Taking a break from business as usual enables us to pause, contemplate our lives, and potentially re-route the path we are taking on our journey," says Toby Israel, Ph.D., environmental and design psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home. "Traveling helps us look at our lives from a distance — both physically and metaphorically. And when you do that, you’re able to see it a lot more clearly.”
Just spending time outdoors also refreshes your senses in a way that no stale-air office ever can. Being outside in nature has been said to improve your mental clarity.
Writers and philosophers know the benefits of international travel. Writer Mark Twain, who sailed around the coast of the Mediterranean in 1869, wrote in his travelogue Innocents Abroad that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that students who had experience living abroad were 20% more likely to solve a computer task than those who didn't travel.
The reasoning behind this? Simply seeing another culture for an extended period of time opens up your mind to the many ways of the world, which helps you realize that one thing can have multiple meanings and therefore you’ll find difference ways to solve a problem. So while you're stressing about how to talk to your scary boss, you can see that there is more than one way to approach the situation.
A recent Academy of Management Journal study found that people who worked overseas were more inspired and imaginative than those who didn’t.
Why? Something that happens every time you step out of the ordinary and take up the endeavor of travel: cultural immersion. "People who integrate a new culture into their identities are more creative in the long run," says William Maddux, Ph.D., the study's lead author.
Doing as the locals do for an extended period of time, and sometimes even for a short spell, opens up your mind, forcing you to think in different ways and bounce around between different ideas. It's what he refers to as "cognitive flexibility." The assumption is that the more cognitively flexible you are, the more creative you will be.
IMPROVED PROBLEM SOLVING
Increased cognitive flexibility helps when you’re traveling by plane, train or automobile, and at moments when you deal with an unexpected situation. Knowing that you can creatively deal with any situation no matter what happens is a big boost to self- confidence and therefore your happiness.
Your social skills are also improved by travel as it often seems to be easier to make new friends when you are away from home.
Traveling can also make us open to learning new skills. Whether it’s learning to cook Iranian food or speaking Russian, travel presents ways in which we can further our knowledge and education. Travel learning makes our brains more active, which psychologists have found increases our level of happiness – especially when we are learning something we enjoy at the same time.
And problems are better solved when stress levels are down; traveling and travel planning can help with that too. A Stress in America survey showed that simply the act of removing one´s self for the stressful environment, a vacation for example, helps manage negative emotions and anxiety that comes from stress. Planning that perfect trip is a great way to begin that healthy mental transcendence to another place.
TRAVEL AND MENTAL HEALTH
In recent years, neuroscientists have begun examining how spending time in another culture may have the potential to affect mental change. They are discovering that neural pathways that are influenced by habit and environment are also very sensitive to change. Therefore, being exposed to new sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and can potentially affect the mind in a profoundly positive way.
Traveling, and putting energy into travel planning and ideas, may have other benefits for your brain. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California, says that cross-cultural interactions can potentially strengthen a person’s sense of identity. “What a lot of psychological research has shown now is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self,” she says. “Our ability to differentiate our own beliefs and values… is tied up in the richness of the cultural experiences that we have had.” Rich travel experiences can pull people out of their bubbles and increase their connection with people from backgrounds different than their own.
“We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity,” Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel says. “When we engage in other cultures, we start to have experience with different people and recognize that most people treat you in similar ways. That produces an increase in trust.” Seeing all of the good that exists in the world makes it easier to trust that most people, for the most part, are just trying to do the right thing.
A Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study also found that study abroad kids were humbler than those who didn't travel. And this makes sense. How are you not humbled when you realize that the world is such a big and beautiful place rich in so many cultures and natural wonders?
Trying new things when you're traveling leaves you more open to things in your everyday life.
Getting to know people in other cultures outside of your social circle expands your horizons makes you sharper and makes you more likely to look for new things when you get home.
Matt Long, a professional traveler who has been to over 75 countries and runs the travel blog LandLopers agrees, "Over time, I've conquered more and more fears, like the fear of getting eaten when swimming with sharks, and the fear of making a mistake when learning a new language, just by doing those very things. Traveling has made me so much braver, both on the road and at home."