I believe all of us are familiar with the temptation to escape… Be it a from difficult conversation, an anxiety-provoking situation, or a tiring social environment, it is so tempting to just leave, to escape from it. Sometimes, though, leaving the room is just not enough and one is tempted to escape on a bigger scale. This is when jumping on a plane might feel like the right solution. Indeed, such reasons for relocation abroad as finding meaning and purpose, discovering oneself, looking for a change, or making sense in life, which all imply some sort of tension, lack of fulfillment or imbalance at home, are common to hear from self-initiated expats, global nomads and globetrotters.
But why is it so tempting to believe that escaping abroad will make us happier? And does it really work?
Jules Evans, a practical philosopher and author of the best-selling book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, argues that in many cases the therapy of escape, as he calls it, does work. There are several cases in which one becomes a different person abroad and flourishes in a host country. In one of my previous posts, I wrote about travel addiction and the travel bug, which is the constant need for novelty and excitement that one can experience while hopping between time-zones. I believe it would be fair to say that this experienced novelty is not only about what surrounds you, but also about the novelty of yourself when abroad. It is being addicted to being a different person to some extent.
According to Evans, living abroad can be psychologically liberating for two main reasons. First, no one knows you there, and hence you do not need to fit into the familiar roles that others are expecting of you. Let’s say that if you are considered to be a highly talkative and positive person at home, then abroad, with no sense of guilt and discomfort, you can behave in a much more reserved or passive way. Liberation from guilt is actually the second reason suggested by Evans, who argues that in a new culture one can sidestep the expectations of one’s own culture. For instance, if you come from a conservative, collectivistic culture with high emphasis on family values, in a more individualistic and progressive country you avoid feeling guilty about not being married and not wanting children. In other words, in a new environment, you are not being judged by familiar social norms anymore. Moreover, being a foreigner in the eyes of host country nationals, you might also get an easier pass on host country social norms as well, right? That can feel quite liberating indeed.
Hence, I would say that going abroad to find an environment that fits better with your personal values and desires makes total sense and may explain the ‘happier abroad’ cases. Yet, coming back to travel as a way to escape FROM yourself and search for a different person within yourself — is this a permanent solution? Or just a temporary remedy?
I would say the latter. As long as the plane ticket is a means to escape from yourself, and to avoid working on yourself, the therapy is unlikely to last long. As the saying goes, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you”. For example, if you are fleeing from the pressures and responsibilities of life, sooner or later settling in abroad will bring about the same challenges. Avoiding routine? Well, every new destination will become routine eventually. Escaping from loneliness? As long as you continue to lack interpersonal skills to build and nurture relationships, the status of a foreigner will not help, either. Naturally, drastic change in the environment can be a catalyst for insight, inspiration, courage, or clarity of mind, yet it is not a quick fix that is able to change the pervasive agent of your life — you.