Modern philosopher Alain de Botton has revised his best-selling 2002 book The Art of Travel, with a new chapter on how travel can improve our mental wellbeing.
At the back of The New Art of Travel, which is published by Penguin and sponsored by Airbnb, is a chapter called A Psychological Atlas. The idea is that different destinations could be prescribed by “psychotherapeutic travel agencies” as a means to better you as a person.
De Botton recommends travelling to specific places in the world to help you confront certain aspects of yourself – you think all you are craving is sun, for example, when actually what you need is a place to help you deal with your anxiety.
“We want calm and we want to recover contact with a more carefree version of ourselves,” he writes. “It may sound trivial but it’s deeply serious to seek a more pagan, less hardened existence.”
In this instance, he recommends a trip to Pefkos Beach in Rhodes. “When it is so hot, there is no point trying to read – or even think too much. One is merely in the present.”
In an article on The Philosopher’s Mail, De Botton writes: “At its deepest level, travel can assist us with our psychological education. It can – when approached the right way – play a critical role in helping us to grow into better versions of our normal selves.
“When it corrects the imbalances and immaturities of our natures, travel reveals its full potential to function as a form of therapy in our lives.
“But in order to work a therapeutic effect, we need to change how we go about choosing our destinations. We should recognise that we’re badly served here by the travel industry, which cuts the world up into material categories almost entirely unattuned to the needs of our souls.
“It will lay before us options like ‘outdoor fun,’ ‘family adventure’ ‘culture weekends’ or ‘island hideaways’ – but leave it unexplored quite what the point of these destinations might be when considered from the point of view of our psyches.”
De Botton says: “The outer journey should assist us with the inner one.” His Psychological Atlas also offer remedies for dissatisfaction, snobbery, inhibition, impermanence, thinking and stress.
“It’s so easy to focus on what is missing from our lives and what others around us have achieved that still eludes us,” he writes. “What we need is a little perspective on how fortunate we are on a global scale. Travel has the capacity to make us more grateful, by opening our eyes to how most people on this planet are forced to live.”
As a tonic to our dissatisfaction, he recommends time in Comuna 13, in San Javier, Medellin in Colombia. “There are no street lights. Girls of 12 are selling themselves on street corners. The police will rob and possibly rape you. Guns go off hourly. A gash on the leg from a ragged piece of metal or broken glass could prove fatal. A luxury would be a biro, some toothpaste, a clean sheet, a door with a lock.”
While a trip like this might be a bit extreme, you could always try visiting an orphanage in Kolkata or a slum in Nairobi.
In The Philosopher’s Mail he writes: “No one has yet written a psychological atlas of the world, outlining the so-called psychological virtues of places, but it’s a project that urgently needs to be undertaken.
“Such an atlas would align destinations with their inner potential. For example, we’d see that the Utah desert is both a physical destination – made up of 200 million-year-old stones that stretch out as far as the eye can see in a soothing pink hue – and a psychological one: capable of functioning as a goad to perspective, an aide to shift away from preoccupations with the petty and the small-minded towards a terrain of greater calm and resilience.”
“In the future, we would ideally be more conscious travellers – aware that we were on a search for places that could deliver psychological virtues like ‘calm’ or ‘perspective,’ ‘sensuality’ or ‘rigour’.
“A visitor to Monument Valley wouldn’t just be in it for a bit of undefined ‘adventure’, something to enjoy and then gradually forget about two weeks later; travelling to the place would be an occasion fundamentally to reorient one’s personality.
“It would be the call-to-arms to become a different person; an 8,000 mile, £3,000 secular pilgrimage that would be properly anchored around a piece of profound character development.”
Other trips he prescribes include:
The Capri Hotel in Changi airport – for Thinking
The Corner Shop in Kanagawa-ken, Yokohama, Japan – for Shyness
Cafe de Zaak, Utrecht, the Netherlands – for Relationships
In The New Art of Travel he writes: “Travel can be a time of fruitful revenge for the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the ordinary run of life.”
In an article for The Telegraph, Anna Hart investigates why so many of us can feel disappointed by our holidays and takes advice from De Botton on where to go next. He prescribes Detroit, a run-down city in the US, to help her gain perspective in her life.
Hart writes: “An industrial boomtown which became an economic disaster zone, declining at a rate where it lost a quarter of its population in a decade, doesn’t seem like a good place to go for a holiday.
“On the contrary, says Alain, where better to ponder the concept of impermanence, to come to terms with the fact that I have no idea what the next five years will bring? ‘The overwhelming tone of the world is upbeat, cheerful, optimistic – yet there can be something comforting about a sight or experience that confirms our most morbid, innermost thoughts,’ he says.”
Did it work? Hart says yes. “In the big, shiny, economically successful cities like London, Paris, New York and LA, young people and new businesses are being suffocated by high rent, and financial woes. In Detroit, people can afford their dreams and I return after a week feeling like I’ve been bathed in bright-eyed optimism. It really was just what I needed.”