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Passport To Joy

Apr/06/2024 / by Elizabeth Marglin

Research suggests travel makes us happy long after we’ve returned home. Here’s how to best leverage that vacation vibe

While vacations may seem like a big financial investment, it turns out travel may be one of the very best things you can spend your money on. Research suggests spending on travel boosts happiness, encourages social connections, fosters juicy conversations, shapes our identity, and makes us more generous human beings. We spoke with award-winning researcher Amit Kumar, assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, to find out why. 

How does travel tie into happiness?

People derive more satisfaction from what we call “experiential purchases,” which includes travel. It also includes meals at restaurants, which are often associated with travel or tickets to performances, sporting events, outdoor activities, and recreation. Material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry, furniture, and gadgets, offer less satisfaction. 

One reason that people tend to derive greater satisfaction from these sorts of experiences is because they’re more likely to be talked about. Since they make for better story material, they’re more likely to be discussed with others. 

Experiences become the stories we tell; they provide fodder for social interaction. Investing in the types of experiences that foster relationships are more likely to bring longer lasting and more enduring happiness. Even if we travel alone, we might talk about those experiences.

What about people who would rather spend $5,000 on things rather than a trip?

When we travel somewhere, we go there for a few days or maybe a few weeks, if we’re lucky. Then that experience is over. Whereas these material goods that we buy, they continue to be in our possession. We continue to own them, so we might think of them as a better financial investment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to get more happiness from them. 

Even though experiences can be fleeting, they’re not, in a psychological sense. These experiences live on in our memories and they live on in the stories that we tell other people. Compare that to what happens with material items. We tend to habituate to those—we adapt to them. They collect dust in our homes.  Then we want the next latest and greatest thing. That thing that we bought didn’t provide us with as much satisfaction as we thought it would.

How do we prolong the joy of travel? 

We tend to talk more about purchases that reflect our identity. When we do, those purchases then become even larger parts of our identity. Engage in experiences that contribute to your sense of self and that foster your social relationships. 

How do you translate that to something concrete? When you’re traveling, it might be a good idea to try new things and especially to do so with other people. This will help shape your identity, prompt social interaction and it might even make for a good story to tell after the experience is over.

How does travel make us more generous?

Feelings of gratitude are more likely to be cultivated when people reflect on the trips they took than when they reflect on technology purchases. People tend to feel more grateful for what they’ve done than for what they have. 

We find that when people reflect on their experiences rather than their possessions, they end up being more generous to other people. They treat other people better. The benefits of choosing experiences over things is they also expand outward to others around you as well, to folks who just happen to be in your orbit.

What’s a trip you took that became a part of your identity?

I was in the midst of a busy stretch travel. Scheduling an extra trip seemed overwhelming. I had a trip to New Jersey which was one that I didn’t need to make—it wasn’t for work. I was thinking maybe I just shouldn’t take this trip

I was thinking it’s going to be a hassle to make a quick trip to New Jersey to see my nephew, who I had seen a month before. But he had a little birthday party with his five friends from daycare that I had never met. So I went. You see all this adorableness—he was going down a slide into a ball pit and I’ve never seen him do that before. 

These are the memories that are meaningful to us. Sometimes we think, “Why bother?” But once we make the effort, we realize why we did that. That trip to see my nephew was something that really mattered and made me super happy to be there for.


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