Why You Want Travel to be Meaningful

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If travel makes you happy why does it need to be meaningful? On its own happiness is dandy, but without a purpose happiness… it feels shallow. We want travel to be meaningful so our experiences are significant.

I’ll prove this by giving you 3 reasons to make travel meaningful, and then list specific ways to add meaning to vacations.

Why happiness isn’t enough

All-inclusive resort empires are founded to help tourists avoid struggling on vacation. The resort provides everything guests need so they can relax. At an all-inclusive the guests buy happiness.

But how many people rave that an all-inclusive changed their lives? None. That’s because meaningful travel, not shallow happiness, influences who you are.

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”     ~Carl Jung

My fondest memory of Japan is teaching children English at a private school. Many of my students were out of control. A slice of my regular workday included piss, vomit, screaming, and belligerence.

Teaching English to a dozen, impatient 8-year-old boys was challenging. I’d stress out before class. I’d worry. And then I’d pull myself together and do a good job. The experience was demanding yet positively influenced the person I became.

Rising to the challenge of meaningful travel isn’t all fun. Sometimes (not always) you have to be uncomfortable in the moment.

So, why would you want travel to be meaningful?

Why to Add Meaning Banner

Reasons you want travel to be meaningful

Your memories last longer

My 80-year-old grandmother still talks about her long-ago trip to South America. She visited long before packaged tours (and tourists) were common. Although challenging, the trip was meaningful to her. She never forgot it.

Stressful situations are memorable and help you make better decisions in the future (unlike lying on the beach being happy). The continual recalling of meaningful experiences means you never forget them.

You discover things about yourself

It surprises me how persistent a meaningful experience is. My mind mulls the situation. I process what happened when I should be doing other things. When I should be sleeping.

Usually I think back on how I felt, reacted; and how I wanted to feel and react. The result of all this mental chewing is self-identification. I confirm my values and define myself as an individual by reflecting on the experience.

Like wiping the steam off a mirror. Meaningfulness allows a look at your reflection.

You learn to value your unique purpose in life

Meaningful experiences are “proof” that we’re doing something right. It’s justification for our ambitions. Take me for example.

My life as a traveler has more reason than my life as an engineer ever did. There are people who think I’m wasting my life by traveling so much (you’re killing a good career, why don’t you have some kids). And from their perspective they are correct. Travel is not meaningful to them.

But it is meaningful to me when I breeze through an airport, win the smile of a local, or bargain for my food in foreign city. Feeling a sense of meaning confirms that I’ve chosen the right purpose in life. I want travel to be meaningful because it lets me know I’m on the right path for me.

Situations that are (often) meaningful

I can’t explicitly tell you what makes travel meaningful. It’s different for everyone but there are some common traits. The following situations are meaningful to me, to my wife Heather, and hopefully to you.

  • Connecting with someone new
  • Deepening an existing relationship
  • Overcoming a challenge
  • Tracing your roots
  • Appreciating the moment

If you want travel to be meaningful then use this (brief) list to plan your next vacation. Traveling is more meaningful when (surprise, surprise) you do activities that promote meaningfulness. Want some examples?

Specific ways to add meaning to your vacation

The key to meaningfulness is that it’s often comes from stressful situations. Travel forces you outside your comfort zone. That’s why travel is the perfect way to discover what’s meaningful to you.

To overcome unsought travel challenges you’ve got yourself, your past experiences, and the potential to grow as a person. Or to fail miserably. *Don’t worry, weaker people than you have survived travel. I have faith you’ll do fine.

  • Get local – Embrace the fact that you are an outsider and connect with local people. Hire a private guide and be curious about his or her life. Talk to restaurant staff to discover their favorite foods. You can make a meaningful connection with people… even if you’re paying them.
  • Give back – If happiness is about taking, then meaningfulness is about giving. Volunteer if that’s your thing. Or go solo and cleanup some beach garbage (the ocean, divers, and I will thank you). Find out what a charity does before donating. Look for the root cause the charity is addressing. Giving is more meaningful when the purpose is specific.
  • Uncover your roots – Plan a vacation around yourself. Discover your history with research & museums, then go further and experience it. It’s powerful to stand where your great great great relatives stood.
  • Cultural immersion – Signup to improve your existing skills, or to learn a new one. Like soccer? See if you can play in the next locals game. Liked supper? Take a cooking class and learn how to make it.
  • Deepen bonds – Traveling with family (or a long-time friends) is meaningful. It’s also challenging & stressful. Despite the strife I encourage you to spend time with the people you love. They won’t be around forever.
  • Slow down – Meaningful experiences connect your past, present, and future. If you are too busy to notice the experience, it may be for moot. Yoga classes or guided meditation are good for slowing down into self-reflection. So is jogging or a long walk through the park.


It’s easier recalling a meaningful travel experience than a happy one. And by adding meaning to a vacation you’ll discover things about yourself, and your purpose. What do you think, is meaningfulness worth it when you travel?

The Stanford research of Jennifer Aaker inspired this post. See The meaningful life is a road worth traveling.


  1. This post is so inspiring!! “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it” – my favourite quote!!!

  2. Great post guys, you totally nailed it. I once was that kind of traveller that wants only to see as many sites as possible, as fast as possible, to move to the next destination. I soon found out though that by travelling that way I didn’t really add anything to my personal experience. Surely some places are more impressive if seen in person, but travel for me is much more than that. The experiences I have during my journey, the people I meet and the connections I make are way more important and make travel meaningful to me.

    • We once did Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize in 2 weeks; it was way too much, way too fast. Sure we enjoyed it and did a lot but we never really made a connection to the countries. As you say, slowing travel down is a personal choice and a good way to make travel more significant.

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