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The Call of the Unknown

Exploring our longing for adventure

Pixabay (creative commons - adapted)
Source: Pixabay (creative commons - adapted)

The summer holidays are almost upon us. For many people with the means and the inclination, this means a frisson of anticipation as they look forward to plans for travel and adventure. Indeed, the idea of ‘going away’ on holiday is pretty standard these days, even if only for a brief weekend getaway. No doubt the allure of these trips is multifaceted. For people in places like the UK, with its habitual gloom and picnic-threatening rain, the likely chance of a dose of warm sunshine is always a draw. Add to this the opportunity to relax in pleasant surroundings, and the appeal is even more evident.

But amidst these more indulgent, comfort-seeking reasons is a mysterious and potent force that is often underappreciated — the call of the unknown. Usually, human beings enjoy predictability and stability, to an extent at least (so long as it’s not too boring or stifling)1. We are mostly creatures of habit and routine (although of course people vary temperamentally in that respect). But not always. We also have a deep need to counterbalance this stability with periods of novelty and change, of testing our limits and expanding our horizons. And perhaps above all else – beyond thoughts of sun, sand, and sea – this drives our yearning to travel to new lands.

The call of faraway places

Throughout history, people have dreamed of fleeing their burdens and responsibilities, and taking flight to far-flung places. Romantic visions of exotic adventures, limitless possibilities, and the chance to reinvent oneself anew all suffuse the enticing idea of escape. And particularly for some people, and at certain times, these dreams can take on the character of deep yearning, a potent longing for the unknown. Such cravings have a name, although it may not be familiar to English speakers: Fernweh.

It’s unfamiliar because it is an ‘untranslatable’ German word, for which we lack a precise English equivalent – meaning that English has a ‘semantic gap’ in that respect, which is what makes it untranslatable2. I’ve recently been researching such words, particularly ones relating to well-being (as a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving ‘positive lexicography’, as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details). Such words are significant, as they represent phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture, but have been recognised by another culture.

In this case, German ingeniously combines pain or woe (Weh) with distance (Fern). It thus refers to the alluring ‘call of faraway places’3. This may be anywhere that one misses and longs for, including one’s homeland. But equally, and more allusively, it can apply to lands unknown, a strange ‘homesickness’ for a place one has not yet visited. In this sense, it can function as a counterpart to Heimweh (‘regular’ homesickness). Indeed, many people may experience the two emotions in swift succession or even conjunction – yearning for adventure, yet at the same time missing the comforts of home4.

This is not the only German word pertaining to this kind of yearning. There is of course the kinship term Wanderlust, which has already entered English as a loanword. In literal terms it denotes a desire (Lust) to hike or roam (Wander), rather than wandering per se. However, it has come to mean a longing to wander the world, untethered to any specific place5. Although this is imbued with romanticism and excitement, there is also a melancholic undertone, reflecting a general dissatisfaction with one’s current situation. After all, if we were wholly content, would we yearn to be elsewhere?

The power of longing

Yet we still cherish these longing glances over the horizon, and the tantalising promise of adventure, even though such feelings are inherently ambivalent and bittersweet. One might even view these emotions as integral to a full and flourishing life. Such a view may run counter to common-sense assumptions about well-being, which can easily associate this solely with positive, subjectively pleasant emotions. After all, that perspective has to a large degree shaped my own field of positive psychology, hence the name.

However, more recently, scholars have begun to appreciate the extent to which flourishing might also involve more complex, ambivalent emotions6. My colleagues and I refer to this work as ’second wave’ positive psychology7. Positive psychology initially defined itself by a concern with ‘positive’ qualities and experiences, and was successful in drawing attention to their importance. However, once this foundation had been established, researchers were then enabled to reflect critically on the very notions of positive and negative. This includes the paradoxical-sounding possibility that negatively-valenced feelings, like sadness or boredom, may actually have a positive role to play in flourishing8.

And certainly, one can make the case that ambivalent feelings such as longing – as reflected in Fernweh and Wanderlust – do too. Indeed, longing is the very definition of ambivalence, being ‘a blend of the primary emotions of happiness and sadness’9. More evocatively, it has been described as ‘an emotional state suffused with a melancholic sweetness’10. The melancholy lies in the sorrowful fact that we are set apart from that which we love. But a tantalising sweetness may hopefully be found in the redemptive possibility that we may somehow be (re)united.

Think how precious is this kind of sensibility. It is the hallmark of dreamers and wanderers, poets and artists. It drives people to conjure utopian visions of better worlds, and to strive to create them. It underpins philosophies and policies of progress and evolution. And it’s there when we plan our holidays, and set sail for distant lands. We feel the call of the new, the strange, the unfamiliar. We may not fully understand why, but we sense vaguely that the adventure may redeem, change, or uplift us in some vital way that we cannot predict. We travel in hope, and that is a good thing.


[1] Florence, A. C. (2000). The Concepts of Habit and Routine: A Preliminary Theoretical Synthesis. The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(1_suppl), 123S-137S.

[2] Lehrer, A. (1974). Semantic fields and lexical structures. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co.

[3] B. Gabriel, ‘The unbearable strangeness of being: Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and the ethics of the Unheimlich’, in Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, ed. B. Gabriel and S. Ilcan (New York: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 149–202, at 155.

[4] R. Diriwächter, ‘Heimweh or homesickness: a nostalgic look at the Umwelt that no longer is’, in Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt, ed. R.S. Chang (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2009), 163–184.

[5] T. Sager, ‘Freedom as mobility: implications of the distinction between actual and potential travelling’. Mobilities 1, no. 3 (2006): 465–488.

[6] Lomas, T. (2018). The value of ambivalent emotions: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology. doi: 10.1080/14780887.2017.1400143

[7] Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive-negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.

[8] Lomas, T. (2016). The Positive Power of Negative Emotions: How to harness your darker feelings to help you see a brighter dawn. London: Piatkus.

[9] O. Holm, E. Greaker, and A. Strömberg, "Experiences of Longing in Norwegian and Swedish 4- and 5-year-old Children." The Journal of Psychology 136, no. 6 (2002): 608-612, 608.

[10] B. Feldman, "Saudade: Longing and Desire in the Brazilian Soul." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 20, no. 2 (2001): 51-56, 51.