Is our overwhelming desire to travel a real psychological condition or a side effect of tech-driven narcissism? We trace the origins of clinical wanderlust back to 19th-century France.
In the summer of 1886, Jean-Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux, woke up in a local hospital, diabolically exhausted.
Though he had almost no memory of it, Dadas—a dead ringer for the French valet Passepartout from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days—had returned from what was, in anyone’s book, an epic journey.
During the four years’ prior, Dadas went AWOL from the French army; wandered through Prague on foot; was attacked savagely by a dog near Berlin; was arrested in Moscow for resembling a member of a nihilist movement responsible for the assassination of a czar; and subsequently sent to do time in Constantinople before being sent home by French consulate officials.
And for Dadas, it wasn’t even the first time this kind of thing had happened.
But contrary to what you might think, Dadas had not been cast in the 19th century prelude of The Amazing Race. He had walked upwards of 40 miles per day for years—because he was, quite simply, unable not to.
Like every inexplicable epidemic that erupts during certain epochs and disappears just as fast, ‘pathological tourism’ was a baffling phenomenon for the psych world of 19th-century France. While Dadas might have been a poster boy for this fresh mania, he was in fact one of countless cases presenting inexplicable and uncontrollable wanderlust, each victim unable to recall their trajectory, or why they’d felt compelled to start wandering at all.
Where and how had this urge arisen? And more pertinently, has it returned in some abridged form today?
In our Instagram-punctuated, drop-your-life-and-see-the-world-right-now times, the virtues of travel have arguably hit saturation point. Never has the planet been more accessible to the travel-inclined, nor has there been a more palpable urge to ‘escape.’ It makes sense then, 130 years after Dadas’ wild wanderings, that clinical wanderlust has returned to psychiatric vogue.
There’s certainly an epidemic of ‘quantity over quality’ tourism, no doubt facilitated by the proliferation of ‘rack ‘em up’ leaderboards.
In 2000, the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) added ‘dromomania’ to its list: Clinical travel addiction. Sufferers, it declared, had “an abnormal impulse to travel” and were “prepared to spend beyond their means, sacrifice jobs, lovers, and security in their lust for new experiences.”
The description seemed to befit a number of people I regularly brush shoulders with—myself included. After zigzagging the world repeatedly throughout my 20s and 30s, the DSM got me wondering whether I too, in some mild form, was heading the way of Dadas. But I didn’t feel sick.
Travel expert, blogger and entrepreneur Matthew Kepnes—better known as Nomadic Matt—has traveled to over 80 countries and forged a career out of offering other travelers budget travel tips. On paper at least, he certainly seems to be showing symptoms of a certain kind of addiction. But he doesn’t see it as such. “I don’t think travel addiction is a real medical disease but I do think people get the bug—why wouldn’t they?” he says. “Travel is a form of escape for most people. You are in full control of your day and can do anything you want. It’s easy to get addicted to that.”
Montreal-based globetrotter and blogger Carol Lopez has visited all seven continents and adds fresh ports to her manifest yearly. Again, she seems to fit the bill. “I feel the need for change all the time,” she says, but shirks any suggestion of being a travel addict herself. Travel for her remains a passion, one that continues to yield life-defining experiences
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However, Lopez does think she’s seen a type of modern travel ‘addiction’ in action, citing a swathe of cases across her journeys: Folks compelled to ‘do’ each destination, often by the hour, racking up quick selfie snaps before scooting off to the next.
“We live in a world of competition,” she says. “A friend of mine once asked me how many countries I had been to and when I gave him the number, he told me he had seen 48 states in the US. It was strange.”
In our era, there’s certainly an epidemic of ‘quantity over quality’ tourism, no doubt facilitated by the proliferation of ‘rack ‘em up’ leaderboard outfits like the world’s Most Traveled People and the Travelers’ Century Club. But whether or not this sort of behavior ought to be classified as an addiction, or whether it’s merely, as Lopez highlights, a product of competition (in itself, a likely extension of tech-driven narcissism) is tough to pinpoint.
As the world’s preeminent expert on travel psychology, social psychologist Dr. Michael Brein thinks travel addiction is real, but considers it more from a learning perspective.
In the end, this is essentially what it comes down to: Are you having a good time on the road, or a godawful one?
“There are higher order goals that some of us have that we want to satisfy,” he says. “Travel basically opens the door to more of those opportunities and faster—an impending stream of new experiences, the excitement of succeeding and being successful, where you can almost see your self-confidence building by the day.”
It’s when this process goes awry, Brein contends, that travel addiction arises. He too has experienced it: After flying to 50 American states in 50 days as part of an airline competition (plus a jaunt to Belize for a grand total of 40 minutes) he was rewarded not only with a major airline’s gold travel pass, but also his own firsthand taste of pathological tourism. “I’ve been guilty of that,” he says. “But I didn’t suffer from any bad symptoms.”
In the end, this is essentially what it comes down to: Are you having a good time on the road, or a godawful one? Are you feeling full of verve, or is your life crumbling like stale bread?
More crucially, like our good friend Dadas, have you just walked across an entire continent with absolutely no memory of it? (If so, the jury’s in.)
Yes, travel can be ‘addictive.’ It can sometimes border on obsession. And while there’s no doubt that some ‘destination collectors’ have sacrificed love, security, and sanity for the urge to brag that they’ve been everywhere, only they can really deduce what’s motivating them on a deeper level.
Whether this is the product of biology or psychology taps into a much bigger, and much older, debate. Some like to point to the ‘wanderlust gene,’ a biological root that purportedly gives around 20 per cent of us a heightened proclivity to long-haul journeying.
“I think there’s a chemical component to it,” says Brein. “But it’s impossible to do a one-on-one correlation between a certain gene you have in your make-up and a specific behavior—and travel is, after all, involved with a lot of complex behavior.”
As for the whole addiction thing; let’s say it exists, but in a couple of different forms. There’s the buzzword thrown about by dopamine-high turbo-bloggers and compulsive destination collectors; and the real-clinical-deal à la Jean-Albert Dadas, which you just don’t see much of these days.
Forrest Gump was likely the last of Dadas’ ilk. And even he knew when to stop and turn back.
Cam Hassard is managing editor at Caddie Magazine and features writer for Junkee, AWOL, Carryology, Fairfax Media, and more. He’s eaten ant salad in Laos, hauled trucks from NYC to Vegas, and destroyed himself on the Camino de Santiago. Originally from Melbourne, he currently calls Berlin home.