Last night I dreamed about Iceland.

I’ve never been to this magical place but I’ve always longed to go. My plan was to visit it this year. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Although we’re out of lockdown, the only use we can currently find for our passports is to level a night table or a chair. Traveling is still a big no-no and health has to come first.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association reports that only 33% of Americans have traveled overnight for leisure or vacation since March, and only 38% say they are likely to do so by the end of the year. This is our sad reality.

And while crying about not being able to travel in the middle of a pandemic sounds like a spoiled child’s whim, I can’t help but wonder whether there’s something more to it.
Is our desire to travel something inherent to all human beings? What compels us to see the world and why do we feel so blue when the opportunity is taken away from us?

I’ve always taken traveling for granted, like a birthright all of us share. You live in a place and then you go see other places. You hurl yourself miles from home, only to return with a bunch of photos and a head full of memories. Now I’m trying to figure out why that’s so important to us.

Why Do People Travel?

Back in the days of yore, humans were wanderers — hunters who moved from one place to another in search of food and shelter. It turns out that this remained stuck in our genes.
Some people are natural-born wanderlusters and scientists backed this up when they presented to the public a gene variant known as DRD4–7R. This scary-looking term was later given a more memorable name — the wanderlust gene.

The 7R variant of the gene DRD4 impacts the dopamine levels in the brain and it’s present in about 20% of the population.

The gene’s primary function is linked with motivation and behavior (Lichter et al. 1993) but also with creativity (Mayseless et al. 2013), as well as (surprise, surprise!) restlessness and curiosity (Coyne 2015).

It seems that traveling is in our blood after all.

But, regardless of our genetic makeup, there is a fascinating chemical reaction that happens when we travel. Of course, it’s got something to do with dopamine. Our travel bug emerges from the SEEKING system — a dopamine-fueled brain network in charge of novelty-seeking behavior.

The seeking system is one of the seven primary emotional systems — CARE, PLAY, LUST, FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER being the remaining six (Davis & Montag 2019). This system is an inseparable part of our psyche and a very addictive one. For this reason, planning and anticipating a trip as well as exploring a new destination is a habit we struggle to break. We keep activating the seeking system, which in return gives us a boost of dopamine, over and over again.

So, basically — are we like addicts in rehab now that we’re banned from traveling?
Pretty much, yes.

How Do We Beat the No-Travel Blues?

Although the situation seems hopeless and our next vacation is hanging by a thread, scientists say we should go ahead and plan one anyway.

While we’re making arrangements for our next vacation, the enjoyment associated with anticipation keeps growing — mapping out your itinerary, finding the tickets, thinking about what to pack will give you a rush of joy.

A body of research investigating the impact of the expectation of a holiday on an individual’s sense of well-being also discovered that people are at their best when planning and expecting a holiday. The respondents of the study were found to achieve their “subjective well-being equilibrium” while planning, which includes their family interactions, economic situation, and health domain satisfaction (Gilbert & Abdulah 2002).

“This virus can stop our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams.” — Rick Steves for NY Times

Dr. Matthew Killingsworth, a scientist who investigates the nature and causes of human happiness, spoke with National Geographic and said that “our future-mindedness can be a source of joy if we know good things are coming.” This is especially the case with travel.
He adds that a trip has a defined start and end which means our minds are prone to savor it even before it’s started.

Should you start making reservations now?

A study published in Psychological Science concluded that “experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having).”

Of course, planning a trip fits the frame perfectly. Plus, judging by current trends, we’re all starved for new and unexplored destinations, which means that late bookings will be nearly impossible. So if you’re in a position to do so, it might be a good idea to make your bookings well in advance.

Hop on that train of planning and anticipating your next trip. You won’t necessarily have to go far abroad — just decide on a destination and then let your imagination go free.