Why travel won’t make you happy

I was bored. Down. Lonely. Aimless.

26 years old and in a cul-de-sac at work, in life, at home. I craved adventure, change, excitement; and most of all I wanted that elusive thing – happiness.

So I did what everyone who gets the “quarter-life crisis” does. I bought a backpack and a ticket to South-East Asia for an invigorating dose of travel.

And I loved it.

Vietnam street food Double-Barrelled Travel


From sipping condensed milk sweetened Vietnamese coffee in the crowded colonial streets of Hanoi to sitting at the open window of a train to Chiang-Mai through the hot Thai jungle, I had the time of my life for two months.

Then I went to Phnom Phen in Cambodia and ran out of steam.

Getting travel burn out

I’d set aside two weeks in the city and its surrounds to relax before flying to the USA to work at a summer camp, and for the first couple of days there in Phom Pehn life was good.

Then once I’d seen all the sights I was right back to where I had started – killing time, stuck and bored.

Foolishly I’d blown most of my money (ahead of the paid summer camp job) so going out wasn’t much of an option, and neither was going somewhere else.

So although I was in an exotic location time passed glacially, ticking by, minute by minute, until I felt myself almost going mad. I read crap novels, wandered the streets and markets, drank beer with my fellow travel bums and burned the days one after the other.

Cozumel Mexico Double-Barrelled Travel

Believe it or not, a life like this can get boring

Finding purpose thanks to a job

All of that changed instantly when I finally landed in the USA and trained to become a lifeguard with American Red Cross to qualify for my summer camp position as a sailing instructor. I worked my arse off and passed the course, then it was six weeks of the best job I have ever had.

At the end of my travels, I felt happy – because of a job.

That’s kind of weird, considering I had quit a job to travel and supposedly find happiness. And I don’t think I’m alone having the thought that escaping the 9 to 5 is the answer to life’s troubles.

We are bombarded at every level of media by images and blogs and opinions about ‘getting way from it all’ and ‘finding yourself’ attached to the romantic idea and ideals of travel.

Hopping on a plane, strapping on a backpack – that’s a passport to the uncharted land of happiness where your life will make sense and your dreams come true.

But I don’t believe that anymore. Travel doesn’t make you happy. Work does.

Remarkable cave Tasmania Double-Barrelled travel

Work makes me happy… and so does Carmen

Why travel won’t make you happy

But that’s good work, mind you. The kind that you find stimulating and would do for free if it really came down to it.

The kind of work I wish I had the guts, foresight and imagination to do when I was stuck in the doldrums on Phnom Pehn all those years ago.

A lot of people Carmen and I have met in recent months have remarked something to the tune of “I’d go mad if I travelled for as long as you.”

At last count, 16 months, it’s a very long period of time and we are gearing up to head to Bali at the end of this month.

My desk space Double-Barrelled travel

My office space in Cuenca, Ecuador

So how did we stay sane when travelling long-term?

Firstly, Carmen handles the money, so a repeat of my Cambodian lassitude is unlikely. But mostly, we avoid holiday blues through sheer bloody hard work, paid and upaid, deadlined and delightful.

On the personal side, I keep a diary and have art materials with me at all times so I can sketch and jot down my impressions of the places we explore.

I find that this gives me a framework through which I can enjoy my experience. If I had a time machine, I would drop a Moleskin through the rift in the space-time continuum to my old self and make him write.

Writing keeps me at my happiest

Writing is something I now aim to do every day, and over the course of our last trip I finished my first novel and am now writing a second – wish me luck on the submission front!

Carmen’s hacking away on an e-book and we’re also planning to write one together later this year.

On the professional side, Carmen and I launched our writing business Red Platypus last year and it’s going great guns with lots of clients and work to keep us busy.

A typical day for us now is working in the morning and exploring in the afternoon; a great balance of business and pleasure.

All of these elements add up to something I once underestimated the importance of having when you travel long term – a purpose.

Writing a novel Double-Barrelled travel

Organising my novel

Life is more satisfying when you’re achieving something

Too often I think we can fall into the trap of thinking that the best thing in life would be to have nothing to do.

To recline in a deck chair on some Caribbean beach, stress free and living easy, a cocktail in one hand while the other strokes the fine-grained sand.

Only then could we be happy.

But for me, I think that’s a load of bollocks. My time on the road has taught me again and again that although travel is an intense, immensely rewarding experience, to succeed in doing it long term there has to be something more – and there’s no avoiding the word ‘work.’

Relaxing beach Mexico Double-Barrelled travel

Sipping cocktails on the beach in Mexico = happy

Make sure your work is something you love

Now, that work has to be the thing that animates you. I left behind a good job at the BBC in London to do this, and I don’t regret it for a second.

I love to write, to travel, to dream, and to work hard all at the same time. I have come a very long way from being down in the dumps in Cambodia, all because I’ve realised that work, not escape, is the answer to life’s daily challenge.

There is a sharp new point to all of this.

You may have already noticed… Carmen and I have launched a new-look Double-Barrelled Travel that we think not only looks fab – thanks designer Kristin! – but also sets us on a new course as bloggers and travellers.

Our aim is still to inspire you to travel far and wide as much as possible and grab life by the short and curlies.

But we’re also going to balance that with tips and tricks for how to work as a ‘digital nomad’ on the road, find new and better ways to tackle your dream projects and find fulfilment in a life less ordinary.

So, let’s get to work!

Is there any topic you’d like us to write about? Let us know in the comments below!

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

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