Leaving home and learning to appreciate what we have

Posted on August 26 2011 by frank

The hardest part of a journey is usually the start. This is true in two senses of the word: Firstly, there are always so many excuses not to travel – the lack of money, risks ahead, study, work or family commitments and so forth – that many people never leave their home. These are obstacles that can always be arranged, if one just has a strong enough vision. Don’t take my word for it, ask Dervla Murphy who in addition to bicycling alone from Ireland to India in 1963 also travelled 1500 miles by foot in Peru with her nine-year old daughter. It must though be noted that her daughter Rachel rode the first six hundred miles with a pony before becoming a pedestrian.

Secondly, leaving is hard because one has to say farewell to so many dear people whom one doesn’t see for months. The last weeks before the trip are always filled with sad partings in which both realize how long it will be before we meet again. Should one say some kind words – or just shake hands in silence with a manly firmness? These are moments I have never learned to handle with elegance, I am always a bit unsure of how to get through them and how to really show the other how much I care about him or her.

One of the main reasons to travel, however, are precisely these good-byes. The human psychology is built in such a way that we often are unable to appreciate that which we have. We grow so used to having the good people around us and getting their attention and love that we start to take it for granted. We no longer see how much their presence really gives to us and in how many ways they enrich our lives. You do not learn to appreciate something before you don’t have it – and traveling is a way of departing from that which you have for a while and thus learn to appreciate it anew.

This is connected to one of the things that modern well-being psychologists have emphasized, namely the fact that in terms of happiness, “the human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels” as Jonathan Haidt puts it. In other words, most of the things we have – especially our material wealth – don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we grow used to them. To change our happiness permanently we should not change the amount of things we have but our relation to the things we have. One can learn oneself to take a more appreciative attitude towards one’s life – for example through the simple exercise of once a week writing down five things one is gratetuf for. Simple as it may sound, this kind of exercises have been found to increase people’s satisfaction with life, their optimism and even their physical health.

Traveling – I argue – is one of the best ways to learn to appreciate more what one already has. As the travel writer Paoul Theroux notes: “One of the greatest rewards of travel is the return home to the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts and your own bed.” But to get there, you first have to travel.

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