At the heart of traveling: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Nietzsche, and Élan Vital

Three years ago:
“Mishell, why did you come to Melbourne?”
I got bored in the US; I’d met a dead end.

“Mishell, what brings you to Shanghai from Melbourne?”
I got too comfortable in Melbourne.

It’s this lack of stimulation that perhaps is so TCK. Moving and seeing new places until some sort of “tick” is satisfied is perhaps my élan vital, my joie de vivre, my raison d’etre. (Oof! Just used up all my French!) On the other hand, I might just be another one of my restless generation with a short attention span, who does not have the patience to build something of her own in her home country (Which one? Mongolia, Mexico, or the US?). I’m old enough to consider the latter, but also to consider it and then reject it because there is something there worth examining. Like a moth to a light I am attracted to the bandits, the renegades, the travelers, the sojourners, and gypsies. Whenever I get too comfortable someplace and lose a certain je ne sais quoi (there I go again with the French) and then move. Why do I do this? Why do others do this?


Élan vital is roughly translated into the driving force of life. Theologians, philosophers, and academic researchers have different meanings and nuances for it but for simplicity’s sake I’ll stick to the following definition:

“…in living creatures, it is a drive to express their natures. In human beings, it is complex and develops in stages” (Fitz 2005, p. 43).

“…a vital force which functions in living beings and drives them to express their true natures (Fitz 2005, p. 44).

Could it be that we move from place to place because our élan vital is to be procurers of change, to be nomads? How do we justify such transcontinental moves and reach the conclusion that the good outweighs the bad? I’ll try to offer some of my own answers based off my own experience, humbly so despite the French. I think that, in summary, by making drastic moves we seek a will-to-live, a will-to-power, that we have lost in our mundane existence within our #firstworldcountry privileges. In a world where we can make payments via mobile, call someone at the click of a button, and get a surplus of information through different media, there isn’t a real adrenaline rush akin to the physical hunt our primordial selves expect. There is no frenzy for survival that we respect. But it doesn’t mean our primordial selves give up- they/we seek it through the “exotic other” thanks to a palette already whet by the influx of Instagram posts and hashtags. It’s rather romantic- to travel, see new places, to start over. A new hunt for our ultimate selves, the Übermensch.

According to Nietzsche in The Will to Power, the will to power which in Fitz’s (2005) article is incumbent of élan vital, can be described as:

“…life itself, an organic process, a primeval tendency, a creative drive, that which interprets and wants to grow, a will that is inherent in all events, a desire to manipulate power, a commanding and a forward thrust to become a master of anything that stands in its way”.  

Moreover, this will to power involves:

“(1) a drive to become independent [and] not to be swayed by the values and beliefs of mediocre minds (2) a struggle to overcome a stage of nihilism and to seek truth (3) an impetus to give free reign to an unencumbered creative expression (4) a desire for rank and power over others and (5) the love of life as it is” (Fitz 2005, 44).

In the midst of all the naïve notions of travel and exoticism I think some of us, at least I did, forget what “starting over” feels like. It gets lost in the “OMG that’s so exciting, you’re so brave, send us photos!” However, if we pay close attention, it’s exactly the feeling of starting over that we seek, along with above listed forces, when we move. Our desires are then satisfied by little things like getting from the airport to temporary accommodation, from there to actual housing, learning the language, learning the people, making friends. Panicking, getting lost, then figuring it out. I reckon it’s this scrambling to “start over” that is our élan vital that helps us go from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the very top.


On a more personal note, I’m obviously writing about this because I’ve been pondering all this upon my own life. After almost exactly four months in Shanghai (in two days!), I can begin to say that I’m settling in more comfortably into the “love/belonging” section of the pyramid. I am making friends, staying in touch with old ones, making more phone-calls every month and fostering relationships old/new. As far as physiological and safety needs, I was blessed enough to get those secured relatively easy when I first arrived. The job and income following shortly thereafter. Of course I don’t think they have to go in this particular order as shown in the pyramid. They probably rise and fall simultaneously. Mom’s advice: Prioritize! Manage time! come to mind. And so now is the issue of esteem and self fulfillment. I don’t intend to leave SH until I have something to show for it.


Fitz, H 2005, ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Will to Power as a Kind of Elan Vital and Creative Expression‘, Dialogue and Universalism, No. 5-6, pp. 44-53.

Nietzsche, F 1967, The Will to Power. Trans. Kaufman, W. Vintage Publishing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s