Why Are We Happier When We Travel? - This American Girl

Isla Mujeres


I have been back in my hometown for the last twenty-eight days.


Twenty-eight days of driving in traffic.

Twenty-eight days of checking my cell phone.

Twenty-eight days of binge eating on five varieties of baked goods.

Twenty-eight days of stuffing my feet into restrictive shoes like little sausages.


Please don’t misunderstand.


cancun beach


I am happy to be here.

I am so happy to be with my family.

I choose to drive and have a cell and eat the cinnamon rolls my mother baked this morning and to wear ridiculous three-inch heels.

I choose to live my life here, anywhere, the way that I want.


swimming in cancun


But for some reason

I do not choose to live it

in a way that makes me as happy

as I am when I travel.


I notice that this time, like every time, I find myself slipping.

I find myself reverting.


I find myself waiting


to be healthy

to be happy


until the moment

I begin

to travel



cancun beach


I know that I am not the only one.


Every traveler I meet in every country in the world seems to dread the moment when they will return home. Many feel depressed for months as they attempt to transition.

So I began to wonder…


Why are we so much happier when we are traveling?


Here is what I came up with:


tulum ruins


We feel free from responsibility


Worlds away from the place we call home, we suddenly become free and unencumbered by responsibility. No errands to run. No chores to complete. No unfinished projects staring at us disapprovingly. With less responsibility we have less worry. We have less stress. We feel free instead of shackled by obligation. That freedom gives us the opportunity to explore what actually makes us happy.


Well guess what? We create and accept all of our responsibilities, no matter where we are. We do not have to have them. You can decide to never remodel your bathroom. You can decide to not have a car. You can decide to not have pets that need to be walked. Plants that need to be watered. You can decide which responsibilities you want and which you do not want. You can simplify your life and give yourself the freedom that you need.


Of course, many things that we do want in life come with responsibility. You may have children who bring such fulfillment to your life. You may own a business that you feel passionate about. You may have a garden that lifts your heart with its first bloom. I am not suggesting you avoid responsibility altogether. Rather, identify the unnecessary responsibilities in your life and eliminate them.


We all have plenty.


tulum palm tree


We give ourselves permission to do things for ourselves


When we leave our responsibilities behind we create space for self care. We become more likely to ask, “what do I want to do right now?” And we actually act on it. As an American, I feel that my culture expects justification for selfish acts. How often have you heard the term “I deserve this”?


We all deserve to be happy. We all deserve to feel fulfilled. We all deserve to have healthy bodies and minds. Yet somehow at home many of us ignore our own needs. We take pride in how much we sacrifice for others.


Before I began traveling last year I spent much of my time thinking about other people. Thinking about what I should do for them. Feeling disappointed if my selflessness was not returned and rewarded.


When I started traveling I became responsible for solely myself. I began to create a routine that focused primarily on making myself feel good. In turn I became a better daughter, a better sister, and a better friend.


Think about the safety demonstration given on every aircraft prior to takeoff. It is the same every time. And every time we are instructed to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others. It makes perfect sense. We are significantly more capable of helping others if we are healthy ourselves.


Self-care does not have to be exclusive for travelers. You are able to set limits. You have permission to prioritize your needs. You deserve to be nurtured.


It is difficult to break the pattern, but it absolutely can be done.


tulum ruins


We live in the moment


When we travel we acknowledge the preciousness of each and every moment.  We seize the day. We take advantage of every experience we can. We are able to fully enjoy our time knowing that it is only temporary. Knowing that we are not committed to our location, committed to our choices, we allow ourselves to experience without judgment.


The truth is, every moment is precious. We don’t know how much time we have on this earth. Whether we are in Portugal for three days, Colombia for three weeks, or Seattle for three years, we will enjoy that time more and have less by staying present in each and every moment.


tulum ruins


We gain perspective


The more we experience the more perspective we have.


Standing at the top of a mountain we see how tiny we are. We recognize how insignificant many of our problems are. We realize how wasteful it is to dwell on things we cannot control or change.


When we see the problems of others we identify our own privileges. We acknowledge how lucky we are. We feel grateful.


Wherever you are, open your eyes. You will see that most things worrying you don’t actually matter. You will see how lucky you are to have a home, to have a family, to have the privilege to travel at all.


tulum beach flags


We allow ourselves to be whoever we want to be


When we travel we leave behind the person we were. We have the chance to reinvent ourselves. Immersed in a new environment we can create new routines, new patterns to live by. We are no longer identified by a job title. We are not the car we drive, the jeans we wear, or the sports we play. We are not someone’s mother, daughter, wife, or best friend. We do not have to answer to the expectations others have built from years of our actions. We are not deep in the book of stories predicting our present behavior. We are simply us. And the more connected we are to the center of our being, the more able we are to become our best self.


Why not challenge yourself to do something entirely out of your comfort zone? Something you have a deep desire to do, but that you don’t believe “makes sense” for a person like you. Stop creating rules and restrictions that keep you from being your truest most authentic self.


tulum beach boats


We expect to be


We expect that a vacation, a long trip, a new environment will make us happy. We believe and trust that we will love our experience. We enter our trip with a positive attitude.


Because we assume that we will be happy when traveling, we approach each day with positivity and in fact feel happier. The simple act of believing that our time will be enjoyable often makes it enjoyable.


Try to believe, to assume, that today will be the best day of your entire life. Who knows, maybe it will be?


beach tulum


You can decide to choose happiness, no matter where you are. However, I have found that there are certain things, things that make me so happy, that I simply can’t find everywhere in the world.


tulum sunset


The simple pleasure of digging my toes deep into warm white sand.

Running with reckless abandon into the cerulean ocean.

Drinking out of coconuts letting the water dribble down my chin.

Speaking with kind locals who patiently listen to me butcher their language.

Witnessing acts, customs, celebrations, entirely foreign from my own.


tulum beach


And for that I travel.

As often as I possibly can.


isla mujeres sunset


But when I am not traveling

I promise

to do my best

to choose

to be happy.
These photos were taken by me and my best travel companion Andie Mitchell in the Yucatan on our trip through Central America. 


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