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Mental Health Benefits of Travel

By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

I once overheard a co-worker say, “I keep hitting the escape button but I’m still here!” After the past few years of pandemic craziness, we can probably all relate to that statement. Who wouldn’t want to escape the feelings of frustration, loneliness, or desperation that many people around the world experienced during the seemingly endless series of lockdowns and COVID-19 tests? The stress and insecurity caused by the loss of loved ones and fear of the unknown have certainly taken a toll on our mental health. But don’t fear— there is a bright spot on the horizon.

As the pandemic protocols have eased and countries are opening their doors to visitors once again, there has been a huge surge in demand for travel. The good news is that travel doesn’t have to include faraway destinations in order to positively impact our mental health—and it can do far more than simply make us feel more relaxed. 

Human Brains Respond to Novelty

For me, one of the greatest highlights of travel is having an opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and tastes of someplace new. It turns out there is actually quite a bit of science behind this. Neurobiologists have discovered that a novel experience can trigger emotional arousal, sparking a desire for increased exploration and learning. It is a perfect way to alleviate feelings of boredom from a monotonous daily routine. Experiencing a change of scenery can stimulate our brains to create stronger memories than we would have made in more familiar surroundings. It is the unusual moments that are more likely to linger and be easier to recall.

Travel Sparks Creativity

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

Are you experiencing a creative block or feeling burned out? It might be time for a vacation. A study published by the American Psychological Association discovered there is a direct correlation between travel and heightened levels of creativity. Going to an unfamiliar destination exposes us to people, situations, or cultures we may not have previously known existed. This, in turn, can broaden our minds and open us to learning invaluable lessons from our experiences. It gets our creative juices flowing and can boost our ability to form new, innovative ideas.

Experiences, Not Things, Make Us Happier

It can be difficult to decide where to allocate our hard-earned cash, and it’s not always easy to justify the expense of travel. However, a study from San Francisco State University has shown people who spend money on experiences are happier than those who simply purchase material items. This is likely because the thrill of owning an item such as a new gadget can quickly fade, while the memories made during an experience can last a lifetime. So we can think of travel as a form of investing in our own personal education. Nothing teaches us more than exploring the world and accumulating those precious experiences.

Travel Boosts Confidence

Not only can travel make us happier, but it is also a great confidence booster. Learning how to adapt to a different culture or navigate unknown surroundings can be intimidating—especially the first few tries. But eventually, we figure things out and can derive a great deal of satisfaction after successfully managing an unfamiliar situation. Facing a travel challenge forces us to be self-reliant and use our problem-solving skills to find solutions. This, in turn, creates a sense of achievement and builds our self-confidence during future interactions.

Travel is a Conduit for Building—and Understanding—Relationships

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

Traveling with friends, lovers, or family members creates opportunities to spend not only more time together but also a different kind of time together. It provides shared experiences and a chance to connect on a deeper level, which can be quite meaningful for clarifying a relationship. I often travel with groups of strangers who eventually become friends, because we have time to bond with one another in an informal setting. Feelings of camaraderie are formed as we discover common interests and develop mutual respect for one another.

Using Travel as an Opportunity to Experience Solitude

While travel can often help build relationships, it can also serve as an opportunity for solitude. Many people seek remote experiences that allow them to disconnect from the busyness of everyday life. For example, a recent trip to Antarctica offered me the space to find peace of mind in the serenity of nature. Surrounded by vast ice fields, it was humbling to recognize that we humans do not simply coexist alongside nature but are in fact a part of it. Connecting more deeply with the natural world during quiet moments of reflection allows us to discover a missing part of ourselves.

Vacations Are Good for Your Heart

Photo by Kaye Olsson
Photo by Kaye Olsson

Traveling for a vacation can offer an opportunity to connect with friends or family and do the things you love. Not only is a break from the usual routine a mood booster, but it can also increase longevity by preventing heart disease. A nine-year-long study found that participants who took at least one vacation per year were 30 percent less likely to die from heart-related causes as compared to their counterparts who kept their noses to the grindstone. Researchers suspect that the vacationers may have had better heart health because the time off led to overall reduced stress levels.

Parting Thoughts

Of course, hopping on a plane or taking a road trip is not necessarily the solution to every problem, and travel is certainly not a cure-all. But if improved mental health is what you’re after, taking a chance to explore someplace new might be more beneficial than you think. Therefore, I urge you to consider including a travel experience as one of your intentions for this new year. Your mental health will thank you.

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