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. . . and Portable Serenity

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B02

Few industries are supposed to have more to look forward to than the travel industry. We hear that by the year 2020, the skies will be filled with gigantic double-decker airplanes, and everyone will be spending a sizable portion of their income and even their time going somewhere else.

Despite these predictions, my guess is that more and more of us will find the confidence to stay at home, and that after peaking around 2015, the leisure travel industry will go into gradual but terminal decline. Weeds will grow in the atriums of the world's big airports and vast concrete hotels will stand empty by azure shores. We will by then have grasped what is essential to successful travel: We will have understood that our deepest problems and anxieties are not resolved by transporting ourselves somewhere else.

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The prospect of a vacation can usually persuade even the most downcast that life is worth living. Aside from love, few events are anticipated more eagerly, or form the subject of more enriching daydreams, than our vacations. They seem to offer us perhaps our finest chance to achieve happiness outside the constraints of work. During the long working weeks, we can be vitally sustained by our dreams of going somewhere else, a place with better weather, more interesting customs and inspiring landscapes -- a place where it seems we stand a chance of finally being happy.

But of course the reality of travel seldom matches the daydreams. The tragicomic disappointments are well known: the sense of disorientation, the mid-afternoon despair, the arguments, the lethargy before ancient ruins. When we look at pictures of places we want to go and see (and imagine how happy we would be if only we were there), we are inclined to forget one crucial thing: that we will have to take ourselves along with us. That is, we won't just be in India/South Africa/Australia/Prague/Peru in a direct, unmediated way; we'll be there with ourselves, still imprisoned in our own bodies and minds -- with all the problems this entails.

By 2020, we stand to recognize that our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic or material goods is critically dependent on first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, for self-expression and respect. We will not enjoy -- we are not able to enjoy -- sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment, or when we remember that our career is not heading in the direction we would like it to. The key ingredients of happiness remain stubbornly psychological.

The travel industry conspires to make us forget this essential truth. It promises us that happiness can be attained by changing the color of the sky. But no one was ever cheered up by a beautiful location for longer than about 15 minutes -- unless, that is, they were ready to be happy anyway.

By 2020, what will be essential to travel, if you must undertake it, is a calm heart and a satisfied mind, and an awareness that we cannot solve most of our ills by changing locations. For those who stay at home, Pascal's famous aphorism will be the guiding light: "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."

Author's e-mail:adb@netcomuk.co.uk

By Alain de Botton, the author of seven books, including "The Art of Travel" (Vintage), who lives in London.


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