Some Thoughts About Happiness and Travel

Yesterday I answered a few email questions from Aaron Hotfelder of Gadling, Weblogs Inc.’s travel blog. The results are here. Here’s what I had to say about his parents’ upcoming anniversary:

1. My parents have a wedding anniversary coming up. Why should I buy them, say, a trip to Hawaii or an Alaskan cruise rather than a new flat-screen TV?

You should buy them what they want! If they don’t like traveling, bring the world to them — in HD! But if they’re indifferent, go for the equivalently-priced trip.

According to psychologists, we are prone to “adaptation” or “habituation,” the tendency for changes in our experience to become the new normal. When you jump into a swimming pool, it’s really cold at first, but then suddenly it’s not. Getting new stuff is a lot like that. After a while, the novelty of a sweet flat-screen will wear off, and Seinfeld reruns will be no funnier.

Travel, however, constantly stimulates our taste for novelty. Habituation is precisely why people feel they are “sleepwalking” through their daily routine–the familiar recedes into the deep background of consciousness and only changes register. That’s why you feel more “alive” in a new place: your mind takes very little for granted. You are awake to everything. Also, long after mom and dad have retired their once-new TV, they’ll still value the memories of their trip.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center