My happy thing to do is to plan vacations.
In the middle of a stressful day, I’ll pull up Google Flights and look for flight deals for a random long weekend, flip through the pictures of dramatic sights and seas and skies and dream about my next escape. In fact, even when I’m on a vacation, I find myself bringing up plans for the next vacation before it’s over. Where should we go next? When should we do it? What even better thing will we do next time?
(As privileged as this may sound) Life sometimes seems split between being on a fun trip and planning for the next one.
These days, of course, it’s harder to indulge in this favorite past time of mine. I talk to my friends and everyone is mourning their canceled plans and instead, getting intimately familiar with the insides of their apartments and discovering new neighborhood streets. (“I know all the trees on my block!” shared one, a clear dendrophile*).
We’re all missing our freedom to travel and explore. So much so, that we’ve taken for granted that traveling around the world is normal and natural for us. But lately, I’ve been wondering, do humans really want to travel?
There’s no doubt that we are explorers.
We left Africa, we settled the Polynesian islands (I still can’t get over that one), we landed on the Moon. And turns out, scientists have actually been able to link a specific gene DRD4–7R, nicknamed the “wanderlust” gene, to our exploratory, novelty-seeking behavior. Studies have also shown that the gene is more prevalent in migratory cultures than settled ones, strengthening this link further.
Okay, amazing! This must prove that we are naturally predisposed to travel, right?
Well, not quite.
First, this “wanderlust” gene is only prevalent in 20 percent of the population. So, only one of you in your group of five BFFs likely has it.
Second, even if you have the gene, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will express this type of behavior. A single gene is not so powerful in shaping your personality; other factors, including environmental ones, come into play.
And third, migrating to populate new lands and exiting the Earth’s atmosphere in a competitive space feat feel quite different from taking a week off from work to sip a maitai on a beach in Hawaii.
So, if it isn’t exactly encoded in our DNA, why do we feel the need to travel?
Well, turns out, as with many other things, our obsession with being a tourist is an influence of the elite, profited on by capitalism and now magnified by social media.
Back in the day, travel was for one of three things: education, religious pilgrimage or recreation, and in all cases, groups that indulged in travel were part of the elite. This makes sense — with limited infrastructure, travel was expensive and was a habit that could only be cultivated by the rich and titled. Ancient Greek writers traveled to other countries as a form of research, Indian emperors performed Buddhist pilgrimages and, perhaps most notable for being a precursor to modern tourism, English nobles traveled in a grand tour across Europe for education and enjoyment.
As infrastructure improved (think, the building of roadways during the Roman Empire or the construction of the Indian Railways) this practice trickled down to other social classes, and over time, travel evolved to its present form of a pleasurable past-time, retaining the view from European nobility that it edified one’s outlook on life and, at the same time, remaining a status symbol as it displayed the means to spend on such an indulgence.
Since then, Instagram filters have given travel more of a high and low-budget airlines have enabled our addiction further. But the fact of the matter remains — traveling for pleasure isn’t something that we as humans want to do innately.
So, maybe you can feel a little better about your canceled travel plans knowing that wanting them was a social construct to begin with.
*I had some fun looking up -phile words when figuring out what to call a tree-lover. Turns out I’m a limnophile!