Urban Nomadicism: The Sources of Unhappiness for Serial Travelers

Who doesn't advocate traveling and especially living abroad? Everyone, it seems. I do. "Just go do it" is the travel advice most people need to hear.

But there are some who take the advice to an extreme. They become professional vagabonds. They backpack around for years, going from hostel to hostel, teaching English in Peru, working at a bookstore in Calcutta. Or there are the international elite who pick a career (e.g. consulting) that requires moving base camps every few years, even within their own country. Or there are the children of diplomats who grow up citizens of the world.

I envy much about how these people live their lives, but when I observe unhappiness, it can usually be traced back to one or more of these three issues:


"Home" changes over the course of one's life. It starts at your place of birth. Half of Americans live within 50 miles of their birthplace. For the other half, what you consider home evolves over the course of time. The most comfortable transition is when "home" goes from A to B with no interlude. You might grow up in San Francisco (home), then move to Los Angeles (SF still home for awhile), until one day you realize that "home" is LA. Boom. It switches. But if you grow up in San Francisco (home), then move to LA, then move to Chicago, then Beijing, then Sydney, at some point SF no longer feels like home, but nor do any of the other cities. Where is your hearth? Where do you go for nurturance and renewal?

Shallowness of relationships

The best way to build intimacy in a relationship is to spend quality in-the-flesh time with each other. If you're always on the go, or never in the same place for more than a few years, intimacy can be hard to come by. It's hard to involve yourself in a long-term relationship if you're nomadic. It's true even for friendships. Thanks to technology it's rare that a friendship would ever move backwards in the absence of physical interaction — maintenance is easy these days — but technology can not accelerate intimacy in the way physicality does. It can even be hard to motivate yourself to invest in relationships as you think to yourself, "I'm leaving in six months anyway, what's the point in trying to find a best friend?" (People who have issues with intimacy of course will embrace this aspect of the traveler's life.)

Identity confusion

Where do I belong? Does the country name on my passport still accurately reflect my deepest national ties? How do I answer the question, "Where are you from?" If I'm living in a country where I am not a native speaker, will I ever be treated as a local?


By the way, the best way to understand a serial traveler or expat is to understand what they're escaping from back home. Oppressive parents? Unsuccessful social life? Failure? Racism? Unbearable boredom? Escapism is common to all. Then again, perhaps we're all trying to escape from something…

(tks Maria P. for helping brainstorm this)

15 comments on “Urban Nomadicism: The Sources of Unhappiness for Serial Travelers
  • Great insights Ben…and delivered from the road, am I right? I’m sure you’ll be meeting lots of these folks on your travels.

    People who travel around and grew up in many countries, hopefully soon learn that they will only be comfortable if they have home within them; that is, the feeling of “being at home” everywhere they go, rather than focusing on any physical place.

    Yes, for all the seemingly enthusiastic Facebook updates that a person writes regarding their upcoming travels, there are a few that are tinged by this escapism you talk about. As much as I am happy for someone who boasts repeatedly with all eyes on the horizon of some other land and circumstance, I know that sometimes it’s an inability to find satisfaction in their current place of residence. The essence of travel thus becomes, in my humble opinion, somewhat corrupted as it becomes outcome-dependant (“take me away from here”) and now it has an expectation – it has to be better than the last time, or better than home, etc.

    I’ve known many people who get stuck in this cycle of perpetual travel – I say “stuck” in only the most harshest sense possible, when such is their desire to travel that they fail to appreciate or improve on their turf.


    In terms of the shallowness of relationships that is correct. I think I saw something on Tyler Cowen’s site about women traveling more while they are single than men, because men want to put in some roots and build up a financial base to attract their mates. There is no way around the shallow relationships…yet. For all the connection, this one is still one that keeps most people rooted to one place. If somebody has found a good solution to having deep and meaningful relationships while perpetually traveling, much respect and I am all ears. And no, Mark Sanford is not a successful example of this 🙂

  • Re: shallow relationship solution – I don’t think there is a solution. I think it’s impossible to be always traveling and build really deep relationships…unless the same people/person is traveling with you to all the different places.

