Is wanderlust innate or acquired?

Is Wanderlust Innate or Acquired?

In other terms, are we born with this wish to travel far away, and to many different places (definition from the Cambridge dictionary)? If not, where does this call come from? Why do we travel? Why do I travel? Where does this need come from?

There’s a question I always ask when I talk with someone, whether at a party, a date or even when I first meet new colleagues: do you like travelling? So far only one person answered by the negative. The second question I ask is “Where have you been lately?”, “Where did you go?”, “How was it?”, most of the time I also add “Oh, I’d love to go there” – it seems that anywhere mentioned is somewhere I want to go, bucket list is getting longer and longer each time! And the conversation can go on like this for hours. Literally hours. Yes, I am that one girl sitting in the kitchen, the bathroom or the terrace talking to the same person all night long about travelling. Suffering, if we can call it that, from wanderlust? Me? Well, probably yes.

I do have this very strong impulse to travel. And it seems that it has always been like that for me. Since very young, I talk about travelling and I wish to do it and I’ve been very enthusiastic about this idea from a very young age. I can’t figure out how it can be not to like travelling, because there are so many different ways of doing it, travelling means everything and nothing. Also because travelling is such a big part of my life and interests I always wonder what could keep someone away from liking travelling and living, at different degrees this – oh, so famous now – wanderlust.

The reasons for not travelling, or even willing to do so, might be very personal and linked to the comfort zone, a question of generation or social environment and lack of opportunities. As so few people say they don’t like travelling, I have been wondering if this longing for travelling is innate, are we born with it, or is this something acquired through our experiences and opportunities? Why do we travel, in the end? Is it by nature or is something that we learn to love? Is it something coming from inside or a learnt behaviour? Is it just a trend or a deep need?

Wanderlust, an innate feeling?

If wanderlust is innate then why do some individuals experience it when others never feel this need to explore places?

We know, scientists proved it, that some of our characteristics are innate.  For example, our facial expressions. An experiment showed that born-blind people are reproducing exactly the same facial expression as people who can see. Thanks to this experiment science demonstrated that facial expression is not something we learn by observing our parents but that it is a natural behaviour. It also shows us that not all our behaviours are learnt but some of them are naturally inside of us. The exact same theory was applied to the feeling of wanderlust and its manifestation in behaviour.

Some scientists suggested that wanderlust could be genetic. Yes, something you can’t do anything about, that is part of you! 20% of the population would possess this gene, increasing their curiosity and restlessness. To be scientifically correct, this gene isn’t directly a “wanderlust gene” but its repercussion would be the feeling of wanderlust and the travels as it increases a need to discover and to move. Other scientists pointed that our feeling of wanderlust might come from our history, the more our ancestors – not grandparents or even great grandparents, we’re here talking about the first human beings on earth – moved the more chances we have to feel the need to move as well. A kind of “survival” behaviour as moving was the only way to survive.

Wanderlust, Innate or acquired?

The genetic factor would explain why people that have never travelled nor had the opportunity to be surrounded by travellers, such as explorers like Christopher Columbus or Vasco de Gama, developed this will to go and explore even without knowing where they were going! So there would be, deep inside some human beings, this longing for travelling.

Genetics would also be an explanation for why in a same family the great grandmother never did, nor wish, to travel further than 400km from where she was born – true story, my great grandmother was born in Brittany, never went to Paris and never wished to travel more than that – my grandfather did many world tours – thanks to his job in the navy (this is a story to be told)– aunts and uncles never really left the city, father is fond of travelling, one sister is living a wanderlust life whereas the other sister isn’t. Could this really be explained only by the “genetic” lottery, like the fact some people have blue eyes and other are tall?

