Most people in post-industrial societies will espouse a love of travel; they desire to go to see faraway places and encounter unique authentic cultures. This love of travel in many cases expresses a genuine desire to understand what it means to be human, but in other cases it expresses a problematic dependency on circumstances outside of one’s control, for one’s happiness.
For many, travel is something that allows them to widen their perspective as they encounter artifacts of the past, and cultures distinct from their own. In these cases travel is surely an enriching force as it helps people to transcend their parochial perceptions of what the good is, and forces them to contemplate what is truly valuable. When directly encountered with a culture that does not value monetary success, the North American Yuppie is forced to question how important monetary success is in their life, and in some cases their current assumptions regarding what is valuable may further develop and grow because of their contact with the other culture.
On the other hand, for some, travel becomes so central to their lives, that they begin to live for travel, and are unhappy if they are not able to travel for an extended period of time. This is deeply problematic as it signifies that one’s happiness is dependent on one’s ability to travel. There are two particularly troubling aspects of this dependency on travel for happiness. Firstly, it reveals an excessive valuation of travel. While traveling is certainly a pleasant experience in the grand scheme of things we can live incredibly rich, fulfilling lives without traveling. Modern technology allows us to easily learn about other cultures and the past without travelling. Furthermore, if travel is valued by a person because it allows us to recharge, than we should be able to find other practises that allow us to recharge, and gather the energy necessary to take on the responsibilities of ordinary life. Travel does not provide us with anything that is fundamental to a well-lived life that we cannot get from other sources, and thus it makes little sense to be upset that we are unable to travel.
The second reason why a person’s dependency on travel is problematic is related to the first, although it is distinct. This second reason is that dependency on travel for happiness reveals an excessive dependency on factors outside of one’s control for one’s happiness. In Letters from a Stoic, the Roman Philosopher Seneca says we show the disorder of our souls when we perceive our happiness as dependent on circumstances outside of our control. For Seneca, a person with a well-ordered soul realizes there is no point in getting upset over circumstances that are out of their control and thus their happiness is unaffected by fortune. I certainly would not go as far as Seneca in saying that a slave can live as happy of a life as modern member of a post-industrial society, but Seneca is surely right to point out that making one’s happiness entirely dependent on factors outside of one’s control signifies a defect of character. A person with a well-ordered intellectual and emotional constitution will be able to be happy even when circumstances do not go in their favour. Consequently, making one’s happiness dependent on the ability to travel is deeply problematic as this makes one happiness dependent on something outside of one’s control, as the ability to travel is conditioned by one’s income and expenses, which despite the myths of rugged individualism, are substantially outside of the control of the agent. Therefore, the person whose happiness is dependent on being able to travel is displaying a vice that prevents them from being able to be happy when circumstances do not go in their favour.
I do not mean to denigrate those who love to travel. I love traveling myself, but when we make our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control we expose ourselves to being destroyed by the world. There certainly may be a danger of making our happiness dependent on sources that are not threatened by fortune, as certain important goods like friendship and love depend on making our happiness dependent on circumstances outside of our control, as loving someone, or developing a friendship, always risks the possibility of betrayal or rejection. But nonetheless I see more of a problem with making our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control in post-industrial societies, as we tend to connect our happiness with anything and everything that is outside of our control (technology, entertainment, income). Consequently many of us need to learn to make our happiness less dependent on such factors, when the goods in question are not particularly pertinent. Making our happiness dependent on eating particular kinds of food, watching a sitcom, or having the new IPhone, reveals not only that one has superficial priorities, but that one can be deeply damaged by a simple change in fortune.