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The Tao of Travel

The Tao of Travel

The Tao of Travel

    Against all odds, I became a world traveler in my 25th year.

    It began, as all things inevitably do, with a girl. I thought it was ever-lasting love. She was setting out for a year abroad — a summer in Germany, then an academic year in England. I decided, halfway through our summer apart, that I’d join her in England.

    Ah, youth.

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    The relationship didn’t even last until my departure date, but with tickets bought, baggage acquired, traveler’s cheques already paid for, I decided, “Why not?”

    Best decision I ever made.

    What I learned in my year abroad, besides the lessons of the healing of a broken heart and the awakening of a real relationship (for in London I met the woman I’d be with the next 7 years), besides the proper way to indicate the number “two” to a British person (hold your thumb and forefinger up; the typical US “V” with the index and middle finger means something rather else indeed in Britain, especially if your palm is facing you), besides the joys of hostel living and on-the-cheap backpacking (ah, Prague…) — what I learned was something simple and liberating, something I call “the Tao of Travel”.

    The Tao of Travel is short — no epic poems here to pass down through the centuries, no book-length treatises explaining the finer points of language, no silky-voiced narrator reading the audiobook. It goes, simply, like this:

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    “What the [expletive] do I care?”

    I take it you’ll work out which expletive easily enough — it’s hardly the most important part. Not worth offending anyone’s content filter over. You could, really, drop it, or replace it with “heck” or “doodlydoo”. In my life, though, it was definitely an expletive.

    Now, that may seem simple, and it is — but not too simple. It was a kind of mantra I chanted to myself when I was about to excuse myself out of the very kinds of experiences I had decided to travel for in the first place.

    Here’s an example: It’s 11:00 pm. Pubs in London close at 11:00 (or did when I was there, circa 1996), and I have to be at work at 7:00 am. But clubs are open several hours later, if you don’t mind the price of admission and the exorbitant cost of beer (served in bottles, not from draught). Inevitably, someone suggests we hit a club.

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    My inward response: “Well, I have to get home, I have to go to work tomorrow and if I stay out late I’ll be tired and cranky and… eh, what the [expletive] do I care?”

    My outward response: “Sure, let’s do it!” Because, really, did I come to London to chop tomatoes for sandwiches (I worked in the cafe at the National Gallery), or did I come to hit late-night clubs in Camden Town?

    The Tao of Travel is, I think, a fair sight more compelling than that old chestnut, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. First of all, the Romans drive really small cars like insane people, and I don’t even own a really small car. Second of all, I think traveling should be about something more than doing what the locals do.

    I mean, don’t even think about doing what the tourists do. I’m not advocating that horror. But traveling is about experiencing things new and fresh — something the locals simply can’t do. After all, you are a local, when you’re at home. How exciting is that?

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    And really, going well beyond what the locals do is not only valuable for you, the traveler, it’s valuable for the locals themselves. Travelers — real travelers, travelers with a sense of derring-do and adventure, and a bit of the Tao of Travel about them — give people a chance to show off, to experience their everyday surroundings as if they were fresh and new. You can easily take that old ruin on the side of the hill for granted — it is, after all, just a place where teenagers go to drink and make out — until some traveler passing through asks you what it is. Ah, there’s a story to be told…

    But that story only gets told to the traveler who asks himself (or herself), when faced with a hundred reasons why this side-trip or that diversion or those few more hours out in the face of a busy day are a bad idea, asks herself (or himself), “what the [expletive] do I care?”

    And that’s the Tao of Travel.

    Or at least my Tao of Travel. With summer — and that means vacations — fast approaching, we here at Lifehack decided to devote this month to the theme of travel. So for the next few weeks, look for tips, advice, and maybe, just maybe, a little Tao.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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