It’s hard to tell. Let’s take my personal example, even if I have the feeling that for my part wanderlust is innate, feeling reinforced by the fact that my sister, raised exactly like me with the same travel opportunities and experiences, never had this longing for adventure, nowadays it is very hard to be 100% sure that it is a natural feeling. Because thanks to technology we are surrounded by images coming from everywhere in the world making us dream of places we would never have imagined. Thanks to the society we live in travelling became very easy and simple, and even sometimes, cheap! On my personal case, I was pushed to go and explore, this is something that my parents, my school and even society validated. These “outside” factors can question wanderlust as an innate feeling only? Plus, I hardly believe, that we are only determined by our genes!

Another thing that makes me doubt of the (only) genetic factor for wanderlust is that this phenomenon seems to be much more prevalent than only 20% of the population now, so where could wanderlust come from apart from innate factors?

Why wanderlust?

Why do we have this urge to travel if it is not coming from our genes? Is wanderlust something we learn? Can we learn to like travelling? Is it something that society forces us to develop or that is favoured by the way we live?

The first reasons why human beings travelled were probably because of food, water and later, climate. As the society changed and developed, more and more humans became sedentary, feeling no more need to travel far away. During years and years most people wouldn’t travel, it was dangerous, complicated, as there were no proper roads, and long without the help of technology we have today. But even with the “survival” factor of moving having disappeared and the many difficulties of travelling being so present, there were always people feeling this call for travel and answering to it such, again, as Columbus or in another index Alexandra David-Neel for example! Later on, travelling got easier and people started to travel further, until today where it is democratised and we can go almost wherever, whenever we want and even without moving we can travel thanks to internet, pictures and videos!

The question remains, why do we do it? What are the reasons making us feel the need to travel and pushing us to go far away? I can only make assumptions but I think two things have to be distinguished, the internal factors that push this feeling and the outside factors helping the wanderlust to arise, develop and then transform into a behaviour. However, it is important to note that the internal factors are not innate but developed because of the external factors – or “stimuli” such as family, friends, education, society etc.…

Maslows Hierachy of NeedsFor the internal explanation part, it is very interesting to see that what I call “wanderlust factors” is following the Maslow pyramid through the ages. “Wanderlust” and its following behaviours started with physiological and safety needs: food, water and security. These reasons made the first humans move from place to place. If they weren’t able to move, they were most likely condemned to die. Then travelling became a psychological need. Let’s take the example of our adventurers again, for them going far and discovering new places was a way to gain prestige and a feeling of accomplishment. For the high society travelling was a way to belong, or to show that they belong, to this small part of the population able to afford these trips. Nowadays travelling, and so wanderlust, is mainly a need of self-fulfilment as we don’t technically need to travel – we can experience a lot through technology for example – but we might feel the need to achieve something, maybe to prove ourselves that there are still places to discover, to challenge ourselves and escape the safety of our society? Could the need for adventure and risk (relatively speaking) be the next step of Maslow’s pyramid?

Here’s not the question, but it is still fascinating to see how the reasons behind wanderlust have changed with time, even though I think the basic and psychological needs still impact our need for adventures. Travelling is, for some people, still a safety need as well as there are still needs of esteem and belongingness in the wanderlust we, I, feel! It shows in our use of social medias, for example. There’s a need to belong to this “traveller community” a need to feel accomplished by showing that you went to this or this place.

As I said earlier internal and external factors are closely related and we can’t forget how much external factors impact on our internal needs and choice! On a general level, I noticed that society was for a long time discouraging trips and travelling, most people just followed this imperative and were also dependent on the lack of transport. Until the last 100 years, most people wouldn’t travel and only some of them were pushed to do so but it changed with the arrival of transport means, travel and wanderlust increased as it got easier to go further. Society started to speak about these adventurers and to valorise what they were doing which promoted travelling! The development of media also promoted travelling and made it easier thanks to books, travel guides and then TV. Today, thanks to the internet travelling has never been so easy, you can stay in touch and have all the information you need even from the other side of the world.

The external factors clearly made travelling easier and help the feeling of wanderlust to grow by making people dream and lowering the difficulties of travelling through social decisions: creations of paid holidays, education: teaching foreign languages, economic situation: development of level of life, technological evolution: cars, plane and then even low cost (!).

