I closed my eyes and leaned back, trying to recline comfortably in my beach chair. It was a brilliant August day in Sorrento, Italy, where I was treating myself to a solo vacation after spending the summer in Ireland. I had plenty of reasons to smile, but I was having a hard time remembering them.
I had flown into Naples the previous night but missed the last bus to the Amalfi Coast, forcing me to sleep in the airport. The night was long, and I was relieved when morning finally came and a shuttle pulled into the pick-up lane.
Just a couple of hours later, I checked into my hostel and walked to the nearest beach. Along the way, I recognized the beauty of my surroundings, but I couldn’t shake the tension left over from the night before. Once I arrived at the beach, I barely got into the water, worrying that someone might steal my belongings. I listened to the couples, families, and friends splashing nearby, envying the quality time they were spending together. I thought of the activities and day trips I had planned and wondered if they were even worthwhile for a solo traveler.
With sudden clarity, a thought came into my mind: I couldn’t enjoy the Amalfi Coast until I learned to let go and take myself a little less seriously.
Solo travel and laughter
Humans love to laugh. On bad days, doing so lifts our spirits, and on good days, it makes everything in our lives a little brighter. A good belly laugh feels cathartic, and eliciting that kind of response from other people is undeniably gratifying. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that laughter can lead to positive psychological (and possibly even physiological) effects, including decreased stress levels.
At home, most people can rely on a social circle for human connection, emotional support, and shared laughter. But on the road, solo travelers opt out of the companionship that makes laughter come so easily. This jarring change can leave them feeling lonely, uncomfortably aware that their sense of humor stands on its own in this unfamiliar setting.
But even though laughter is a casualty of a solo traveler’s isolation, it also provides the fastest-working antidote to their feelings of loneliness. The trick is knowing how to find humor during those solitary moments on the road. Doing so requires an attitude adjustment, and it often comes down to laughing at the small, insignificant experiences that most humans share, regardless of where in the world they call home.
Take up people-watching
Have you ever really clued in and paid attention to the strangers around you? They’re pretty funny, usually unintentionally. If you spend some time observing their behaviors and interactions, or listening to snippets of their conversations, you’ll find it hard to keep from chuckling. This isn’t to say you should think of people-watching as an opportunity to laugh at someone else — again, you’re laughing at the little moments that we can all relate to.
On my second day in Italy, I sat at the top of the staircase that leads to Amalfi’s cathedral. The cathedral overlooks a cramped square, and from my perch, I watched an unending parade of people. From camera-wielding tourists to elderly locals and high schoolers drinking coffee, everyone was engrossed in what they were doing. I watched scene after scene acted out by people I’d never see again, knowing that what they did in those moments was the only glimpse I’d ever have into their lives. It was fascinating, and as I expected, it was pretty entertaining, too.
That afternoon, my favorite moments came courtesy of uncooperative toddlers waging war against their impatient parents. One of them was refusing to walk away from the square’s fountain, and another was running 30 feet in front of his parents. The interactions felt so familiar, so human, that I couldn’t help but smile. So, if you need a laugh during your next adventure, you might want to look for a good spot for watching the crowds go by — just don’t forget to keep an eye out for young families.
Connect with the people around you
When traveling solo, it’s hard to avoid making human connections. Even if you’re not actively trying to strike up new friendships, you’ll naturally pay more attention to mundane encounters than you would at home. When you sit next to someone on a bus, you’re more likely to try to communicate with them, even if a language barrier exists. When you bump into a like-minded individual, your impression of that person will really stick. And when something funny happens in a crowded place, you’ll look around to see if anyone else noticed it.
Along those lines, I remember walking past a young couple in Ravello, another town on the Amalfi Coast. The partners were quietly discussing which passerby they could ask to take their photo (I’ve had the same whispered dialogue with my own friends), and one of them realized that I had overheard their conversation. Laughing, she handed me her camera, and after I’d taken the picture, she asked a few questions about the other cities I had visited on that trip. It was an encounter of fewer than 90 seconds, and I don’t even recall what the couple looked like, but that small degree of humor made the experience worth remembering.
Laugh at yourself
If you’re anything like me, your life is a long chain of embarrassing moments. And as a solo traveler, you’ll have plenty of those cringe-worthy experiences, but instead of wishing you could take them back, you might as well laugh and accept that you have a new story to tell. After all, you are going to be the only real constant during your journey — and if you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at?
Let me give you an example. Partway between Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius towers over the cityscape. One day, I visited the archaeological site of Herculaneum (Pompeii’s sister city) and hiked the volcano itself. While exploring the site, I spotted a tour guide leading a group around the ruins, but I didn’t know if the tour was free or not. I hung back a little, attempting to blend in with the group, until the tour guide called me out in front of everyone and sharply asked me to move on. I should have known better, so I was pretty embarrassed, and that discomfort only worsened as I bumped into the group over and over again throughout the morning. Each time, I felt myself blush, but I always laughed when I managed to distance myself from them.
Find a way to relax
Solo travel is inherently stressful. So, if you want your journey to be as transformative as it’s supposed to be, it’s important to find a good outlet for that tension. For some people, that might involve meditation or a recommitment to mindful travel, while for others, it could mean going for a run. However you choose to let off steam, it’s important to take the time to feel refreshed and rejuvenated. It’s much easier to laugh (and otherwise make the most of your travels) when you’re not anxious or jittery.
During my week in Italy, I spent several evenings sitting on a bench that I came to love. It offered a perfect vantage point for watching the sunset, and it also gave me a chance to write in my journal. Doing so allowed me to clear my mind, which made the week so much more enjoyable. If I hadn’t carved out that time, I wouldn’t have found nearly as many things to make me laugh or smile.
Stay in touch with family and friends
If possible, check in with your loved ones throughout your travels. Not only will this simple action reassure those people that you’re happy, healthy, and safe, but it will also give you a chance to recharge on inside jokes and stories from home, then process your own day in a more comical light. All you need to do is occasionally set aside a few minutes to FaceTime, call, or message somebody you care about — it won’t take too much time, but your small investment will make a huge difference.
As I was about to turn in one night in Sorrento, my favorite group chat started buzzing. It was the middle of the day for my friends back home, and they had a lot to say, so I stayed up to talk. Just a few minutes later, I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face. It was one of the few times that a group chat has made me laugh out loud, and who knows, it might have been because I really needed it that day. Either way, I’m not complaining. I got to fall asleep in a great mood, and when I woke up in the morning, I was energized and ready to take on the day.
What helps you keep a positive mindset during your solo travels? Share an idea in the comments below!
Header image by Ricardo Gomez Angel