Opinion: Real Ways Travel Catalyzes Change and Betters You

Ryan Shannon

Too few know of these travel benefits

Disclaimer: This story contains affiliate links to my book, "Journey On". I earn a small commission if you click and purchase. Thank you!

The benefits of travel go beyond mere exploration of the physical world. There’s an internal counter-component as well. In other words, when you travel the world, you also travel within.

You confront your biases.

You challenge your beliefs.

You question your values.

It’s no wonder why we naturally gravitate towards traveling and exploring the world. It helps to complete us, adding value to our lives. Beyond noting the allure of travel from an intuitive perspective, I wanted to see if there are scientific reasons that may account for our seeming inherent wanderlust.

Why it is that so many of us want to travel?

And how, according to science, can travel make us better humans?

I always knew that travel and being in new, foreign environments just felt exciting and right from personal, anecdotal experiences throughout my adventures. But I began wondering why. As it turns out, travel can have profound health benefits including:

  • Lowered stress (1)
  • Improved well-being (1)
  • Heart attack and heart disease prevention (2)(3)(4)
  • Increased happiness (5)
  • Increased connection to self and others
  • Increased connection to ancestry

In case you have also wondered why so many of us are imbued with wanderlust, and how travel can benefit us, I’ve put in a little research and wanted to share my findings. These are the top reasons why travel is so beneficial to us.

I hope this little story helps to push you out the door for your next journey — whether within, or across borders!

1. Routine-busting

Routines can be great! They can lead to productive habits and reduce stress. But sometimes it’s nice to break free from the same, depressing routine that we follow, day in and day out. While routines offer security, they rarely allow us to stretch beyond our comfort zones. I wonder how many routines go something like this:

Wake up. Eat. Go to school or work. Eat again. Gym, bar, social time, TV, whatever. Eat again. Sleep.

Repeat.

If your daily routine is similar, it may be time for you to mix things up. Routines can be great, but if you find yourself constantly running in the circle of repetition, it may be time to explore life beyond monotony.

When you follow the same routine for too long, you become a hamster on a wheel — running in place with no traction made.

Travel is one of the best means of freeing yourself from your (hamster) cage so that you can start running (or bussing, driving, flying, floating) instead of being stagnant in life.

Variation may be key to a happy, healthy life; to prevent boredom, and foster personal growth.

2. Language Learning

Even if you have no desire to learn the language of the country you are planning on visiting (at the very least, learn the basic “Hello”, “please” and “thank you” out of respect), just by being immersed in a place where your mother tongue is not spoken, you are bound to pick up some useful phrases and words.

In Japan, for example, I still know the basics and can greet others. I can probably get by in basic conversation (as long as gestures and visual cues are involved). I thought it would be impossible to learn any Japanese since it’s so unrelated to English and uses an entirely different grammatical structure, characters, and script. I had no intention of picking up Japanese beyond just a few words— it happened spontaneously.

By being surrounded by the language 24/7 and hearing (eavesdropping on, perhaps) conversations on the subway, the brain begins to assimilate these new sounds. You may try your newly learned words at the store or with friends for instant feedback, making language learning more effective than in a traditional classroom setting.

After traveling to Italy, I ended up staying with a host on Couchsurfing.com for 2 weeks who didn’t speak a word of English. At first, we used Google Translate for everything. But with about 15 minutes of using Duolingo and Quizlet a day, by the end of the trip I could speak Italian without a translator most of the time (note: I spoke a bit of Spanish and Portuguese, giving me an advantage).

Apply yourself when you travel.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Listen in on people’s conversations instead of drowning them out (might be taboo, but I still do it!)

Pluck out words you understand in spoken sentences.

By doing this, you’ll be able to capture the natural cadence of the speech, the unique sounds. Eventually, with practice, you may begin speaking it.

Being multilingual not only allows you to communicate better with people from other countries — it allows you to connect deeper with foreign cultures and seemingly different people. When you learn the words of a different language, it unlocks new worlds and perspectives. And, the locals will have more respect for you. You’ll be seen more as an “insider,” less as a foreigner. As an added bonus, speaking multiple languages never hurts on admissions applications or on a resume!

