It Really Is A Lonely Planet.

being-ignored-by-a-friend

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!

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articldes

How To Deal With Reverse Culture Shock After Your Gap Year.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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18 comments on “It Really Is A Lonely Planet.
  1. This makes sense. I guess when returning home it is best to seek out Travel Massive gatherings, Couchsurfing local events, or other meetups.

    • Much more than that, it is about connecting with those who have a bond with you, who understand you, who have the ability to understand you. And unfortunately that ism’t always the people you used to know before you travelled. But you are right, events such as those are great ways to meet like minded travellers. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very interesting! I started traveling at a very young age and I have never felt like I connected with anyone. The people I do connect with are people who have traveled around and are eager to talk about their trips, different cultures and have gone through similar experiences.

    Its kind of nice to know that I am not the only one who has ever felt like a loner because of traveling. Great post 🙂

    • Thank you! 🙂 I know exactly what you mean. It really is very isolating knowing that you have a different perspective, a different outlook to the vast majority of people around you. It makes me grateful there are always other awesome travellers to connect with!

  3. Emily Luxton says:

    This is a really interesting article, Mike. I recently came back from a stint and apart from the obligatory ‘how was Vietnam?’, they didn’t really ask me anything about it at all. There were a few people who did, but like you say, they’re the ones who are interested in travelling themselves. It’s very difficult to settle back in, however I don’t think (and I may be wrong) that anyone changes so much whilst they’re away that they no longer have anything in common with old friends. One thing that I did was to continue travelling, but within my own country – this really helped a lot!

    • Thanks Emily. I think it depends on how long you travel for and the type of person you are/become and the type of person your old friends and acquaintances are too. I’m not saying that travellers will like their old friends less or vice versa, it’s just that they will more often than not have less and less in common and drift further apart the more one travels and the other doesn’t. There are always exceptions to that rule of course, but that’s my general experience. It’s just life I suppose. It’s just natural to want to gravitate toward those who are on the same wavelength as you.

  4. Jessica says:

    I find that this happens even when I’m just home temporarily. I live abroad, so I’m not traveling all the time, but I still find it quite hard to talk about everyday things as I worry people will think I’m showing off. It’s true that you just have to find some people who do get what you’re talking about!

  5. MAD Travel Diaries says:

    I’ve been wanting to write a piece on culture shock of returning to Trinidad after years abroad and long term travel. I’m not back permanently but it’s the only home I know in between trips (and where I don’t need a visa, lol). I can related to this article and totally agree with you. When you can’t find the happiness in your old life, you find a new one. Coming back to a laid back island lifestyle, the small mindedness of the people, the constant reminder that I should be married like all my friends and have kids, I even had a run in with a government minister standing up over an issue I believed in – all was motivation to plan my next long term trip. Turns out many people experience this on returning “home” (except for maybe the govt minister run in). We live, we learn, we adjust…as travel teaches us. Well written.

  6. Elena says:

    It is a lonely planet indeed! But then you get back to normality, slowly slowly….Until you leave again :)))

  7. Larissa says:

    I was a teacher for a year on the small island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia; and having just come back I’ve had a lot of trouble getting back into the groove in the U.S. Finding new friends and reconnecting and growing closer to those that also just took a gap year has made life so much better though. They will listen about my life in the islands and I’ll listen to their stories about Italy, Thailand, Saipan, Burma etc. Thank you for making it so blunt (in a good way) that you need to find new people if you can’t reconnect as well with your old friends.

    • You’re very welcome Larissa, I’m really glad the article resonated with you. I know exactly where you are coming from as I’ve been through the same thing myself. Thank you for the comment.

  8. I appreciate the combination of science & anecdote in your article. I have just returned home from my 5th 1-year-abroad experience and am being reminded of all of these feelings, am experiencing that sense of “ok, now what”, and am cautiously sharing stories with friends who ask specific questions. What makes this “re-entry” different from my prior ones is that this time I’m watching my husband, daughter, and son go through it, too. We’ve been home 1 month after traveling for 11.

    Best advice: “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.”

    Cheers!

  9. Jessica says:

    No one I know back home has travelled any further than a package resort in Benidorm, and all I get from family, friends and colleagues is a bored change of subject or a sarcastic ‘gap yah’ comment. You are right that only other travellers can understand you.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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