Why Travel Won’t Solve All Your Problems (and Why it’s Still Worth it)

A few weeks ago I got in a discussion with a good friend living abroad about some personal problems she was experiencing. After a thorough analysis she sighed and told me “it’s really true, no matter where you go, there you are.” While long term travel might seem like a way to escape the troubles of your life; the truth is more complex than that.

On the superficial level it makes sense. Don’t like the choices you are making? Unhappy with your marriage? Raving kleptomania problem? Why not pick up and start over in Spain or New Zealand where nobody knows you. Vacations are often referred to as “escapes,” so it’s not that great a leap to view a change of scenery as a viable solution.

north shore
Creative Commons License photo credit: baxterclaus

The problem is that an escape is not the same thing as a solution.  While this tactic might allow you to shove your problems aside for a week or two, in the long run it’s not an effective life strategy. You will still be the same person in Morocco or Thailand that you are at home. Without some serious introspection, it is almost certain that your mistakes will play out again and again.

In fact, if you are struggling internally with something serous, going abroad may actually intensify your issues by compounding them with alienation or loneliness. Not only will you feel like crap, you will hurt your hard earned travel experiences as well by spending all your time in your own head instead of appreciating your external surroundings. If you feel miserable inside it doesn’t matter how pretty everything outside is.

All this being said, I still believe that travel can play a role in self-improvement. Although running across the world is not going to automatically solve your problems, it can give you the tools to tackle them on your own.

Travel gives you a unique kind of perspective. When you are embroiled in an issue, it’s often difficult to see the forest for the trees. Distance from a problem, even physical distance, can allow you to decompress and look at a situation dispassionately. This is one reason I advocate travel as a cure for a bad break-up!

*Mountain Light*
Creative Commons License photo credit: Rietje Swart

In addition to allowing you to look at a problem in different way, travel also affords you a unique opportunity for
self-examination.  A strange place, a variety of new interactions to deal with and an abundance of free time seem to facilitate introspection.  I know that I’ve learned so much about myself, and how I interact with the world, from traveling abroad.

In the end, it all comes down to your own state of mind and your willingness to work on yourself. You can use a vacation to run away from your problems, only to have them sneak up and bop you on the head when you lease suspect it, or you can use your travels as an opportunity to re-examine your life, choices and priorities.  You just can’t expect travel to do all the hard work for you.

What do you think? Has travel helped or hindered resolving major issues in your life?

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38 thoughts on “Why Travel Won’t Solve All Your Problems (and Why it’s Still Worth it)”

  1. Great post, Steph, and so true. I had a lot of things on my plate before I left for Oz, and I knew I had to be conscious of that and not forget that I had stuff to work through/on when I got here. I’m happy that I can agree with the other posters who said that travel can often be good for that. It has given me room to reflect and grow.
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..On Having it All =-.

  2. Like all have said: great post. Well-balanced. And I agree that travel has endowed me with a certain resiliency and self-reliance that I wouldn’t otherwise have–I know I’m capable of figuring difficult situations/languages/street maps out and getting through it. Some people do wilderness therapy to tap into these inner resources; I’ve done it through travel.

    This Brave New Traveler post taps into some similar issues: http://www.bravenewtraveler.com/2009/12/01/lost-and-found-when-travel-is-not-the-answer/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20MatadorNetwork%20%28Matador%20Network%29
    .-= Lauren Quinn´s last blog ..Hipsters Vs. Homeys: Oakland YouTube Travel Guides =-.

  3. I think it depends why you travel. I like the changing pace of working while getting to see different places. Travel has taught me that people are fundamentally the same and that if you’re searching for something by traveling you won’t find it. A good way to solve a problem is to look inward; and a good way to create one is to do the opposite.

  4. Just yesterday a fellow traveler told me that he used to explore the world in search of something external, when he realized that the search was really an internal one. He continues to travel, but is acknowledges that his physical location has very little to do with his personal growth now.

  5. I love to travel and I think I learn something new about myself almost every time I go somewhere new (even if it’s just down the street).

    I’m currently planning a BIG trip for next year. I’ve wanted to do it for a while (to escape Boston), but now that I’m actually planning it, I’m realizing how much I do actually enjoy my life as it is now. So I’m definitely excited to be travelling at a point in my life that I know I like who I am and where I’m going.
    .-= Adam ´s last blog ..Birthdays as Deadlines not Holidays =-.

  6. great post!!!
    you are so right – we have to do the dirty mental work ourselves, but traveling brings out new things in ourselves, so it´s great to know how we deal out of our comfort zone. Plus – acquiring new culture never harms!! 😉
    .-= Adriana´s last blog ..green olive, black olive =-.

  7. Speaking from my own experiences, working and traveling abroad has helped me become more self reliant, extroverted, and humble than if I’d just stayed home.

    However, some observations both from my experience during Peace Corps and just traveling in general. People who signed up to get over a bad break-up or divorce tended to bring that baggage with them. And usually instead of moving on with their life, the experience of being in a foreign culture did tend to intensify whatever issues they were ducking back home. Not surprisingly, there was a higher drop-out rate from that group.

    Also some people are just so far into their own heads or egos that a change of scenery (no matter how radical) isn’t really going to shake up their perspective. Or worse, the people who assume that they’re “enlightened” and are therefore oblivious to how rude they’re being towards the people they interact with. I’ve seen this not just during Peace Corps, but as part of a delegation for Global Exchange.

  8. Great post!

    Travel is invaluable to your own personal development, but it is not going to solve your problems.

    People prone to picking fights still do so abroad. People who complain about everything will find reasons to complain in paradise as well. People who drink themselves to a stupor every weekend will find even more opportunities for alcoholism away from home.

    If you really want to get the most of your travels, solve your personal issues first. Stop the long standing feuds between friends and family before your leave. Get your finances in order. Eat healthy and exercise. Stop watching so much TV and invest in your personal development.

    Then when you travel, you can focus on personal growth rather than an escape from your old life.
    .-= John Bardos – JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..Interview with Digital Nomad Carmen Bolanos =-.

    1. I think you have it exactly right. Whatever your personality issues or flaws, they aren’t going to magically disappear once you get one a plane. Self improvement begins at home.

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