  • I’m 21, and actually grew up all over Asia due to my dad’s work. I’m currently in NYC. I did faced these issues and was depressed for a while when I got into college. I suffered from depression during my sophomore, but I found this book about others like me. I was able to understand myself much better. I cope with these issues much better now, and am a happier person than I was two years ago. Just go check out the book if you’re interested.

  • Seneca has a good line about how foolish people tend to think they can find happiness through travel. They forget what an awful companion they’re bringing along for the trip (themselves.)

  • From MS on Facebook:

    “Interesting post. I taught in Japan for a year, but met many serial travelers for whom the teaching engagement was only a pit stop on an endless globe-trotting journey. At the end of the year it was incredibly difficult for me to leave behind people to whom I have gotten close. Abroad, my friendships developed faster and deeper than the ones at home. Contrary to people who feel that “I’m only here for six months, why bother making friends,” my attitude and that of many people around me was “I’m only here for six months, we should let our barriers down quicker because we have only have a short time to get to know each other.” Maybe barriers come down so fast because of the notion that there is a fresh start. If you mess up, if people don’t like you, if you aren’t perfect – you’ll be in a new place in a year and have another shot at developing friendships. I think that the safety net of escape, while severing many relationships, may also enable them to develop deeper.”

  • I think you nailed this on all counts, Ben.

    That said, one or two really deep relationships can develop if one is a serial traveler. But that’s a very sad thing to settle for, I’ve come to accept (for others, if not for myself!).

  • Ben, I just read the RSS piece. Really great work! Cowen’s book has been part of my library cue for weeks now. Can’t wait for its arrival.

    I agree entirely with the argument that escapism is at the root of the urge to travel non-stop. Slightly less glamorous than what the constant traveler would have us believe.

    It follows like this in my head: Where there is an uncomfortable, internal issue (ie. boredom, antisocial) escapism through travel is often provoked. It’s symptoms include rootlessness, shallow relationships and identity confusion. And, increasingly, it seems that the grand cover up is glamorization and one upmanship.

    The photo-waving braggart who always has a story to tell. The proponents of the elusive 4-hour workweek. Eye rolling over “standard” employment and the insistence that “there” is always better than “here.” This holier-than-thou approach only thinly masks confusion.

    To paraphrase a quote I read a while ago (forgot the author, forgot the source): “True traveling is an adventure marked by curiosity and courage rather than by showmanship. This scarcely exists.” As an avid traveler, I try to keep this in mind.

  • It’s vice versa too. People travel because they’re rootless or have shallow r’ships. You get at this in the end when you mention escapism.

    The apathy that results is viewed as negative, but there’s two sides to that coin. The self-sufficient, adaptable, almost chameleon-like ability to blend in and yet still be an objective observer is a plus.

    I believe liaisons in general share these traits and in many ways don’t get along with each other because of it. So there’s little connection outside that which you seek. Isn’t that the most important lesson all around?

  • “The self-sufficient, adaptable, almost chameleon-like ability to blend in and yet still be an objective observer…”

    This is a hallmark of the American military brat.

  • Very interesting. I myself ran away from a sad and intractable (and therefore frustrating in the worst way) situation in London and landed in New York.

    Manhattan is one of the tougher places to make the deep connections of which you speak, and I wonder if it doesn’t condemn its non-native inhabitants to live a life of the perpetual traveler; both because of the very nature of the overscheduling that epitomises the lives of people here (making most relationships shallow), and because even if one is oneself not transitory (at least in my particular 30-something, working, manhattan-residing demographic) all too often those hard-sought friends with whom a deeper connection begins to form move out of the city breaking the tie in precisely the same way as if you were the traveler moving onward. People blame this city’s size and population density for its inhabitants’ loneliness (grammatically that should be plural lonelinesses, because i’m quite sure we don’t share one collective loneliness, but I digress), but I think your traveler thesis is at least as much to blame. The pace, high burn-out rate, high cost of living and undesirability of raising a family here structurally underpin the high turn-over of Manhattan’s population.

