Is Wanderlust a Product of Boredom?

Wanderlust is often celebrated as a vivacious, free-spirited, even inspirational condition. But in the complex realm of human psychology and behavior there is often more than meets the eye. Wanderlust is usually associated with positive traits and emotions, and this association occurs on two different levels. On the “pre-travel” level the sheer desire to travel extensively is often regarded with admiration as it exhibits an ambitious curiosity and passion for life. Secondly, on the “post-travel” level, the experiences had while traveling are often among the most memorable and special moments we have in life. While both of these notions are evidently true, the role negative emotion plays in the feeling of wanderlust (more specifically the cause of wanderlust) may be more significant than we initially realize. 

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Generally speaking, we are motivated to act by two different forces: the desire to achieve positive emotional states and the inclination to avoid negative emotional states. Simply put, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. Some behavior may involve a combination of these two phenomena, and the most mundane activities may be essentially void of both. Nevertheless, the important notion to observe here is that the vast majority of decisive human actions operate under these two overarching principles. When it comes to wanderlust it is intuitive to assume that this adventurous impulse originates within the pleasure-seeking zone of our psyche. Surely the deep longing for world exploration is fueled by an excited urge to experience all the beauty this earth has to offer…right? Well, yes—but this may be only one side of the story. The psychological roots of wanderlust may contain a degree of pain-avoidance that is not as commonly recognized.

To explain this topic further we need to discuss boredom. While most people would agree that boredom constitutes an emotion, it is somewhat trivialized as a “lower-level” or insignificant sensation in comparison to joy, frustration, anxiety, et cetera. However, some studies suggest that boredom can actually be a highly influential feeling. In his article, “The Psychology of Boredom – Why Your Brain Punishes You for Being Comfortable and Safe,” Adam Sinicki provides a great account of the psychology behind boredom. In the below excerpt we see how boredom can have a significant effect on one’s mind and behavior:

“Boredom can be measured by a scale called the 'Boredom Proneness Scale' or the 'BPS'. And according to this scale, those who are prone to boredom are also prone to several other concerning traits and behaviours – including depression, stress and even drug addiction. Apparently boredom proneness is the best predictor of all of whether or not someone is likely to stay clean when recovering from a drug addiction.” (A. Sinicki)

Furthermore, Nicole LePara’s study in The New School Psychology Bulletin explains that boredom proneness has been linked to higher rates of negative behaviors including substance abuse and pathological gambling. The important thing to note here is that boredom should not be taken lightly—it can be a strong emotional force with significant effects on our behavior.  So, how does this relate to wanderlust?

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To return to the previous concepts of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance, recall that nearly all decisive human action falls under these two principles. While wanderlust clearly falls under the pleasure-seeking category, it is also likely to be a product of pain-avoidance in the sense that it alleviates the pain of boredom. It can be argued that this duality is applicable to nearly all “junkies” in some way. Adrenaline junkies seek intense thrills for the euphoric rush, but also to stave off the dullness of a comfortable existence. Heroin junkies shoot up to chase a blissful high, but also to numb any depression and anxiety they feel when sober. Travel junkies crave plane tickets to be transported to beautiful and exotic places, but also to free them from the boredom of a stationary life. This notion is affirmed in David Robson’s “Psychology: Why Boredom is Bad…and Good for you,” where he describes one of the main personality types that tends to suffer from excessive boredom:

Boredom often goes with a naturally impulsive mindset among people who are constantly looking for new experiences. For these people, the steady path of life just isn’t enough of a rollercoaster to hold their attention.” (D Robson)

With this emphasis on boredom it may seem as though I am trying to paint a moderately pessimistic picture of wanderlust—as if to suggest that avid world travelers are essentially running away from an unfulfilling life back home. This is not the case. Rather, I believe it is beneficial to acknowledge both sides of the “wanderlust equation” in order to gain a fuller understanding of how important travel can be. Boredom isn’t some annoying condition God cursed us with out of spite—we evolved with this feeling for a reason. Boredom strengthens our curiosity. It prevents us from doing the same things over and over again throughout our lives. It helps motivate us to explore new places, think of new ideas, and try new activities (which has enabled much of our success as a species). Furthermore, Adam Sinicki explains, “Our brains actually need stimulation and they especially need novelty. This is what allows our brains to maintain their plasticity and flexibility, it encourages neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) and without it atrophy will increase.” From this we can see that new experiences can be literally healthy for us. In conclusion, if our wanderlust is partially spurred by our proneness to boredom then we should embrace this—it shows us that exploration is in our DNA. So travel on, Wanderlusters, travel on.