Maybe you’ve seen all the feel-good aphorisms about how why travel is important and how it improves your life for the better. Maybe your own experiences confirm it.
And maybe you’ve come home from a trip ranting and raving, feeling like this trip of a lifetime changed you—like something inside of you shifted…but nobody else seems to be able to see it. Nobody understands what you’ve been through. Nobody sees those benefits of traveling or the changes that have taken place deep within.
And maybe you’ve sat down and tried to explain it all to someone. Maybe you’ve tried to tell them how much that trip changed you—how much you learned about yourself, and how your whole entire perspective on the world has changed.
I bet they didn’t understand.
(Unless they’re a traveler themselves, of course, in which case they’ll just nod their head and say, “I got you, bro. I know.”)
The fact is, travel changes you—that’s one of its very many unavoidable merits. It may even be its most valued merit of all. Travel sparks growth and growth leads to a happier, healthier life.
This is the actual science of how travel makes your world, and our world, a much better place.
1. Travel Makes You More Creative
The more of the world you see, the more you encounter new ideas and ways of thinking. But what effect do they have on you?
A professor at Columbia Business School decided to investigate, using the fashion industry as his case study. Examining the creative work of the world’s top fashion houses across 11 years, he found a strong correlation between the foreign experience of fashion designers and their level of creative innovation.
Summing up his findings in The Atlantic, he said:
Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms… The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.
Factor in all that free thinking time you have on planes, trains, and automobiles, and it seems like all creative people should be spending time on the move.
2. Travel Makes You More Open-Minded
Researchers have found that students living abroad performed better on a classic brain-stretching puzzle—and the reason behind it might just fix the internet!
As the last few years have shown, the online world is a great place for arguing. Politics, equal rights, climate science, Mac vs. PC, unicorn frappuccinos—everyone has a firm opinion on these things and they’re not afraid to share it.
But how many of us stop before we type, and fully consider all the options—including points of view we hugely disagree with but know too little about?
The problem is that we have come to believe, concretely, in what we know. But only by opening our boundaries, and pushing our limits and seeing more of the world, can you begin to know how much you don’t know.
In his most recent New York Times Bestseller, Mark Manson writes, “Our values are imperfect and incomplete, and to assume that they are perfect and complete is to put us in a dangerously dogmatic mindset that breeds entitlement and avoids responsibility.”
Do well-traveled people argue online as much as people who never leave home? Someone really should run a study on that.
3. Travel Reaffirms that People are Generally Good
In his guest post for Tim Ferriss’s blog, world-traveling photographer Gary Arndt started with the following “controversial” statement:
People are generally good.
A lot of people would argue otherwise. Every country has its antisocial elements and alarmist media sources that are quick to portray strangers and foreigners as bad hombres. “The world is dangerous—stay home, stay safe!”
It’s easy to feel discouraged by all this, even when it appears to be nonsense. What are the facts? Yes, there are good people in the world—but how many?
After scanning dozens of active human brains, researchers at University College London seem to have discovered that we’re hardwired to be good—if you define good as “honest.” Honesty seems to trigger feelings of deep-seated satisfaction, as parts of the brain become active that are used to assess the long-term value of our actions.
And if we cheat? These areas are less active. At a neurological level, it seems we all know that crime doesn’t pay.
Any experienced world traveler will tell you the same thing: one of the benefits of traveling is that the more people you meet, the more hospitality, generosity, and honesty you encounter. In Gary’s words:
They are people just like you and me who are trying to get by, to help their families and go about living their lives. There is no race, religion or nationality that is exempt from this rule.
4. Travel Protects You from the Disastrous Effects of Stress
At first glance, travel looks way more stressful than life at home. What about packing anxiety, all those lines at the airport? What about takeoff, or rushing to meet your next connection?
Too often, this is our overtaxed brain playing tricks on us. In fact, life at home is filled with mental and physical pressures that compromise our health.
Family life has never been so stressful. Many people are stressed about their work-life balance, and young women’s sense of well-being is on the slide. Worse still, all these things are what most of us call “normal”—so we’re gaining weight, burning out our immune systems and sickening with all sorts of chronic ailments at an alarming rate.
Compared with these horrors, the momentary stresses of travel don’t look so bad.
But there’s more, says science. The simple act of being outdoors, especially if it’s in the wilds of nature, does remarkable things to your body. A 15-minute walk in the woods has a beneficial effect on your health that can actually be measured (lowered stress hormones, lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure). Hiking through nature has been called “the ultimate stress antidote that costs nothing”—and there’s this, from National Geographic:
In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.
Crazier still, even looking at pictures of green spaces can give your brain a positive boost. In a way, you don’t even need to travel to reap the benefits of traveling!
With all this evidence, it’s hard to argue that travel isn’t good for your health. (That said, yes, flying can suck. I hear you loud and clear.)
5. Travel Changes Your View and Helps you Enjoy it Forever
Taking a long journey gives you one hell of a change of perspective on your life.
Just ask an astronaut.
Something happens to you out there… You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.
— Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell
It’s been nicknamed “the overview effect”—and you’re never the same after it hits.
If you’re looking for a radical, life-affirming chance in perspective and you don’t have the resources of NASA to call upon, take heart. Psychologists believe it’s attainable for anyone with the right change of mindset.
If astronauts’ feelings of awe are simply an expression of cultural attitudes, then the physical effects of space travel wouldn’t be necessary to provoke the “overview effect.”
In my book, at least, world travel definitely qualifies.
Former prejudices melt away. Old home-grown ways of thinking about the world prove insufficient for the complexity and variety of what’s really out there. With your new open-mindedness comes an eagerness to fill it.
As your stress levels unwind, you get a new appreciation of your body, what it’s capable of and what you should be doing to look after it. And as your creativity spikes, anything seems possible.
Travel is often accused of giving people a rose-tinted view of the world, but I profoundly disagree. Travel is seeing the world correctly for the first time, through your own eyes and with your senses ablaze—and the view is overwhelming.