At least that’s what Thomas Jefferson once said, although as a consolation for this unhappiness, Jefferson also said that traveling makes you wiser. From the minute I came across Jefferson’s quote; “traveling makes you more wise but less happy,” I’ve been pondering it’s meaning. Personally, I have yet to hear anyone else vocalize specifically that traveling in and of itself makes them unhappy, although I have heard people returning from overseas with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge or absent a camera due to an unfortunate purse snatching grumble about the expereince. Yet the more I continue to think about Jefferson’s words and the more I apply them to my own travels, I’m beginning to see that there might actually be some truth to what the first Secretary of State and the third President of the United States opined about when it came to travel.
Some might already agree with Jefferson, but may do so in the context that his assessment only applies to certain people and to people who have traveled to certain places, for example, the developing world. In the words of American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “the world is a beautiful place, if you don’t mind some people dying all the time, or maybe only starving some of the time, which isn’t half so bad as long as it isn’t you.” In traveling to places like Mauritania and Niger, I witnessed poverty on a scale on which I had never quite seen before. Since returning home, I often find myself wondering about the plight of people I happened across while passing through those countries, and without hesitation, feelings of sadness and guilt well to the surface in knowing that while I am sitting in a nice, air-conditioned room with plenty of food and fresh, clean water, people are struggling to survive in many other parts of the world every single day.
In a sense, I suppose I have grown wiser from knowing that a lot of people in the world don’t have it as easy as I do and as a result, I’ve tried to modify my own lifestyle and behavior in response, but it still doesn’t change the unhappiness stemming from the realization that I haven’t yet figured out a way to change that reality. Similar to the not-so-pleasant conditions that millions of people across the world live in, another notable American said that “traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” but in order to appreciate these words from Mark Twain, one must acknowledge that prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness exist, and that can also be depressing.
On the flip side of the coin, you don’t always have to travel to places in dire straits and see people in despair in order to potentially feel unhappy. The same can be said when you travel to a place where everyone is extremely well off and upbeat. If you just spent the past two weeks soaking it up on a sandy beach in Bora Bora at a luxury resort, or took a walking tour through Beverly Hills, you might feel pretty unhappy at the prospect of having to return to that cramped cubicle at the 9 to 5 job that you just temporarily escaped from. In that instance, it’s someones own reality that is the cause of their unhappiness.
Unhappiness stemming from travel might not necessarily be a bad thing though. Unhappiness can represent a fork in the road: you can either take the ignorance is bliss approach and try and sweep the causal factors behind unhappiness under the rug and hope they magically dissipate on their own, or you can use it as a motivational fuel; a reason to try and change that which is making you unhappy. So maybe Jefferson was onto something after all. Maybe he wasn’t actually trying to dissuade people from traveling, but instead trying to motivate them. Obviously there is some risk in making such a statement with those intentions in mind as some people are more self motivating than others, but eventually, if enough people experience something that makes them unhappy, enough of them might become motivated to change that situation for the better and either work to address their own unhappiness or the unhappiness of others.
Amateur armchair philosophy and social analysis aside, I’m curious to hear what others think about Jefferson’s statement. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Has traveling made you more wise yet less happy?