, I sometimes find myself becoming focused on new countries to visit and making itineraries for those trips. I might be unsure whether this motivation comes from escapism or healthy novelty-seeking. But often, if my mental state improves at home, then I feel less of an intense urge to get away from it all. The desire to travel is still there, but it’s not obsessive or standing out as the answer to feelings of discontent.
It’s not just the obsessiveness of travel planning that I think indicates escapism, but also the knee-jerkiness of the impulse to travel. The same instant kind of reaction can occur with other forms of escape, including substance abuse and binge eating. I agree with the Stoic idea of working on problems when rooted at home and abandoning the fantasy that exploring other countries will solve those problems. As Seneca puts it in Letter 104, “…when a person’s spirit is wrenched or broken at so many points, do you imagine that it can be put right by a change of scenery, that that sort of trouble isn’t so serious that it can’t be cured by an outing?”
But at the same time, travel can be pursued precisely as a way to cultivate virtues (it can be a great way to learn how to accept what you cannot change, for instance, given how many things can go wrong while travelling). This view, however, does conflict with Seneca’s. As he remarks in Letter 104, “What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone?” It has never “rid the personality of a fault,” he says, adding, “All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before”. He insists that “travel won’t make a better or saner man of you” — it is no route to wisdom, in other words.
Yet while Seneca’s outlook here is true in many cases, I don’t think it is universally true that travel cannot be genuinely character-building or remedial, perhaps even in a Stoic sense. For example, one aspect of wisdom, for Seneca, is understanding what is essential and what is superfluous, and for many people, travelling (especially backpacking) really helps to bring that into focus.
Also, people can travel purely for enjoyment, and that enjoyment doesn’t have to depend on running away from personal troubles. Indeed, as Seneca writes in Letter 28:
Once you have rid yourself of the affliction…every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.
The human desire to escape is perennial; sometimes we escape through mental fantasies, while other times we escape to physical places that we’ve fantasised about. ‘Escape’ doesn’t have to carry negative connotations, especially since nomadism characterised 99% of human history, with genetic variants still predisposing some people to nomadic lifestyles today. Nevertheless, if no new place seems to settle the agitation or claustrophobia one feels, either there or when returning home, then there may be deeper issues at play.
Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on September 12, 2022.