When did you last have a conversation with someone while covertly checking your phone? Us too.
With the virtual world never more than a thumb swipe away, it’s increasingly hard to spend time alone with people without an interfering bleep or message flash.
And yet, being genuinely connected with others has once again been identified as one of the four major pillars of happiness this week.
Connection breeds happiness
Neuroscientist Dr. Robert Lustig tells Lifehacker’s podcast, the Upgrade, that connection is one of the “four c’s” vital to fulfillment in a modern age (the other three are contributing, coping and cooking).
According to Dr. Lustig, “face-to-face connection with friends or loved ones drives neurons that increase empathy, which in turns boosts your serotonin”. The folks at Lifehacker recommend that you “carve out some time every day to interact with someone you care about, IRL, phones down”.
As social beings, it makes sense that reaching out to others makes us happy. Research dating back to the 1970s shows that even small daily interactions with people we hardly know gives us a sense of belonging to a larger community.
Social interactions fire up the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of pleasure hormones oxytocin and serotonin.
“Everyone, even introverts, get a boost of happiness and energy when they interact with other people,” self-styled happiness guru Gretchen Rubin writes for the Huffington Post. “Also, people enjoy almost all activities more when others are involved.”
Solo travellers = more likely to connect
So, how does all of this relate to travelling solo? Well, we know that people who travel alone are intuitively more social. It stands to reason that if you don’t have a pal to talk to the whole time, you’re far more likely to reach out to other people.
“Travellers are by nature open people,” says Californian-based solo traveller Kristin, of the blog Be My Travel Muse. “I couldn’t really imagine sitting at a restaurant in Orange County, where I used to live, and starting a random conversation with the stranger next to me, or getting invited to join a group.
“But on the road in Southeast Asia, sometimes people would see that I was alone, so they’d invite me to join them. I started doing the same when I saw solo travellers.”
Even as someone who used to struggle with social awkwardness, Kristin says this effect of reaching out to others held true for her. In fact, travelling alone completely soothed her anxiety around others because it was so easy to meet people, and she gained confidence in making those connections.
It works in a group of strangers, too
If you’re travelling alone, you’re very likely to develop this “connecting with strangers” scenario that sparks off pleasure hormones. And, away from the distractions of real life, you have more time to share proper, meaningful conversations with those people – leading to richer connections.
These in turn, will fuel your happiness further, and you’ll be more likely to reach out to others when the opportunity next arises.
Read more: sex and sleep are the two keys to happiness
This kind of situation is conductive to group travel, too. Travelling with a new group of people abroad, you’ll likely make far more effort to get to know the strangers around you – and reap the rewards of doing so. Again, you’re separated from the noise of your everyday routine, so the conditions are ripe for forging IRL connections.
This is true whether you’re travelling alone and happen to forge a group of fellow soloists along the way – or, if you deliberately set out in a group of strangers (Flashpacker style).
“Just being part of a new group will make you happier,” says Rubin. “Meeting new people, pushing yourself in a new direction, being part of something”, she says, “cultivates an atmosphere of growth”.