Feeling stressed? A bit down? Taking a vacation is more than just a fun diversion from the day-to-day grind. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that shows travel is very good for your mental health.
In the past decade or so, researchers have learned a lot about why travel makes us happy. Psychologists who study the economics of happiness call it the Easterlin paradox: Money can lead to happiness, but only up to a point — and then we adapt. A 20-year study by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor, asked participants to self-report their happiness after making any major material and experiential purchases. At first, the participants ranked their happiness with both kinds of purchases about the same. But over time, their satisfaction with material things went down, and their satisfaction increased with experiences they had spent money on.
Travel can lower the risk of depression.
The growing appreciation for the need to protect our mental health appears to be changing how we vacation. A whopping 81 percent of American travelers say they regularly take vacations where a primary goal is “mental wellness,” and they overwhelmingly see a vacation as a chance to “hit the reset button” on stress and anxiety (91%), according to the latest Expedia Vacation Deprivation Study, an annual survey on American traveler behavior and attitudes.
Still, 63 percent of Americans say they go six months or longer without a vacation, with more than a quarter (28%) of respondents going a year or more between trips. That’s not good. A 2005 study that tracked a group of 1,500 Wisconsin women over five years found that respondents who took vacations twice a year were significantly less likely to become tense, depressed, or tired than women who took vacations once every two years. Interestingly, those who traveled more often also reported being more satisfied in their marriages.
Travel can rewire your brain.
Scientists used to believe that the brain was only changeable during childhood, but now it’s accepted that neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change — happens throughout your life.
In Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich — a world-famous authority on neuroplasticity — explains the importance of getting outside our comfort zones and doing things that are unfamiliar. People who travel to new places, keep learning languages and continue to experience new things into old age, are far less likely to develop cognitive decay, according to Merzenich’s immense body of research.
Want to maximize your brain’s neuroplasticity? A change of scenery wakes up your brain and takes it off autopilot. You have to think about small things when you’re in an unfamiliar place, which is entirely the point. Learn a few words of a different language, take a walking tour, or even something as simple as trying a new food can get those neurons firing.
Just anticipating a vacation can make you happier.
When we look forward to doing something fun, it triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
This helps explain why simply having a vacation on the horizon tends to make us happier. A 2002 study by the University of Surrey in the U.K. assessed the sense of well-being in two groups of people — those with a vacation planned and those without — and found those who were waiting to go on a holiday were much happier with life as a whole and reported experiencing fewer negative and unpleasant feelings, which consequently had a net positive effect.
Additionally, a 2014 study by Gilovich and colleagues found that people were happier when they were anticipating an experience than a material purchase.
The happiness doesn’t disappear when the trip ends.
Your vacation high doesn’t end when you return home. In a recent study from South Korea, researchers interviewed 225 tourists who traveled overseas and found that, on average, life satisfaction rose 15 days before travel and lasted for about one month after returning home. The upshot: Not only does planning a trip make you happy, but the emotional benefits of travel stay with you long after you’ve returned home.
Travel can make you more creative.
A 2014 study from the Academy of Management Journal looked at the connection between international professional experience and creativity. The team of researchers from the Columbia Business School analyzed 11 years of collections at the world’s top fashion houses, looking for correlations between the creative directors’ travel experiences and the level of creativity of their fashion houses. The study found that the brands whose creative directors had lived and worked in other countries produced the most creative designs, as judged by a pool of fashion journalists and independent fashion buyers. The researchers theorized that travel forces you to think in different ways and develop “cognitive flexibility,” which is a key component of creativity.
Travel can improve your personality.
Does our personality change when we get outside our comfort zones? There’s evidence that living abroad for even a short time can affect core personality traits, particularly the one known as “openness to experience.” People with high levels of openness tend to seek out new experiences, be comfortable with the unfamiliar, and be more introspective than those lower on the trait, who can be perceived as closed-minded.
A study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined a large sample of German college students — some of whom studied abroad for one or two semesters while students in the control group remained in Germany. Before and after the travel period, all participants were given a personality inventory to measure “big five” personality dimensions (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability). After returning from studying abroad, students tended to show an increase in openness, agreeableness and emotional stability relative to the control group. The researchers chalked up these personality changes to changes in social networks as a result of travel. In short, people who traveled tended to meet a lot of new people and end up with a fresh mix of friends.
So go ahead and plan your next vacation. Science says it’s good for you.
This Is Your Brain On Travel – Forbes