Some people are always planning their next trip, whether it’s a weekend getaway close to home or a long stint to an exotic locale. This is especially true of the happiest retirees, who don’t skimp on vacations or adventures and are constantly pursuing new travel experiences. Maybe you know someone like this, or maybe that someone is you.
What’s interesting is that the travel bug may not just be an itch that needs scratching periodically; new science suggests it could be part of genetic makeup.
These days, we have a word for people who are travel junkies – we say they have “wanderlust.” First appearing in English in the early 1900s, the word is Germanic in origin and means a “passion to wander.” No doubt you or someone you know fits this bill: constantly on the move, tattered passport in hand, leaving at home a refrigerator speckled with magnets from all 50 states.
It’s almost as if the need to travel is an impulse for these people. What’s interesting is that scientists now think that this isn’t just a personality trait – we may be genetically predisposed to wanderlust.
Just last year, a handful of scholarly articles were published which described a “wanderlust gene.” Research on the issue was steeped in science, and identified the gene as “DRD4-7R.” This is a variation on a gene we all have, “DRD4,” which responds to dopamine levels in our brains and then influences our behaviors.
Scientists found that about 20 percent of the population have the “7R” component of this gene and that these people had more “restlessness and curiosity” than their non-7R peers. Researchers posited that these traits lead 7R people to engage in bigger risks, including exploring different places.
Back to dopamine, this neurotransmitter serves to urge us towards new experiences and then prompts us to seek them out again and again. In a nutshell, it’s the bigger-better-faster-more chemical, and its effect on our behavior can be far reaching. Researchers believe the 7R addition to the everyday DRD4 gene and the resulting effect on dopamine levels are correlated with having wanderlust.
One interesting finding from the research is that while 20 percent of us have the 7R component, the distribution of those having this addition to our DRD4 gene is not consistent worldwide. There are cultures and populations where the 7R addition is much more prominent, and others where it is scarce. For instance, there is a greater incidence of the DRD4-7R gene in South and North Americans, and a lesser incidence in descendants of Europeans who came over to settle those areas.
This uneven spread may be the result of evolutionary factors from a culture’s recent history. Meaning, if your family just moved to a brand-new country with new experiences, it makes sense that you wouldn’t feel the same thrill-seeking need to explore as people who have been rooted in a place for generations.
From other scientific perspectives, the function of this genetic variant goes back even further – to our hunter-gatherer days, when the members of a tribe were rewarded by wandering new territories with new food sources and even increased survival and propagation rates.
According to some researchers, the DRD4-7R gene kicks up thrill seeking because it boosts our need for novelty. And we all crave thrills to some extent – whether braving a roller coaster, pushing your poker chips all in at the table or doing extreme sports like skydiving. But scientists think that the 7R variant may kick our need for adrenaline rushes up a notch.
Others remain skeptical, pointing to the longstanding belief that we are made up of our genes and our experiences. In the science world, this is called the nature versus nurture debate. It seeks to answer the questions surrounding just how much of who we are is steeped in our DNA or learned from our life experiences.
So, are we be born wanderlusters? Is the need to travel innate, or do we pick it up from friends and family along our lifetime? While some science seeks to explain the genetic component, no doubt the influences we experience as children and young adults also shape our desire to see the world. For me, growing up in a family of avid campers and hikers certainly shaped my love for the great outdoors. Could it be that both genes and experiences play a role? I’m not a scientist, but I’d venture a guess at yes.
No matter where the need to explore comes from, one thing is undoubtedly true – the best cure for a case of wanderlust is travel. This is especially true as you contemplate and enter retirement when the world truly becomes your oyster and a boost in happiness is just a trip away. You can go as near or far as you want, but take my advice and go.