We Ask a Psychologist.
By Matt Meltzer
We all have that friend, right? The one who's never in the same place for more than a week and who always posts pictures of some food you didn’t know was edible in front of some mountain you didn’t know existed. He’s back for a day, you grab lunch, and then he’s on a plane to Thailand for Yacht Week.
Maybe he’s a trust-fund kid. Maybe he has a job he can do from anywhere. Or maybe he just travels the world teaching yoga and playing guitar on the street in a Chewbacca mask. However he does it, this guy never sits still and your inner Hank Hill just keeps thinking, “That boy ain’t right.”
But is he really "addicted" to travel? Is that even a diagnosable condition? And are people with six-figure frequent-flyer accounts crazy travel addicts or just living the life we wish we could? We talked to a therapist to find out.
Addiction or obsession?
Addictions must have three characteristics: an urge to engage in a particular behavior, denial of the harmful consequences, and failure to modify the behavior. Travel has none of those. So despite what your favorite travel blogger claims, you can't actually be a "travel addict."
“Travel might be more along the line of obsessive, but there’s no evidence that it’s a legitimate addiction because it has no neurological element of instant gratification,” says Dr. Daniel Epstein, a psychotherapist who specializes in addictions (and millenials!) in Boca Raton, Florida.
So there you go, that was easy. Guess our work here is done.
Actually, not so fast -- we still want to know why some people CAN'T. STOP. MOVING. Is travel kind of like cocaine or carbs?
“Everything we do in life is about getting that shot of dopamine,” says Epstein. “And you get that blast when the screen pops up telling you your flight is confirmed. Or when you go out and buy a new duffle bag. Or even stay in hotels.”
Travel makes us happy. This is nothing new; there are, like, millions of studies to prove it. But like anything we enjoy, after enough of it most people start to burn out. Hell, even Mötley Crüe started whining about wanting to go home after enough time on the road. And the answer as to why some people never do involves both psychology and genetics.
What's really going on in the brain?
As humans, we’re genetically programmed to settle down in one location and develop communities. But not everybody’s wired that way. The gene that controls dopamine -- DRD4 -- has a specific mutation that has been tied to increased restlessness. And not the “my airplane seat is too small, my veins are gonna clot" kind of restlessness, more the “the entire Western Hemisphere is too small” variety. This mutation -- DRD4-7R -- is found in about 20% of people and makes them more likely to take risks, try new foods, do drugs against Nancy Reagan's advice, and chase new sexual relationships, according to a story in National Geographic. And while this gene might perfectly explain your average European youth hostel, it might also explain why some people just can’t sit still.
The gene was also found to be more prevalent in people whose DNA traced back to migratory populations. Though that science isn’t exact -- you’d have to test the people in those ancient populations to get perfect data -- it still makes for an interesting correlation.
But we’re not tied to our genetics either. As Dr. Epstein points out:
“There’s a sense of emotional immaturity, and these are definitely people with a pleasure-seeking personality. It’s more about what’s going to make me happy versus what’s going to give me a sense of purpose.” So, yes, perhaps a travel bug is a big dating red flag.
It can also be tied to a sense of entitlement. “[They might think] ‘I deserve to be constantly stimulated by new experiences and traveling’ or that having a home base is for 'other people,’” Epstein says. “They don’t want to be that conformist... but frankly it speaks to a degree of immaturity." So, again, giant dating RED FLAG!
So wait, crazy question, but can excessive travel somehow be harmful?
The problem is, of course, when you spend your 20s as a nomad, life gets tough when you do decide to stay in one place.
“People who just work a few months at a time have trouble when they decide they want to settle down,” says Epstein. “It’s hard to find meaningful or satisfying work because their resume is all over the place, and employers see they’ve only held jobs for six months at a time.” And it becomes an endless cycle. The traveler returns “home” but has no job and no standing personal or business relationships, he becomes restless, and he heads back out again.
Although not just first-world 20-somethings find settling down hard: a study of Ariaal tribesmen in Africa found those with the 7R mutation were stronger when they lived with nomadic tribes, but were far less nourished when living in settled villages.
All of that said, Epstein stresses that travel in and of itself is not a bad thing; as long as you’re not doing it as a way to avoid “real life,” there’s really no need for concern. "If you're not shirking responsibilities, family, or some big emotional issue then you should absolutely get out and see the world."
Now, if you think Epstein is full of crap and your 20s is the absolute BEST time to quit your job to start traveling the world, you're gonna want to read this.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist and plays “Home Sweet Home” every time his flight is landing. Follow him on Instagram: @meltrez1.