The Science of Wanderlust

By Maria

Ever catch yourself staring out the window, perhaps at 2:15 on a Tuesday, only to realize you’re not really looking at the trees and traffic outside? Perhaps you’re really looking at the ruins of an old Irish castle, hauntingly beautiful in its age and surrounded by rolling green hills. Or perhaps you’re exploring the streets of a small Hungarian village—not understanding a single word around, but overjoyed by the new experience of cobblestone under your feet and the inviting smells from bakeries and little restaurants. Or maybe you’re lounging in a chair under a palm tree, toes in the sand, and watching the brilliant turquoise of ocean water gently roll up the beach and back.

If any of this rings a proverbial bell, you, my friend, might have wanderlust. Especially if this desire to travel and explore is intense, and you’re willing to work with whatever budget you have, the tourism industry would define you as a wanderluster.


And if you’re working with a college budget, you’ll travel however you have to. #HiltonHead2007

As I was dreaming of a beach myself this morning, I wondered what research might have been done on the concept of wanderlust. After all, the 2015 estimated contribution of tourism to the global economy was just shy of $8 trillion. Anything worth that much moola has to be worth studying!

Not surprisingly, the science behind wanderlust is rooted in psychology. A study from 2011 demonstrated that young adults most dedicated to travel typically traveled a great deal as children. On the flip-side, young adults who were not as interested in travel generally did not travel as much when they were kids. I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions, but this certainly makes sense. Early in childhood, that joy from exploration and adventure was set!


My family went to Texas (ca. 1992), and my sister and I picked out those hats. Thus, we were outlaws…obviously.

Another paper, all the way back from 1995 (we’re getting old, kids) first establishes wanderlust as correlated with a “romantic” personality type. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all wanderlusters insist on wine and a dozen red roses for every date. Rather, the term is used broadly as a philosophical approach to personality types, with individuals falling somewhere on a spectrum of romanticism versus classicism. A romantic personality type leans more towards emotions, feelings, and imagination while a classical personality leans more on facts, order, and quantifiable information. Of course, these are not binary, either-or options for personalities. Babies are not gobsmacked by either the romantic fairy or the classical fairy to determine their destiny as either romantic or classic adults (although that notion would be deliciously ironic for a classical baby). However, there is tendency to have more of one personality type over the other, and those with more romantic personalities tend to have a greater sense of wanderlust.



A 2015 dissertation also cited romanticism as a personality trait associated with wanderlust but, in addition, noted that a need for fun, adventure, and novelty were traits tightly linked with wanderlusters. That makes sense, what sort of crazy shenanigans do wanderlusters look for? New experiences!

That’s how I ended up zip-lining through cloud forests and hiking up the sides of volcanoes in Costa Rica (2008).

Interestingly, the dissertation also noted that a desire for “good stories” was an element associated with wanderlusters—in some ways a distinction from typical tourists. Sometimes, the best stories come from an event that went in a completely bamboozling direction and led to an unexpected adventure (without hobbits or dwarves, but perhaps with house elves and wizards.)

I do want to pause here, though, on that thought…adventure. A wanderluster has an adventurous spirit…what is so good about adventure? In 2002, a psychology paper highlighted the use of “adventure” alongside traditional therapy in patients being treated for a variety of personal struggles. The adventure described in the paper usually involved some sort of outdoor challenge that included both a physical and intellectual component along with, interestingly enough, a risk component. The authors noted that patients treated with conventional therapy alongside adventure therapy were experiencing activities that drew out natural leadership skills and the opportunity for goal-setting and -accomplishing. Patients emerged from these experiences with heightened self-confidence and awareness of their physical environment, plus a sense of inner peace. What I take away from this, and apply to my own sense of wanderlust, is that when I travel, I’m breaking out of my day-to-day activities and trying out something completely different. If I’m able to navigate my new world (think exploring in a country where the roads signs are in a different language), maybe on a subconscious level I’m feeling the same sense of accomplishment that comes from completing adventure therapy. It’s a stretch of logic, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In the end, maybe this doesn’t explain exactly what’s behind wanderlust…why do exactly do I want to someday sit on a Himalayan mountain top (…a really low mountain top) and write poetry? Why do I have pictures of Icelandic hot springs and volcanoes book marked for future planning? Why do I love to run and jump headlong into salty ocean waves? Well, maybe it’s my personality. Or maybe it’s our beautiful world.

Until next time, keep exploring!

P.S….fun moments from a few of my favorite travels…



Honeymoon in Florida! My adventure buddy Rob insists he feels a stronger sense of wanderlust in the autumn. Perhaps it’s an ancient instinct to migrate? Birds demonstrate a very distinct seasonal “wanderlust,” or rather migratory restlessness called “zugunruhe.” Controlled by daylength and circadian rhythms, zugunruhe is what prompts migratory birds to begin their travel; but the tendency has been noted, though to a much lower extent, in some non-migratory birds. Perhaps I married the descendant of a nomadic people!

A few different trips to Sweden, some with my mom, some solo. 2009, 2010, 2012.



Harry Potter World at Universal Studios Orlando, 2015…yaaaaasssss… #LifeGoal


Another college road trip, up and down New England, 2007.

Gaspe’ Peninsula of Quebec, Canada, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s