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The feeds you’re coveting belong to the ‘digital nomads’, a travel blogger / freelancer hybrid. This sub-set of millennials congregate in tropical locations where the rent is cheap and the wifi is reliable, documenting their adventures online as they go. You wish you were brave enough to do what they’re doing — to ditch your monotonous life full of generic responsibilities — because it’s plainly obvious that these people are happier and more fulfilled than you. But are they actually?
Lisa Mahoney, a marketer who currently lives in London, moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the summer of 2015. She heard the city had an established community of digital nomads, and was drawn by the image of a huge apartment with mountain views for only £25 (around $30) a week. The scene wasn’t quite what she imagined.
“I had this expectation that I’d be sitting by a pool on my laptop for a few hours a day, cocktail in hand, but all I really did is move my 9-5 routine to a different country,” she said. “In this community 9-5 is the devil. There’s an expectation that if it feels like work, you’re not doing it right. They play up to the perception that life’s a breeze, but in reality these people work hard for very little money. They weren’t free at all.”
South African travel bloggers Chanel Cartell and Stevo Dirnberger echoed her sentiment in a post titled Why We Quit Our Jobs In Advertising to Scrub Toilets, which outlined the less-than-glamorous ways the couple makes ends meet. It quickly went viral, precisely because it undermined assumptions that long term travel is nothing but rice paddies, diamond-dust beaches, and perfect vistas.
The four weeks Cartell and Dirnberger spent in Sweden were some of the toughest of their lives. “We made a ‘wanderlist’ before we left Johannesburg, and on that list was the idea of unplugging for a month,” said Dirnberger. “We got a volunteer job at a campsite in the isolated wilderness, in exchange for accommodation and meals. It was advertised as ‘helping with tourists’ but in reality we were cleaning toilets and doing laundry. We had no connection to friends and family. There were massive lows and it was hugely emotional.” But the couple has learned to flip the negatives and take them in stride, focusing instead on the unique experiences and endless quality time they get to spend together (they’ve only been separated for three hours in the last 19 months).
Not all digital nomads are lucky enough to have a travel partner, though, and loneliness is a theme that came up constantly during these interviews. Mahoney notes that there are “a lot of commitment-phobes in this community. People who don’t want to be tied to a person, place, or job. They want total detachment from everybody and everything. I guess I did, too, at the time.”
A life that’s so at odds with putting down roots is generally lived solo. That must be tough when your Facebook feed is flooded with engagements, weddings, plump-cheeked babies, and home renovations — the milestones of a stable adulthood you’re purposefully opting out of.
British blogger Mel Elderfield, author of If You Wanna Go Just Go, is on the cusp of settling in Australia to make a proper go of it with her on/off boyfriend. “I’m very independent. When we met that attracted him, but I think solo travel has also made me inherently selfish,” she admits. “Who wants a partner who’s going to leave the minute things get tough? It takes courage to stay in one place. I realize that now.”
Nothing tweaks our existential neurosis quite like scrolling through a feed of subtly filtered travel photographs, according to a research study by Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. It’s so easy to forget these accounts are only a highlights reel. You don’t see the nights spent rushing to the bathroom after eating dodgy street food. You’re not privy to uncomfortable bus journeys with broken AC, or when a creepy stranger comes on too strong and there’s nobody around to provide protection.
“I had this website all about how wonderful my life was,” said Elderfield. “I guess it just started to feel very inauthentic.” This sense of feeling fraudulent on some level is widespread. Most of the digital nomads interviewed talked about the huge chasm between their online persona and their day-to-day reality. There’s pressure to be ‘living the dream’ at all times, leaving no room for vulnerability, or the tumultuous experience of simply being a human in the world.
It isn’t only friends and acquaintances from home with expectations, but strangers on the internet. Trolling is widespread and ruthless: “People said some unbelievably personal, hurtful things,” recalls Mahoney. “And I’m not the sort of person who can handle that.” Meanwhile she was also facing bombardment from the other side — her fans and followers. “They were disappointed and angry when things weren’t uploaded on time. I was constantly apologizing for not doing enough.”
Cartell and Dirnberger experience similar pressure via their comments section. “The community opens doors and you want to keep them happy, but it’s difficult” explained Cartell. “One guy was like: ‘Enough of this USA BS. Can you just move on already?!’”
A psychological phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill suggests we all have a happiness set point. Despite triumphs or tragedies, we eventually return to this baseline of contentment.
For Marta Rus, AKA A Girl Who Travels, traveling eventually stopped feeling like the great adventure it had initially been: “It practically became my 9-5, in a way, as it was so familiar,” she said. In other words, she simply adjusted. What was once novel and thrilling became commonplace, which perhaps is comforting on some level, because whether you’re currently Team Nest or Team Roam, you can relax knowing the other option isn’t the solution to lasting happiness either.
Ultimately, being grateful for what we have is the key to cultivating true contentment. The grass, as they say, is greenest where it’s watered.