A recent study in Psychological Science suggests that those of us who have travelled the world can be left feeling isolated and alone when we return home, as many people we knew in our old lives simply can’t relate to the experiences we have had or the things we have seen.
The study by Gus Cooney et al – aptly named the unforeseen costs of an extraordinary experience – suggests that this can lead to severe social isolation and in some cases may even lead to feelings of resentment and jealousy in others which can increase travellers segregation further still and lead to loneliness or even depression.
Essentially what they are saying is no one gives a crap when you get home and talk about your awesome gap year.
There is certainly an element of truth in this. Any traveller will tell you – especially those who have travelled the world for extended periods – that when they get home, they find that people have carried on with their own lives and don’t really care about anything outside of that. They especially don’t care about how awesome, amazing or life changing your travels were, because those experiences aren’t within the realms of their limited paradigms.
They will tell you it is hard to relate to those whose entire existence revolves around who slept with who at work or what banal reality TV show is on at the moment. They will tell you that when trying to find common ground with those you once knew, most of the time – just like Indiana Jones when faced with a hoard of students outside of his office – you want to just escape out of the nearest window and head off on a new adventure.
Sure you may get a few polite smiles and nods as you wax lyrical about your gap year like Uncle Albert going on about the war, you may even get a rare spark of interest as people dream of doing the very same thing themselves, but in general most people don’t care. Unless it involves their limited social bubble, their limited sphere of existence, they can’t relate to it and they don’t give a damn.
And that can be very isolating.
It can be especially isolating when you come home from an extended trip and try to fit straight back into your old life, with the same people you once knew and the same old ways of seeing the world and doing things. Their priorities in life, their social sphere, their way of thinking – even if they happen to be the exact same as yours once were – are no longer recognisable or relateable to by you either. In some cases this can contribute to what is known as reverse culture shock and even lead to other serious mental health problems such as loneliness and depression.
But as depressing a thought as all of this is, the loneliness and isolation can be circumvented. It just requires a paradigm change.
Sure, you aren’t the same person as you were before you set off on your round the world adventures. So what? You’re better. You are a bigger, badder, more confident and worldly version of your old self. So you don’t have anything in common with those people who you once knew. Who cares? They are still stuck in that same bubble of existence that you used to be in, and if they can’t see outside of that to relate to you, then that’s their loss.
You have seen the world, had your eyes opened, your way of thinking and seeing the world has changed. Did you really expect to relate to people – the world – in the same way after such a fundamental shift?
Travelling around the world changes you, so instead of trying to fit your new round self into the square hole of your old life, find a new hole to fit into. If you feel isolated from the majority of people who will never understand the new person you have become, then seek out those that will.
Find new friends. Friends that are a better fit for the new you.
As Cooney states, “if an experience turns you into someone who has nothing in common with others, then no matter how good it was, it won’t make you happy in the long run.”
I don’t agree with that at all. The statement isn’t wrong exactly, but it completely misses the point. You see, if an experience changes you to the point where you can’t be happy trying to relate to your old life, your old friends, then you have to seek that happiness with a new life, new friends.
So steer yourself away from those you have nothing in common with and seek out those you do.
There is a reason travellers tend to gravitate toward one another. There is a reason backpackers tend to be – as a collective whole – welcoming and understanding as a group. We have a common paradigm, a shared belief system and way of thinking, a collective bond in travel that binds us all together.
And if you want to wax lyrical about that time you trekked Machu Picchu, got lost in Timbuktu or relaxed in that awesome beach hut in the Southern Thai islands, then as someone who can relate to experiences like that, I’d love to hear about it!
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