During the heart of the pandemic, it was widely predicted that the cruise ship industry would not survive. As the world shut down, cruise lines canceled trips, laid off their crews, and hoped that fears of illness would not permanently discourage people from cruising. But more than three years later, the industry is booming. Bookings are up, companies are launching new boats with more food venues, entertainment options and activities than ever. Clearly, there are many of us who still look forward to spending our leisure time on a moving luxury hotel with views of the ocean and occasional stops at foreign destinations.
Nevertheless, there is still a tendency for critics to characterize cruises as crowded, drunken party ships, which discerning people should avoid at all costs. So how do we reconcile these two views of the same thing? Certainly, individual travel expectations matter, as do prior experiences. But as a psychologist who also enjoys cruises, I spent part of my last cruise thinking about why so many of us find our time on the water so rewarding. The following is a list of some of the psychological reasons so many of us love to cruise.
- Many Americans are starved for leisure time. We work long hours, don’t always use our available vacation time, and spend much of our time taking care of our children, or our parents, maintaining our homes, yards and cars, while trying to find time for sleep, food preparation, and the occasional social outing. Is it any wonder that we are drawn to an opportunity to have someone else do our laundry, clean up after us and prepare our food while we spend time in a pool, a theater, or casino? This is a luxury most of can’t afford on a regular basis.
- Research suggests that Americans are lonely. More people than ever live alone, many of the institutions we used to rely on for social contact including religious organizations, fraternal clubs and community activities are no longer the cornerstones of our social interactions. In a world where people change homes and jobs frequently, it is not unusual for people to live in apartments or neighborhoods without knowing any of their neighbors. Contrast this with the atmosphere on a cruise ship. The people who clean your cabin and serve you at dinner know and use your name. Chatting with the people who are seated near you in the dining room is the norm, and people often bond with their fellow travelers over the excursions they take, or things they enjoy about the cruise. While most of these folks won’t become long-term friends, cruises really can replicate the feeling of being in a place “where everyone knows your name.”
- As we learned during the pandemic, exposure to nature makes us feel better, both physically and mentally. Large numbers of Americans are Vitamin D deficient, which can be rectified with moderate levels of sun exposure. Spending time in nature promotes resilience, reduces stress and mental distress, and has a positive impact on the immune and cardiovascular systems. Most of us can’t afford to live near the ocean, but on a ship the movement of the ocean, the sun, clouds, and wind are always easy to see, along with the occasional sighting of birds, sea life or land animals.
- Most cruises feature multiple opportunities to listen to live music. Whether you like musicals, guitar solos, piano bars or bands that play anything from jazz, to reggae, to calypso to big band music you can probably find it. Research suggests that playing, listening, and moving to music has a positive impact on our mental health and sense of connection with others. While the cruise band may not be a household name, there is evidence that listening to live music is particularly engaging, and that participating in the experience by singing or dancing further enhances the experience. By the time we are adults most of us rarely dance in social settings unless we are coerced to join in a line dance, the Macarena or the Hustle at a wedding. But on a cruise, in the midst of a huge crowd of people we probably won’t see again, it can be easier to dance along to YMCA, to join a conga line or to sing the lyrics to a song we enjoy.
- In a world that is dominated by cell phones, social media, and constant electronic interaction it can be difficult to live in the moment, and to find time to listen to your own thoughts. On most cruise, internet connections are expensive and often unreliable. Paradoxically this makes it easier for people to justify the decision to disconnect, if only for a few days, or even a few hours. Too often we have forgotten what it feels like to wake up without an alarm, and to spend time that isn’t interrupted by other people’s demands on our time.
Of course, not all cruises are paradise. As with everything, it is possible to ruin a cruise by forgetting about moderation. Eating too much, drinking to excess, gambling money you don’t have, or getting sunburned can all turn a relaxing cruise into a disaster. Spending time around other people can increase your exposure to germs, although the same is true of going to a mall or a movie theater. If you are an introvert, have a strong need for physical or social distance, or prefer to vacation on your own, a cruise is probably not for you. But for many of us, a cruise enables us to escape our daily routines, to travel without a great deal of effort, to enjoy meals and experiences that are not a part of our everyday life, and to feel connected to the people around us. That’s not a bad thing in our technologically driven, time-deprived, socially isolated world.