Here’s a question:
If you couldn’t post about your vacation on Facebook or Instagram, and if you were forever sworn to secrecy about where you were going, would you plan your vacation differently?
Or, to ask the question differently, is telling others about your vacation a key component of where you choose your vacation?
Many of us assume that vacations are inherently fun and enjoyable experiences, that by their nature make us happier. But vacations are much like the holidays, in that they are purportedly times for fun and celebration, but they are often the source of underlying stress and anxiety. The reality is that studies have shown that while vacations do make us happier leading up to the trip, vacations often have little to no effect on our happiness during or after the trip.
And since vacations are usually expensive, that means a lot of people are spending a lot of money on something that is equal parts stress inducing and not likely correlated with happiness.
Vacations are expensive, stressful, and don’t create happiness.
So why do it?
Perhaps what we seek when we go on vacation isn’t a pleasurable experience or an activity that leads to happiness, but rather something else. That something else is the ability to convince other people that our lives are fun and interesting. Doing that is a form of status and prestige. And for many people, it is the most important form of status and prestige they possess.
Going on vacation is a status symbol. The bigger and more exotic the vacation, the more valuable it becomes as a status symbol.
Loading up the camper and going to your nearby state park may be a wonderful way to spend a way a week, but it has almost no value as a status symbol. Traveling to Europe, visiting their natural wonders, and posting pictures of you with a smile on your face in front of them – that might just make your neighbors feel jealous. And that’s what transforms your vacation into a status symbol.
Some people buy Porsches, others buy McMansions.. And plenty of folks go to Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal and post the pictures on Facebook.
Posting on social media is a way of saying, “what I’m doing or thinking right now is important. Indeed, I am important.”
A twitter study showed that the enthusiasm in vacation tweets was strongly correlated with the distance someone was traveling away from home. Or, stated another way, the more exotic the location, the more excited we are to share it on social media.
There’s nothing intrinsically more significant about places farther away from home than those nearby. Whether the Grand Canyon is more impressive the Himalayas is not important. What is important is that visiting the former is a weaker status symbol for an American than the latter.
The best status symbols are more rare and harder to acquire. If it isn’t costly in time or money, then it’s not special, and it’s not a status symbol.
Enjoying time in nature is inherently pleasurable. But if the joy of spending time in nature were the real reason for our desire to travel, then surely a local trip to nearby natural wonders would be preferable, as getting there would be cheaper and less stressful. Most people never bother to visit all the state parks in the places where they live their entire lives. They never bother to enjoy the beauty right in front of their eyes, even as they pine to enjoy the beauty of nature a continent away.
Of course, some might argue that the reason we like exotic places over the familiar is their novelty. And there is some partial truth to that. Many of us genuinely like experiencing new things. But it is only a partial explanation of why we like to travel.
80% of the world eats insects as a regular part of their diet, and insects can be found, cooked, and eaten at almost no cost here. But Americans have little interest in that kind of novelty. We’re more interested in certain forms of packaged novelty in contexts that allows us to feel more worldly. Telling friends you ate insects purchased from a street market in Shanghai adds to your status.
Telling your friends you eat bugs in Denver lowers your status.
If you want novelty and cultural differences, a blue-state hipster from Brooklyn visiting rural Alabama or Texas would find that he or she probably has less in common with someone in Childersburg than he or she has in common with a resident of Venice or Hong Kong.
Did you know that Childersburg claims to be the oldest city in America?
Certain forms of novelty create social status that we can share with our friends; others do not.
The ones that have created that social cache become tourist destinations; the ones that fail to create that social cache are not.
Travel isn’t about novelty or beauty or relaxation. It’s about status.
And that’s all I have to say about that.