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Ask what tops post-pandemic wish lists, and many people will tell you the chance to grab their passport, get on a plane and just go. We get a sense of freedom from the everyday when we travel. We open ourselves to new experiences. Our senses are heightened. Our pulses beat faster. We drift away in a mélange of sights and scents in a local market. Drape ourselves in cottons and silks splashed in brilliant colors. Breathe in unimaginable landscapes and shout against the pounding nightclub beat.

These moments are like magic, and we want them to last forever. So you grab a few books of matches from the hotel bar as a keepsake. Tuck artsy postcards from a hipster cafe into your carry-on. Walk back to those shops in that tiny whitewashed village by the sea three hours before your flight back home to get that opal ring you just have to have.

We honor our emotional connections with the places we’ve been through the objects we collect. That ashtray or that tiny work of art from a street vendor becomes more precious than gold — it encapsulates every minute of discovery on that adventure. Don’t try to fight it or talk yourself out of it. Our emotions run the show when we travel, and what we bring home reflects what we value.

Illustration by Heather Polk

That piece of blue-green tile you found on Mallorca street in Barcelona rekindles the awe you felt seeing the Sagrada Família on a trip to sketch Spanish architecture. Visceral design is all about our reaction to what we take in visually: the majesty of the arched basilica ceilings. Gaudí’s winding spiral staircases. Candle-lit alcoves.

Or there’s the overwhelming pride you feel retelling the story of wandering into a Shoreditch gallery and, several glasses of Champagne later, becoming the proud owner of a surprisingly affordable Banksy. It’s the highlight of that incredible London holiday. You’ve now got massive street cred. Art friends secretly hate you.

In reality, those blanched white sea urchin shells you got from a fisherman in Naxos, Greece, don’t have any real value. But just touching them makes you happy. Running your fingers over the shells’ Kusama-like bumps and ridges, you can almost hear the surf and smell the Ionian Sea. Behavioral design is all about the sheer joy of an object. We keep it just because.

A recent Cornell University study confirmed that experiences, not things, make us happy. Researchers say the joy of a getaway stays with us but that the pleasure derived from objects fades. The avid traveler may disagree. There’s nothing greater than unzipping your suitcase covered in neon-colored airport tags, combing through sweaters and swimsuits, and carefully unwrapping each Navajo seed pot, German film poster or Tahitian shell. This combination of design and discovery makes those special feelings last forever. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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