What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘travel’ – Vacation? Meeting new people? Or maybe, Instagrammable sunsets? While traveling can be exciting and exhilarating, it’s so much more than sipping margaritas on a sun-soaked beach.
It’s no news that travel is good for your physical wellbeing, but a significant amount of scientific research suggests that exploring a new place can do wonders for your mental and emotional health as well.
Here are five evidence-backed ways traveling makes your mind happy and healthy:
1. It’s a great stress buster. “The stress of work and daily demands can distract us from what we find to be actually meaningful and interesting,” says Dr. Tamara McClintock Greenberg, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist and author of Psychodynamic Perspectives on Aging and Illness. Thus, taking a break from the daily hustle and bustle is essential for your mind to relax, recharge and rejuvenate.
And what better way to do so than to pack your bags and cross wanderlust-worthy destinations off your bucket list? Traveling promotes happiness and helps you take your mind off stressful situations. This leads to lower cortisol levels, making you feel more calm and content. “It also helps us reflect on our personal goals and interests,” adds Greenberg. According to a 2013 study, more than 80% of Americans, who were surveyed, noticed significant drops in stress just after a day or two of traveling. “Even though I’m always busy when I travel, whether it’s sightseeing, taking photos or just exploring a destination on foot, I know I’m the calmest and most relaxed when I travel,” says Jacintha Verdegaal, an avid traveler and founder of travel and lifestyle blog, Urban Pixxels.
2. It helps you reinvent yourself. Writer Patrick Rothfuss said, “ A long stretch of road can teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet .” Experiential traveling, particularly to a foreign country, can help you re-evaluate and reinvent your life. “If you allow it, travel has the ability to expand your mind in a way you never realized was possible,” says solo travel expert and founder of the Trusted Travel Girl, Valerie Wilson.
Moreover, the valuable lessons that you learn along the way broaden your perspective, making you more aware and open to new things. “I love traveling to places with different cultures because it forces you to think about your own,” says Verdegaal. “Different is not better or worse, it’s just different. But being confronted with these differences helps me to re-evaluate my own principles and values and, sometimes, change them,” adds the professional globetrotter.
Exploring new places can also give you a fresh start if you’re recovering from a major transition in your life. “When I had Lyme disease, for several years, my world shrunk. I lost friends who didn’t know how to deal with a sick friend. I was quite alone and lost a lot of my self-confidence,” says Wilson, who began to travel “out of fear of relapsing.” “By traveling and interacting with the world around me, I found a new passion for life. I convinced myself to travel even when I wasn’t feeling well. It has brought me happiness, given me a purpose, and has made me a strong, independent woman,” she explains.
3. It boosts happiness and satisfaction. Apart from the obvious fact that you don’t have to go to work (and can legit eat pizza for breakfast), traveling gives you the opportunity to step away from the daily grind. The new events and experiences help rewire your brain, hence boosting your mood and self-confidence. “I think people, in general, are not meant to be tied down to just one place their entire lives. I especially feel “trapped” when I have to stay in the same place for too much time, without being able to really move about and explore,” says travel aficionado and co-founder of The Passport Memorandum, Marta Estevez. “My life feels most fulfilling when I’m outside, living through new experiences and learning,” adds the travel expert who has been to more than ten countries.
“Travel definitely makes me happy,” agrees Wilson. “Even the act of planning a trip gives me something to look forward to and brings me happiness,” says Wilson. Turns out, she’s not the only one who feels that way. According to a Cornell University study, the anticipation of a trip can increase your happiness substantially, even more than the anticipation of acquiring something tangible, like a new car.
4. It makes you mentally resilient. Going and living somewhere where you feel excited and intimidated at the same time can help you toughen up mentally and emotionally. “When I was younger, I couldn’t see myself traveling the world on my own. But now, I travel by myself most of the time. And I love it! It’s never as scary or dangerous as you make it in your head,” says Verdegaal of Urban Pixxels.
Also, facing difficulties in an unfamiliar environment, among new people, forces you to learn and adapt to a life that’s out of your comfort zone. This makes you more flexible, patient and emotionally strong. “Travel has taught me patience, to surrender control to the uncontrollable, and effectively problem solve,” says Wilson who describes herself as a “naturally anxious and impatient person.”
It can also help you deal with “larger issues in life with more grace and patience,” adds the travel expert. “One of the worst experiences I had, early on in my travel life, was being mugged of loads of cash and my passport just a day before I was due to fly home. It taught me to accept situations like this more calmly and to attach less emotion to belongings. Now, I can get over similar stressful situations very quickly, without having the issue get me down for long,” tells Allan Hinton, a London-based photographer who quit his job to become a full-time traveler.
Similarly, when travel blogger Marta Estevez injured her ankle during the famous Loi Krathong festival (Lantern festival) in Thailand, “the roads were partially closed off that night and the streets were filled with hundreds upon hundreds of people that made it incredibly difficult for us to move,” she explains. “I had to learn to accept the situation and adapt our travels accordingly, without breaking down. I’m not sure I would’ve had the same composure a few years ago in this situation.” Bottom line is, the more challenges you’re faced with, the better you’ll get at overcoming them, eventually becoming more resilient, mentally and emotionally.
5. It enhances creativity. According to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, visiting a foreign place and immersing yourself in their local environment (for instance, attending a ‘snake boat’ race in southern India or feasting on crispy tarantulas in Cambodia), increases your cognitive flexibility. It also enhances “depth and integrativeness of thought,” consequently giving a boost to your creativity. Galinsky is the author of multiple studies that look into the connection between creativity and international travel. Although, it’s important to note that traveling stimulates creativity only when you engage with the local culture of that place. Merely visiting a new city or a country isn’t going to cut it.
Additionally, extended traveling also improves your productivity, problem-solving skills and can even increase your chances of getting promoted at work!
However, “it’s important to remember that vacation can be very stressful for some,” notes Greenberg. If that’s the case with you, try taking “short, structured vacations in order to get used to the experience of having time off,” she suggests. Also, plan your trip properly, in advance, to avoid last-minute panic and chaos.
Lastly, how can you reap the benefits after returning from the trip?
“As a clinician, I encourage people to hold on to aspects of a travel experience or vacation that was pleasurable,” says Greenberg. For example, “if you liked the food in Paris, learn how to cook French food in order to re-create some of the feelings you had while you were on vacation,” she explains. “Another behavioral intervention is to remember peaceful moments you had on vacation and try to remember what was different from your present life. Maybe you took the time to eat breakfast, maybe you exercised. Those things are crucial reminders of what we should do every day,” adds the clinical psychologist.
Now that you’ve finished reading about all the wonderful things travel does to your brain, it’s time to pack your bags and get going!