Why we do stressful things (like traveling) in the name of relaxation

I couldn’t sleep.

The clock read 4:15AM, but I wasn’t tired—at all.

My apartment was in the center of Amsterdam’s Red Light district, so there was plenty to do (but that wasn’t my scene).

Earlier in the night, I had been out and about with new friends I had met a couple of days earlier.

Jacob was in his early thirties and had lived in Amsterdam for some time, though he also went to college here in the states. His girlfriend, Patti, was a free spirit who helped him run a small Airbnb rental business.

This was around 2011 or 2012. They were on the bleeding edge of things.

After partying at one of his parents’ apartments, which took up an entire floor of a gorgeous old building that sat along one of Amsterdam’s famous canals, I headed back to my place—so that I could at least maintain something resembling a ‘normal’ sleep schedule.

But here I was 2 hours later… staring at the ceiling and the retro, red-faced digital clock that graced the room.

The next day I felt like utter shi*t. I was tired and cranky, even though I hadn’t had much to drink the night before. I was still in my first week abroad and hadn’t quite adjusted to the time difference yet.

But that didn’t explain everything. The fact of the matter is that traveling is just straight up exhausting.

You’re in a new environment, so none of your old habits work. You have to think through what you’re going to do, step by step, every time you want to do something as trivial as pouring a glass of water.

“Where are the cups in this kitchen?”

“Hmmm weird, how do I turn on this faucet?”

And you can’t quite communicate with people as clearly and effortlessly as you’d like. Even if they speak something resembling the same language (Britain, anyone?), they probably don’t share the same slang or colloquialisms.

The bottom line is that traveling, while exhilarating and fun at times, is not the most relaxing activity.

Yet, so many of us arrange elaborate multi-stage trips with the explicit goal of "unwinding".

About three years ago my ex-girlfriend and I decided to travel to Europe together. She told me that she ‘needed to relax, needed to destress’—hence the Eurotrip.

But I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical that the trip would achieve the stated aim.

If you need to relax, why would you jump on a plane, fly across multiple time zones and have bad sleep for a week or two?

Sure enough, we were both exhausted on the trip and ready to come home with two or three days to go.

Yet, a year later we were ready to do the same thing again—this time to Germany and Switzerland instead of the Czech Republic and Croatia. 

The stated aim this time? Relaxation.

That’s the funny thing about the human experience. We keep persisting no matter how much less-than-stellar feedback we get.

We both had the visceral, exhausting experience of the year before to draw on... but we pushed forward regardless.

It also suggests that the real purposes of so many of our decisions are hidden beneath the surfaces of our minds, and our verbalized rationales are really just nice little stories.

What were the real purposes of those trips we went on (if not relaxation)? Who knows… We probably both wanted to go because it made us look cool & classy. It was something we could brag about to our friends. Also, in the modern world travel is almost a required activity for anyone who even wants to claim they’re civilized (not that I would be bold enough to make that declaration).

Did it succeed? I got some great photos from the trip that I showed my friends (and family). I also got to pig out on some truly terrific food... and I'll remember the mountains of Switzerland and our hikes there until the day I die. But, at the end of the trip, we both went our separate ways. Traveling is stressful, after all.

Until tomorrow,

Jason

Jason Hreha