These “voluntourists” helped remove barbed wire fence from a Wilderness Study Area in honor of National Public Lands Day. ©Bureau of Land Management

On my last travel vacation, I didn’t plant a tree, dig a well or paint a fence. I simply walked, observed and “absorbed.” I’m wondering now if my lack of industriousness should make me feel guilty—not because I took the time off to go on vacation, but because I didn’t go to work on vacation.

Just a decade or two ago, the quintessential image of “vacation” in travel ads and brochures was a hammock suspended between two trees and an overturned book, or a lounge chair with an ocean view and an umbrella drink. Today’s travel websites, however, are more likely to show pictures of people with their shirtsleeves rolled up and work gloves pulled on, smiling as they carry buckets or wield hammers. It now seems that if our travels don’t multitask—if they don’t combine a vacation with doing good works—then we’re thinking about our “time off” entirely wrong.

Survey says it’s what we want

According to a survey of Condé Nast Traveler magazine readers that was reported in the April 2010 issue, in travel today “we want experiences that transform us; places that offer creative opportunities. We want to give as much as we get, hence the explosion in volunteer travel.” Indeed, travel companies and service organizations have responded to that market need in a big way. For instance, a Google search of “volunteer vacations” will turn up thousands of opportunities, including tutoring Native American children in Arizona; building a house for a family in Bamenda, Cameroon; or removing invasive plants on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos; among thousands of other choices. You will, however, have to pay for the “privilege” of providing this manpower—usually to the tune of at least $1,000 or more, if you include the cost of your airfare.

It wasn’t long ago that the quintessential image of “vacation” was a lounge chair with an ocean view. ©Richard Walker, flickr

Science backs it up

But what you receive for that price tag may be far more than calloused hands and whitewash-stained shirts. Doctors and psychotherapists believe that combining travel with volunteer work physically challenges you in positive ways and lifts your soul. They say that research shows that people who give to others gift healthier, happier lives to themselves. In fact, a National Institute on Aging study titled “Americans’ Changing Lives” followed more than 3,600 people from 1986 to 2002. The findings revealed that those who did volunteer work coped better with age-related difficulties than those who didn’t do good works.

Similarly, Paul Arnstein, RN, PhD, a clinical nurse specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that people with chronic pain experienced less discomfort, disability and depression when they spent time helping others. And according to Jordan Grafman, PhD, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, brain scans show that the same structures that are activated when you get a reward are the same ones that are triggered when you give. In fact, they’re stimulated more when you give. That activation releases feel-good chemicals—chiefly dopamine—that set off a surge of physical energy.

When we do good deeds, then, we’re rewarded with a dopamine pulse, making our moods improve and our feelings of sadness lessen. So while the community you work with gets a tangible benefit, such as access to water or a new garden, you get happy.

On my last travel vacation, I simply observed and “absorbed.” ©John T. Andrews

The right to relax

Although “voluntourism,” as it’s now called, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in international adventure travel, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an improvement on or is superior to a more traditional vacation. Critics point out that voluntourists often come for only short stints—usually a week or two—and leave without accomplishing much. It’s sometimes unclear whether the work voluntourists perform will be of any significant benefit to the local community or whether those types of projects only serve the egos of the tourists themselves. It could be that unless you have very specific skills to offer for a short period of time, a tour company could do more good with the amount of money you’d pay for a more relaxing, traditional vacation than you can do yourself by pounding nails or reading to a student for only a week.

On my last travel vacation, I didn’t work to alleviate a social issue, such as poverty or lack of health care; I didn’t create peace in the world or beauty on the land. Instead, I did a lot of watching. I thought, I read, I ate and I sat. I guess if I had to cast my vacation activities in a way that would take away some of my guilt, I could say I polished a national park bench with my backside.

What do you prefer to do on your travel vacations: participate in a community project or just relax? By expecting a vacation to help transform the world—and make us feel good doing it—do you think we’re asking too much of our travels?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,