Two unsung mental health benefits of travel

Anna Brech

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Most of us loathe the phrase “finding yourself” when it comes to travel. And with good reason. What does it even mean, after all? Looking wistfully onto the horizon of some distant ocean? Exploring your spirituality on the Khao San Road?

It seems so naval-gazing and false. A parody of itself. There ARE, in fact, some wonderful advantages that travel holds for the inner self. But far from being abstract, these are firmly rooted in science. Exploring the world boosts mental health in a realm of ways, many of which we take for granted. Here are just two of them:

The happiness of anticipation

Travel is a wonderful feeling, but multiple studies show that the anticipation of it is what makes us happiest of all. Just having a getaway planned is enough to make us feel significantly more content about our family, finances and state of health, according to this 2002 study from the University of Surrey. Yep, even though we’ve presumably just unloaded a ton of cash on a holiday, the joy of the act leaves us in a warm glow. So much so, we convince ourselves that we’re better off financially.

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Booking a trip positively impacts our “subjective well-being equilibrium”, say the authors, to the extent that we “feel much happier and hence experience more pleasant feelings”.

Cherry blossoms in front of the Osaka Castle in JapanCherry blossoms surround the triangular tower of Osaka Castle, Japan

The pleasure we derive from the build-up of excitement around travel also far outweighs what we get from physical possessions. This 2014 research from Cornell University concluded that “waiting for an experience [like a holiday] tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good”.

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People, they say, “derive value from anticipation, and that value tends to be greater for experiential than for material purchases”. Anyone who’s ever waited around for a sofa delivery can attest to this, but it’s still good to know.

And then we have this 2010 insight from researchers in the Netherlands, who discovered that not only does the anticipation of travel bring happiness, that happiness is far greater than the experience of travel itself.

This wealth of data collectively proves that just booking an escape alone is a boon to mental health…

A boost in emotional stability

Another fascinating side-effect of travel that we generally don’t pay much attention to, is the way in which it opens us up to other people. We already know that making connections is a key source of happiness, and that travel facilitates this in a unique way.

In addition, a 2013 study found that travelling can actually strengthen the “openness” aspect of our personalities. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology discovered that, in effect, we become different people when hitting the road.

The research team looked at a large sample of German college students, some of whom studied abroad in another country for an extended period of time (one or two terms).

Those who were in another country showed an increase in openness to experience, agreeableness (which reflects a need to get along with other people) and emotional stability compared to those who did not travel. These qualities were not already present in those who wanted to travel, but instead, developed or increased as a direct result of their experiences abroad.

“These changes in personality were related to changes in people’s social networks as a result of travel,” reads a summary of the study on Psychology Today.  “Extended foreign travel takes people outside of their comfort zone.  Travellers have to adapt to new people and new cultural practices… The more that these travelers engaged with new people from different countries, the more that promoted goals related to openness.  It also helped travellers to gain perspective on life, which made them less emotionally reactive to day-to-day changes (which increased emotional stability).”

So, travel makes us happier, nicer and more stable. Just the excuse we needed to book that break to Japan

Images: Shutterstock and Flash Pack

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