Does your heart ache at the thought of not exploring the world? You may be experiencing fernweh
It’s a big, wide world out there. To put some numbers to just how big, we’re talking 326 million cubic miles of water, 57.5 million square miles of land, 1,187,049 mountains, 3.04 trillion trees, 8.7 million species, 195 countries, and more than 10,000 cities. How does all that make you feel? Awe-struck? Inspired? Or, perhaps a little melancholic as you yearn for far-flung places currently beyond your reach? If it’s the latter, the Germans have a word that encompasses that longing: fernweh.
Coming from the word ‘fern’, meaning ‘far’, and ‘weh’, meaning ‘pain’, fernweh describes a feeling which is the opposite of ‘homesickness’: a longing for travel. The word is thought to have first been used by Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau, who wrote about his travels around Europe and North Africa. In 1835, he penned The Penultimate Course of the World of Semilasso: Dream and Waking, where he reflected on how he doesn’t experience homesickness and, instead, suffers from fernweh.
Arguably, these days we may have it slightly harder than the Prince. On one hand, high-speed travel can take us globetrotting in a matter of hours. But, with a constant feed of exciting new images of the most glorious places on Earth refreshing at the tap of a finger, it’s no wonder that our longing increases. From Instagram to Pinterest, we can find ourselves stumbling across the most wonderful places, fuelling our dreams and igniting our longing to travel the globe. In fact, social media plays such an important role in our desires that a survey of 78,994 people by travel dating website MissTravel found that 48% choose their travel destination based on what they see on Instagram, and 35% discover new places to visit from the app.
Outside the social media bubble, travel is a valuable tool for taking care of our mental health. It will likely come as no surprise that getting away, and going somewhere new, is linked to a reduction in stress. But, also, visiting awe-inspiring places can give us a great sense of our place on the Earth, helping us to break out of repetitive thought patterns that could be trapping us in difficult mental spaces. And learning about new cultures, customs, and ways of communicating with each other can support our sense of connection with the global community while we’re away, and makes for stories to connect with the people in our lives when we return home.
And the perks of travel last longer than you may think. In fact, one study, published in the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, looked at the influence of cultural exposure on our emotional intelligence. It found links between international travel and an enhanced sense of empathy, attention, energy, and focus.
All that said, the sad truth of the matter is that there are often barriers in place that mean that travel isn’t always possible. Finances, caring responsibilities, work commitments, health, along with a variety of other factors, mean that sometimes reality can scatter our dreams of exploring far-flung places, and bring us straight back down to earth. But that isn’t a bad place to be.
We won’t try to convince you that a trip to the local nature reserve is a replacement for, say, a visit to the Grand Canyon. But there are ways that we can reap some of the benefits of travel, and soothe our ache for new places, without having to go too far.
It may take a bit of research, but there are often hidden gems to uncover near us. One way to do this is to put the word out, and see what you get back. If you’re part of local Facebook groups, try asking people for their recommendations. Visit a library and see if they have any books on local history – they could contain fascinating, quirky tip-offs. Sites like walkingbritain.co.uk and visorando.com can help you find hiking routes nearby, and could be key to stumbling across awesome views through rolling countryside.
And if you are set on turning your longing for a specific far-off place into a reality, you may be able to turn fernweh on its head by fully embracing it. A study from Cornell University looked into how even just the anticipation of an experience can substantially increase our happiness. So, make some plans. We’re not talking about putting down payments or booking flights, if you’re not quite at that stage yet – instead, create vision boards that display beautiful photos of your destination. Tune-in to how you think you’re going to feel when you’re finally there, and add those words to your board. Journal about the trip, reflect on why this place has meaning to you, and how it will feel to finally get there. Hold on to those feelings of anticipation, and revisit your plans in daydreams and meditations.
With so much to offer us, it’s really no wonder that so many of us experience feelings of fernweh at the thought of all Earth’s offerings. But, often, that feeling is about more than just craving a holiday. Whether it’s a break from our routine, a new challenge, a fresh perspective, a personal mission, or a better sense of our place in the world, take a look at the needs you have going on below the surface. They could be trying to tell you about something else worth exploring.