It is easier to feel that need to travel when we know that we can still keep contact with our “world”, we are able to speak 2,3 or 4 languages and be understood almost everywhere, we have guides and access to an endless mine of information thanks to internet we can jump on a plane and go far (or what was considered as far years earlier) easily.To travel, aeroplane

These elements explain the differences of relation towards travelling between generations and make me believe that wanderlust isn’t only innate but also acquired thanks to our society making it easier in every possible way and pushing us to feel self-fulfilment in travelling. Back to my sister, who never used to like travelling and was always longing for home when we were on holiday with our parents – which always made me mad as I always wanted to stay where we were or at least, not go home. She didn’t appreciate travelling but she wanted to because she had the feeling that it was an “accomplishment” so she taught herself to like that: she jumped on a plane to visit my sister who was living in Thailand at that time, she freaked out but did it, little by little she learnt to love travelling and saw the beauty in it. Whether it was travelling far or close, alone, or with people. She’s now planning her next trip to New York and thinking of coming to visit me in Africa. So I would definitely say, wanderlust can be acquired through experience but more important, through the people we meet. Which makes me question myself, could wanderlust be a kind of virus?

And if wanderlust was a -good- virus?

Wanderlust from birth, wanderlust learnt, but what about a shared wanderlust?

From my perspective wanderlust is a combination of what we are when we are born, keener on travelling, curious and restless, or not, and what society (being parents, family, friends, education) teaches and allows us to do. But there’s a thing about wanderlust, that could explain how it grew so much, that is astonishing, it’s how viral it is.

When someone describes this waterfall or this sunrise at a top of a mountain, when we see pictures of landscapes that we never experienced it seems hard not to wish to go there especially in the world we live in now, particularly for us, Europeans and North-Americans where it is so easy to travel. In these situations, wanderlust looks like a virus, a good one! The Oxford dictionary defines virus by “An infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host”.

Wanderlust is a feeling and can’t be seen even with a microscope but it grows inside each individual as it seems that the more you travel, the more you want to do. I don’t know any traveller who, when coming back from a trip, wasn’t planning the next one because he “met someone who said about this place” or she “realised I always wanted to see that”. It grows like a virus and can be transmitted around you by talking, showing or even making people go for their first adventure.

Is wanderlust innate or acquired?

Wanderlust more than being an innate or acquired feeling is a shared need to be curious, explore, discover, meet. A reflection of the global world we now live in, a world in which borders don’t make sense, as the example of millennials or the “global generation” show us. At very different levels, I believe most of us experience this feeling of wanderlust. “Far away” can mean the other side of the world or just somewhere we’ve never been, travelling can mean taking your backpack and going solo or packing your suitcase and going to the family house with all your siblings and cousins.

What if, in fact, wanderlust was just a way to express our need to escape our day-to-day life in whatever way? To be curious and never fall asleep with the feeling of safety? What if wanderlust was a virtuous circle so we explore more and more and by exploring we know ourselves better? What if wanderlust was a virtuous circle that creates more dreams, laughter, and discovery, and the more we feel it the more open we are?

I believe everybody should have the opportunity to experience wanderlust and go on adventures, just because it changes everything. For the best.

Is wanderlust innate or acquired? Why do you travel? Please comment below.

This article is a personal point of view on the feeling of wanderlust and its result as a behaviour, it reflects my own life, social and educational background as well as the opportunities that were offered to me. This opinion is subject to changes and evolution!



I’m Cloé, french, 26 years old and currently working from Malawi after trying the « métro-boulot-dodo » way of life (subway – work – sleep) in Paris. I firmly believe that it is possible to enjoy working every day from fabulous location! I fell in love with Brazil, I dream about Bali and Costa Rica, run my blog (in french), like to write, take pictures, do yoga and would love to surf again!

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