Travel Makes You Happier, Says Science

Science confirms what everyone already knows

A bite from the travel bug may be one way to contract true happiness.

At least according to research presented at 2016's Happiness 360 Conference, an international symposium hosted in partnership with the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations.

The connection between travel and happiness was the focus of the event, which also shared results from the 2016 study of Aruba’s “Happiness Index.” With a whopping 78 percent of Arubans reporting they are happy, Aruba is quite literally the happiest place on earth, relative to size, says Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes, CEO of the Aruba Tourism Authority.

Compare this to the 2016 World Happiness Report, commissioned by the United Nations, to measure the happiness of 157 larger countries. The top spot on that list was Denmark, at about 75.3 percent—lower than Aruba.

But why should we care about happiness (defined more specifically as subjective well-being)? Empirical evidence has proven, and experts agree, that people who are happier are healthier, more creative and more productive.

Here’s why the happiest place on earth, and the world’s foremost experts on the topic, say travel is a key to happiness. 

  • 01 of 08

    Travel Rewires Your Brain

    Eagle Beach, Aruba
    fmbackx/Getty Images

    Neuroscientists have shown that new experiences can build new neuropathways in the brain. So when you travel, you can rewire your brain. This can bring increased creativity, and the connection between mental (and physical) health and creativity is clearly established by research.

    Experts say new experiences can also spark feelings of compassion.“Travel makes us different people. It opens our hearts, opens our minds and we see the world differently,” saysTaleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organization. “The world will be a better place when we travel.” 

  • 02 of 08

    Travel Improves Your Relationships

    Robert Waldinger knows all about happiness. He heads up the longest ever study on happiness, a 75-year study at Harvard University. Waldinger is also the star of the most popular TED Talk of all times “What Makes a Good Life?” 

    The results have been clear. “The people who were the happiest and healthiest were the people most connected to other people, to friends, family and community,” Waldinger says

    Deepen those relationships by doing something new together, he says. Experiences connect us to other people in a way that material objects cannot, he says. “Some of the most important memories of my life are travel. Some of the closest times I’ve had with my family have been because of travel,” he says.

  • 03 of 08

    Travel Builds New Connections

    Travel also builds new relationships with people we meet along the way and locals at the destination—people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

    There’s a strong correlation between the satisfaction of locals and the happiness that visitors experience, says Mike Eman, Prime Minister of Aruba.

    Even above the soft sand, warm weather and crystal waters, the majority of visitors to Aruba report the most important factor to their enjoyment was the hospitality, Eman says.        

    The reason? Hospitality is connected with the mood of the residents. “If someone is happy with their own life, is content with the future and their family and the community, it also shines and reflects on the way they treat other people,” Eman says. “We very much see a very strong relationship between the own satisfaction with their own life on the island, and the way they also share this with anyone in their lives.” 

  • 04 of 08

    Experiences Are More Satisfying Than Things

    Studies have proven that people experience greater, long-term happiness when they spend their money on experiences, rather than things, Waldinger says.

    When reminded of an experience they recently had, people feel greater happiness than when remembering a thing. And that amplifies as we get older.

    “Over time, our satisfaction with a thing we buy goes down, and our satisfaction with an experience goes up,” Waldinger says. “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer, and research confirms this.”

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Memories Trick Us

    When travelers share stories of their experiences, they tend to minimize the challenging parts and emphasize the positive pieces, Waldinger says, referring to one family vacation where he fell sick on a cruise in Alaska. Yet when he thinks back, he remembers the wildlife he saw and the time spent with his wife and two sons.

    Material things become part of a new normal, and they lose their luster. But experiences change us, he says. “We can relive them over and over again,” Waldinger says. 

  • 06 of 08

    Bad Experiences Become Great Stories

    Even the bad things that happen on vacation open up opportunities for sharing with others. And sharing is another way to build connections. “We can all become storytellers about our journeys,” Waldinger says. 

  • 07 of 08

    We Don't Compare Vacations (Usually)

    One major source of discontent is comparisons. Studies show people who habitually compare themselves to others are less happy than those who don’t.

    People are more likely to compare material objects—like that new big-screen TV—than they are to compare a cruise to the Bahamas or a trip to Europe. “I’m less likely to compare my experience, because it’s totally me,” Waldinger says. “It’s my experience.” 

  • 08 of 08

    Travel Provides Authenticity

    A study conducted by the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida found that increasingly more travelers are seeking authenticity, and experts say immersing in a destination’s culture is a direct pathway to fostering that kind of meaningful understanding.

    That’s why many destinations, such as Aruba, are making great efforts to connect travelers with local culture. Aruba is currently transforming a former industrial neighborhood of town into an arts and cultural hub. “Culture was never so important to economies as now. We realize now if you want to differentiate yourself from the competition, that’s the angle you have to go,” Oduber says. "That’s the base of all we are doing today, and it has to do again with happiness.”

    Oduber says without question a region’s culture creates happiness for travelers.“One hundred percent it will have a direct influence on the behavior of the locals, and that will be a positive impact on the visitors,” he says. “You cannot have five-star hotels if you are not a five-star country. Our story should be a truth story.”