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Is Long-Term Travel Selfish?

Insider Guides
by Akila McConnell Jan 8, 2010
Sometimes, escaping the 40-hour-work week can lead to feelings of guilt and seeming self-centered.

I feel like bopping myself over the head for this feeling of guilt that has crept up over me.

My husband and I worked hard for five years to save money for our round-the-world trip, and we continue to work while we are on the road to keep our resumes active. When we were busy traveling, I was thrilled we quit our jobs, sold our house, and meandered about the world. We love the flexibility that comes with travel, the ability to work and play when and where we want.

Yet, as soon as we came home for the holidays, a wave of guilt flooded over me. I see my family and friends working 40-hour weeks, making steady paychecks, and contributing to their communities, and wonder whether we are being selfish by investing so much time and money in ourselves.

The dictionary defines “selfish” as being “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself” or “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” Isn’t that what long-term travelers do?

Staying Home Vs. Exploring the World

When we work, we contribute to the economy and the community; by traveling long-term, we stop contributing to both. The suffering American economy could use the money we spend on our house, our car, and food. The volunteer activities we used to be involved in fell to the wayside.

Aside from our impact on our home country, we harm cultures abroad by creating economies oriented toward tourists and introducing our Western insights and habits into those societies. For example, cultural dances traditionally performed within a certain community for festivals or events, like the Maori haka or Masai dance rituals, are now performed every evening to gaping audiences and buffet diners for tidy sums of money.

So, is long-term travel selfish? Simple answer: yes. We sacrifice the values placed highest by Western society – having a steady job and income, house, and family – to satisfy our individual pleasures.

Selfishness May Be Good

I can quell a bit of my guilt by looking to Ayn Rand’s belief that selfishness is a virtue and:

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern.

By choosing to leave traditional paths and plans, we challenge our belief structure and strengthen our resolve in ourselves. As Rand explained, “[the] [r]ationally selfish man – a man of self-esteem…is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.”

Self-doubt kills the motivation to make any change. Thus, by continuously changing our perspectives and locations as we travel, we get rid of our self-concerns and increase our self-esteem.

Is High Self-Esteem a Bad Thing?

Though we have always been taught that we can do anything if we believe in ourselves, Jean Twenge argues that our generation – people born between the 1970s to the 1990s – are suffering because of that reinforced notion that “the self comes first.”

She names us the Me Generation because we have “never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first.”

Though we “enjoy unprecedented freedom to pursue what makes us happy,” she argues that our high self-esteems and high expectations result in depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness when those expectations are not met.

She claims that the pressure of self-reliance can be stressful to many young people when they realize that they are on their own in a difficult world with few chances for success.

However, unlike most cubicle dwellers, the long-term traveler usually does not have high expectations. Few (if any) of us expect to get famous or rich – actually, most of us expect to spend money traveling and budget appropriately.

Thus, even if we become more confident because we travel, that confidence does not lead to the depression that many others in the Me Generation find because the traveler has voluntarily given up many high expectations in search of a nonconformist lifestyle.

Most long-term travelers are instead looking for that elusive “happiness” through experiences.

Most long-term travelers are instead looking for that elusive “happiness” through experiences, whether that means sitting in a café drinking the perfect cappuccino or climbing the peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Then again, it could be that all of these philosophical principles hide the unvarnished truth: that long-term travelers are selfish and go against the moral ideal of altruism. And, if that is the case, I guess I don’t mind being considered selfish because I am so happy traveling long-term.

Do you think long-term travel is selfish? Share your thoughts below.

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