Does travel increase mindfulness?

Unfortunately, my hyper-mindfulness of mosquitoes decreased my enjoyment of Thailand
Unfortunately, my hyper-mindfulness of mosquitoes decreased my enjoyment of Thailand

Yesterday I caught up with one of my best friends from high school. He had just returned from a vacation to Europe (I was jealous) and was telling me about the laid-back vibe of Barcelona and how it reminded him of Miami (where he went to college) and how he’d like to buy a place there.

We were discussing the merits of buying a place in Miami at Tavern in the Square in Cambridge. We sat at the sidewalk tables outside to enjoy the beautiful 70-degree weather. A large crowd of soccer fans were watching the Costa Rica and Netherlands game which contributed to the festive atmosphere.

It felt like we were in a Mediterranean European city, despite the fact we were in Cambridge, MA.

While we were discussing different places we’d like to live and travel to, I realized how ironic it was that I was discussing all the other places I’d like to live when really, the feeling or vibe I was looking for in a place to live was all around me, right there in that moment.

I wrote before that travel won’t solve any of your problems. Simply moving to or visiting a new place won’t make your life better.

But there are some benefits to travel: you naturally increase your mindfulness.

When you visit a new place, you pay attention to everything: the differences, the similarities, the good, the bad, etc. Your brain can’t help it. It is wired to pay attention to novel stimuli.

Of course, once you stay in a place long enough, the natural mindfulness starts wearing off, which is why some medicine might help you, like a review for a narcolepsy medication wrote about. You form new routines and habits that allow you to ignore your surroundings.

The downside of not being mindful is that you are more susceptible to being absorbed by the culture around you, potentially missing out on wonderful but normal experiences.

I recently came across this blog post by a guy named David who spent 9 months traveling and then returned to a normal 9-5 job.

While traveling, he was able to appreciate the “simple” activities. In his new job, he feels like those things are a waste of his (limited) time.

Suddenly I have a lot more money and a lot less time, which means I have a lot more in common with the typical working North American than I did a few months ago. While I was abroad I wouldn’t have thought twice about spending the day wandering through a national park or reading my book on the beach for a few hours. Now that kind of stuff feels like it’s out of the question. Doing either one would take most of one of my precious weekend days!

More significantly, he found himself becoming absorbed into Western consumer culture.

Since the moment I was offered the job, I’ve been markedly more careless with my money. Not stupid, just a little quick to pull out my wallet. As a small example, I’m buying expensive coffees again, even though they aren’t nearly as good as New Zealand’s exceptional flat whites, and I don’t get to savor the experience of drinking them on a sunny café patio. When I was away these purchases were less off-handed, and I enjoyed them more.

I’m not talking about big, extravagant purchases. I’m talking about small-scale, casual, promiscuous spending on stuff that doesn’t really add a whole lot to my life. And I won’t actually get paid for another two weeks.

Lifestyle design bloggers would readily agree with this observation and tell you to quit the job and start traveling again. They argue that the root cause of the unhealthy consumer culture is the job and the resulting time scarcity, and the only way to cure this is to get rid of the job and have near unlimited time to enjoy life.

While this manifesto is incredibly appealing, I think the better solution is to learn to appreciate the time and experiences we have now, even the shitty job.

Just think about how much time you waste fantasizing about a mythical dream life that may or may not materialize. What if you spent that time simple noticing and paying attention to the life you have now? What if, instead of quitting your job and traveling to increase your mindfulness, you learned to be mindful now?

It’s an interesting question, and one that has significant implications on what we desire and want out of life.

Instead of planning to buy a condo in a Mediterranean city, we might learn to better appreciate the European atmosphere of a Cambridge tavern on a sunny day.

  • OTL

    Science shows that people have limited willpower (see Willpower by Baumiester). If we spend will-power at work, we have less in our outside-work lives (Netflix’s entire business model probably depends on this!). We then do things that make us feel guilty and harm ourselves, like eating junk food, not exercising etc…

    Therefore people will be happier if they have more spare time. The solution is for the state to significantly reduce the working week.

    We’d still be richer because (in order to maintain profitability) capitalists would have to invest more and so improve productivity. If you don’t believe me compare yourself with someone from the 19th century who, on average, worked a 12 hour day, 6 days a week. Does the economy produce more now or then?

    I haven’t got any beef with Buddhism but you’ll never make people happy or wise if you only focus on their heads.

  • Jaba

    Baumeister’s claims regarding willpower as a limited resource have been largely oversold. Dweck and colleagues, for example, have recently shown that it’s a “limited resource” mostly for those who believe it’s a limited resource. A much better model is probably William James old model (which Baumeister almost completely ignores): Many of us are capable of a lot more than we believe but various types of inhibitions hold us back. The trick is how to push back those inhibitions and extend the range of our abilities. See especially James’s classic, The Energies of Men, for an engaging discussion of the extent to which spiritual disciplines may play a role in this endeavour – as opposed to Baumeister’s theory which simply advises frequent breaks (and/or eating a candy bar to get those glucose levels back up!).

  • Jennifer Harris

    Wow, this is an intense thought! I personally fantasize about having more time, period. Not adding the travel factor to it. Yet, I remember that when I didn’t have a job, I felt similar to how you did when you were looking – there is only so much you can do re the job search, and then I would be aimless and depressed the rest of the day. Pretty likely if I had more time I would revert instead of creating the fantastic home life I keep imagining. Some of the stuff I do for work – like click through 700 emails in a discovery production in a day – makes me laugh about being mindful. On the other hand, the whole point about mindfulness is that it does not discriminate between things that happen to be in front of you.