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Want to boost creativity, happiness & connection? Hit the road
Studies show travel strengthens neural pathways, and human connection
I have always been goal-oriented, and as an empty-nester in midlife, upping my travel game was on my list of things to accomplish. I have visited every continent, and aim to travel in 60 countries by the time I turn 60. At age 59, with a trip planned to Bora Bora to celebrate my 60th birthday with some close girlfriends this summer, I will slay this goal.
In addition to checking this accomplishment off the list, the benefits of travel for me have been gratifying, growth-inducing and sometimes unanticipated. Satisfying your wanderlust may be something you can add to your self-care toolkit, too.
Buying that plane ticket can strengthen your brain
Aside from the sense of adventure that I enjoy, multiple scientific studies document the enhanced sense of wellbeing traveling gives us. A team of researchers from Columbia University, NYU and the University of Miami, for example, documented the strong association between positive emotions and diverse experiences. Exposure to novel experiences benefits our mental health because it increases and strengthens neural pathways stimulated by diverse experiences.
Psychotherapist Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith, of Practicaltherapy.net, echoes the studies’ findings: “There is nothing that changes our consciousness quite as much as travel. It nurtures our innate hunger for adventure, novelty and continuous learning. It opens our minds to new realities, new ways of living and new ways of being.”
The creative boost of new experiences
Travel can increase our creativity, too. Immersion in local cultures different from our own expands our perspectives, and can influence our outlooks on life. One of the greatest American writers, Ernest Hemingway, drew inspiration for his work from his time in France and Spain. I have cranked out numerous articles while on airplanes or sitting in cafes in faraway countries. My writing just seems to flow better when I am outside of my routines.
Travel experiences expose us to a wider variety of ideas and can deepen our ways of thinking. Mark Twain’s famous quote in his travelogue, Innocents Abroad, rings true: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Observing other attitudes and cultural norms can help us to accept that the way people behave back home is not the only way, nor is it automatically superior.
Food often reflects local traditions, and a minor, but much appreciated, benefit of my travels is trying new foods and taking cooking classes. When learning how to make tortillas by hand in Guatemala, I got to spend time with a Mayan family and learned a bit about their beliefs, history and lifestyle.
Gratitude and the benefits of giving back
Travel in developing countries can increase our sense of gratitude and decrease our tendency to take things for granted. I have visited places without electricity or access to clean water, when traveling in Asia and Latin America. When I returned to the US, I stopped taking common conveniences here for granted. An attitude of gratitude leads to a more positive mindset, which can reverberate throughout our life activities.
Volunteer vacations help us, as well. When we lessen burdens for others, we feel a sense of purpose and increased self-esteem. Simply giving pencils to school children can help them to attend school, according to educators I have met while traveling in developing nations. I once volunteered in a school in Nepal, where the children sat on dirt floors and had no books. They were so eager to learn. They gave more to me in appreciation and awareness than I to them in our encounters.
Growth outside of your comfort zone
Travel can relieve stress, as well. Freed from the complexities, demands and routines of our daily lives, work and relationships, our minds and bodies can rest and reset.
Liz Legg, 55, an Alexandria, Virginia mother of three, travels both with and without her family.
“I truly believe when you step out of your comfort zone, explore a new place, and immerse yourself in a totally new culture, a different type of growth begins,” Legg says, “one that isn’t as easily achieved while staying safely at home. Clearing your mind of your normal routines allows one to have the space to see the world, hopefully from a new perspective.”
Travel experiences also can increase self-confidence. I typically try as many new things as possible when I travel, in a quest to learn more about the local culture. I am more likely to, for instance, go parasailing when I am overlooking a beautiful beach or valley. And in new cities, navigating the unfamiliar public transportation systems can seem harrowing, but learning how to use and do new things can help us feel a sense of competence.
Even small changes in our daily environments can provide beneficial effects. Take some day trips. Explore a nearby town. Go on a hike or bike ride. See the sights in your own town. I am blessed to live in Washington, D.C., and visiting an embassy here can transport me to a faraway land. There undoubtedly are places you have not explored in your own environs. Go online and find some, or just start walking! Walking in my neighborhood revealed to me gorgeous gardens I never noticed in my normally hurried life.
Life on the move is good for your health
Travel also can provide physical health benefits. When we travel, most of us tend to walk more. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of multiple types of disease. Physical activity releases dopamine — the pleasure neurotransmitter — which is why active travel also increases happiness levels. Walking has led me to so many hidden treasures, like gorgeous animal life, and friendly locals. The occasional yoga retreats increase my activity levels and flexibility, and bring me closer to nature, since many retreats happen at least partially outdoors.
“Take the time to educate yourself fully about this beautiful world and experience as much of it as you possibly can,” advises Dr. Gadhia-Smith.
Cultivate childlike wonder in your life. Travel somewhere, near or far. Studies show that the anticipation created even by planning a trip can increase happiness. Our lives are happening right now, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. So why wait?
This was originally published here on jumbleandflow.com.
Maria Leonard Olsen is a divorced mother with two adult children, an attorney, author and podcaster in Washington, D.C. She is the author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. For more information about her work, see www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com.