    That was all just a digression though, because the original thought that your interesting piece inspired was that there is another solution to the unhappiness of a transitory life. while I do think some people are capable of forming deep and meaningful relationships despite constant relocation (technology for sure is an essential enabler for such people), such people are clearly the exception. There is another group that excepts themselves from the unhappiness though, and these people break your other tenet: the tenet that we need deep relationships to be happy. I have observed some people (more often men, unsurprisingly given evolutionary pressures) that appear utterly emotionally independent, and can derive joy and meaning from life and human interactions without requiring them to be lasting or deep….. or perhaps just not deep by conventional definitions. Perhaps they’ve evolved beyond us mortals that require human bonds for our happiness- some kind of nirvana through transcendence of mortal binds, or perhaps they are emotional stumps that have never known and can’t know the joy of human connection to miss in its absence, or perhaps they’ve suffered some early damage or loss that gives them a profound feeling of safety in their distance from attachment which trumps the loneliness…. who knows?Autistic kids are on at least one level quite happy without human connection. Interestingly, Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading researcher on autism (and cousin of Sasha B-C) has proposed the thesis that autism lies at the extreme of a spectrum of maleness, with Asperger’s syndrome it’s milder manifestation next on that scale, and that all men are a bit ‘autistic’, albeit to greatly varying degrees. It all ties together quite cohesively really… men as loner hunters, happy nomads more frequently being men, Autism depriving those afflicted of the normal joys of human bond…

    So I suppose this was just my $0.02 in that i do think that there are plenty of explanations other than bravado or dishonesty for the nomads that claim to be happy.

  • I’ve struggled with this argument for awhile. To put it lyrically: Thoreau vs the traveler. I’m not really sure which side I fall. My dreams include the traveler’s, but I simultaneously appreciate Thoreau’s closeness to home.

    In today’s world, where global communication is easy, I don’t see why such sharp contrasts need to be made. The truth is, a modern day Thoreau would easily find China in the woods of Concord and vice versa.

  • I don’t think all travellers are necessarily trying to “escape” from something. Rather I believe many of us are trying to understand the world better, rather than having it filtered to us on TV or reading about it in magazines. First hand experience counts for a lot.

  • I am a Serial Traveler. In the past 3 years I’ve spent half of my year abroad, studying. When I graduate in May, I plan to move abroad again for at least a year. I’m unwilling to commit to more a longer time frame since I don’t know how my priorities will change.

    As a ST I must say that I find more of a dichotomy in the mindset than many others with this classification. Most of the ones who brag about how great it is to travel constantly fail to recognize the drawbacks: they have committed themselves to perma-traveling as one would a dogmatic religious or political ideology. This is dangerous, because it is proof of a subtle insecurity in their decisions.

    Travel has taught me to love the road, because every day I am challenged in new ways: I constantly meet new people and have new experiences. It has taught me the value in material things (how survival is important but luxury is farce). It has shown me how to know true friendship and how to shed the rest, ditching those friendships from convenience.

    It has also taught me how I feel physically better when I’m around old friends and family, and how I love and miss them dearly. The only problem is now, I have people I love scattered around 9 time zones.

    And yet, for me, travel is worth it. Even with all the drawbacks (most have already been mentioned so I did not repeat them) there is still a massive benefit in my personal growth. As long as the juice is worth the squeeze, my backpack will lay beside my bed rather than in the closet. We’re not all meant for this life, but at this moment, it feels as if I am.

  • I’ve just come across your website (recommended by a friend) and found this article really interesting.
    I have to admit that I disagree with a fair amount of what you’ve said though: the suggestion that people who teach English as a foreign language are labelled ‘vagabonds.’ I am an EFL teacher of UK nationality and NEVER felt any particular ties to my own country. I went through an extremely hard training process to enable me to undertake this career and, contrary to the belief that people teach on the beaches of Thailand, I have been teaching for the British Council for a while now.
    I have taught in Sri Lanka, Cambodia but it is my current location, Greece – that has captured my heart and soul despite (or maybe even because of?) her problems.
    This is now my 4th year and I have developed sound friendships, enough to want to keep me here for a while yet.
    Will I move on? I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure (which I agree with you): You can never escape yourself, so be pretty sure of your motivations for wanting to take yourself off abroad.
    DO you REALLY want to discover more about a foreign culture, open your mind to new possibilities?
    Follow my adventures on http://www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com

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