Is Travel As Good As Therapy?

Five years ago, a couple of months after a friendship had ended badly, I got on a plane and headed to Barcelona, Spain. The trip had been planned for a while, but the timing couldn’t have been better. I was tired and sad, and tired of being sad, and Barcelona (even in February) offered the perfect escape from the monotony of melancholy.

I was traveling with my friend Andrea, and we had few definite items on our sightseeing list: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s beautiful opera house, and the Picasso Museum. The rest of the time we budgeted for wandering, for laughing at street performers painted in gold or silver or standing on stilts, and (of course) for eating and drinking: tapas or seafood paella in beachside bistros; little, sweet coffees or litres of sangria on sunlit terraces.

Barcelona’s weather is mild, by Canadian standards, even in the middle of the winter—a light jacket and scarf were enough for the coolest day. One afternoon we found ourselves on the beach, mostly empty except for a few bundled-up dog-walkers, and Andrea and me, more than delighted by the sunlight and brisk breeze, the brilliant blue waves.

I didn’t have therapy in mind that day—I was too distracted by mopeds and espressos and the dust and noise and color of the city—but when I pulled off my boots and stuck my feet in the Mediterranean it was like the burden I’d been carrying fell off my shoulders and disappeared below the waves.

“Travel as therapy” isn’t a new idea. When I googled the phrase I got 43,000 results, with a Philosopher’s Mail article landing near the top. “When it corrects the imbalances and immaturities of our natures, travel reveals its full potential to function as a form of therapy in our lives,” write the PM editors. This idea--that we can reinvent ourselves, or renew our minds, by packing out bags--is as old as Petrarch and as young as Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s pretty persistent, and it has merit. Travel offers a means of unlocking new versions of ourselves or throwing new angles on old problems. That’s the positive view.

The negative view? “Travel as therapy” could also be seen as “travel as escape,” or “travel as transaction.” I’m just as attracted to Eat Pray Love’s vision of Italian Food Therapy or Balinese Love Therapy as anyone else. But there are a few problems with this picture.

The Philosopher’s Mail article goes on to argue that you can’t expect to simply travel anywhere and get what you need from the experience. You’ve got to choose your location based on what you’re after: “We need always to aim for locations in the outer world that can push us towards where we need to go within,” it reads. In other words: Monument Valley for calm, Colombia for dissatisfaction, and Birmingham (of all places) for boredom.

Here’s what I’d like to know: why should we assume that the outer world exists to offer us the particular kind of therapy we feel we require? India is about more than prayer. Italy is about more than food. If we pick travel destinations based on the imbalances we think they can fix within us—instead of keeping our minds open to the complexity of what they can offer—we are treating travel as pill-popping. Self-medication. Something to buy, after we’ve exhausted the local mall or given up on yoga.

Another problem: what about people who cannot afford to escape—how do they get their two weeks of Boredom Therapy in Birmingham? What if your circumstances mean you can’t journey more than a ten-mile stretch to purchase peace?

Viewed through these lenses, travel as therapy starts to seem like a first-world fix to a pretty universal condition.

When I let the bright blue Mediterranean sweep over my feet and lifted my face to the sun, I let myself believe for a moment that my broken friendship—and my grief along with it—had melted into the ocean. But it took four long years after that moment before I gained the closure I needed. Barcelona, for all its beauty, didn’t actually heal me. Maybe travel as therapy is actually the best solution to unblocking your arteries, shocking yourself back to life. But maybe, sometimes, staying is a better therapy—staying with the pain to see where it leads you.

For what it’s worth? In that moment, blinded by sunshine, I felt renewed.