3. Technology Detox

For almost two years, I didn’t have phone service. Instead, I used Whatsapp and Skype (and got by perfectly fine). In fact, I didn’t even have a phone. I only used an iPod. Of course, it was frustrating not being able to call someone instantly without wifi. I always needed to find a Starbucks.

At times, when I was living in Tokyo, for example, in a smaller town outside of the center, I’d force myself to ask someone for directions or to use their phone. But these uncomfortable exchanges are where the magic happens. lacking a phone requires interaction with the people around you at times.

As a result, you may meet spectacular people, or share a simple smile with a stranger.

Realistically, you don’t need to be connected with friends and family 24/7, and in fact, this can rob you of your concentration and dampen your mental health. Trust me: your loved ones would probably be happy if you were to travel, but they might not want your updates every hour — it’s excessive.

Instead of being tuned into your phone, tune into your surroundings. Take in the sights, and sure — take pictures with your phone. You can always record your footage to upload on Snapchat and Instagram later, after the adventure is over. Being off your phone and experiencing life in its purest form, without needing to be constantly connected to technology, is freeing.

How often do we allow our phones to impede our full indulgence in the moment? Instead of actually watching the fireworks, why not take the moment in, feeling “the now” without being leashed by your cellular connection. (Besides, who even watches those firework videos after, anyway?!)

Travel makes it easy to put the phone down and tuck the computer away — you’ll see just how much better you’ll feel when choosing in-person connection over virtual.

4. Memories (That Last a Lifetime)

While you could argue you can constantly make memories — even living a monotonous lifestyle without travel — the memories from travel seem to be the most colorful, the most memorable. There are still some places from my travels I can see with my eyes closed — I’m even able to conjure up faint smells. The visceral connections you make to places and people stay with you as a traveler. They seem to fade more slowly (or not at all). And travel memories are perhaps just a little more exciting than memories of your previous lunch in the cubicle.

The memories from travel may be the brightest, most detailed ones you make. Some of them may still be felt with your five senses, even years later. It’s said your life flashes before you before dying. I think that flash will be full of memories from my travels — the time I hopped on a stranger’s moped in Indonesia, the time I boarded a plane to Tokyo at 18 with unfamiliar sounds and faces.

Life isn’t a competition, and comparing yourself to others is a sure-fire way to suck the life out of you, but I sometimes visualize myself in a future high school reunion. I think of sharing laughs and stories with my fellow travelers, enjoying a certain camaraderie and mutual understanding that only nomads can know. This sentiment can’t be shared with those who’ve stuck around town, taking the safe route in life, never expanding beyond their borders.

If you’re looking to add color to your memory reel, there are few better ways than travel to do so. Travel exposes you to new stimuli, new sights, new sensations. You become a newborn baby, relearning the world through a new lens.

5. New Behaviors

There’s something liberating about going somewhere where nobody knows who you are, what your past is like. Nobody knows about the time you spilled a glass of Coca-Cola on a kid's head while trying to balance it on a tray resting on your palm as a server (which happened to me!). Nobody knows about your family fiascos, your former broken relationship drama, your anxieties. That one time you blushed. Or the time you peed your pants in class.

When you travel, you enjoy a sense of anonymity. You become a fresh canvas, prime for creating new shapes, coloring new lines.

Just think about it for a second: Who would you be if nobody knew anything about you? If nobody expected anything from you? If nobody knew your past? Travel gives you a new environment to implement new thoughts, behaviors, and ways of being.

If you were a nerdy, quiet shy type of kid in high school growing up, now you can go out into the world being confident, fun, and outgoing. It’s a chance to start fresh and encourage personal growth. You decide who you are when you travel — without your lingering past.

New environments lead to new habits. Not surprisingly, this is corroborated by a study (as long as social cues change):

“College students’ daily routines for reading the newspaper, exercising and watching television remain the same when they transfer to a new university — as long as performance triggers such as location and social cues remain similar, according to a study in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, №6).
However, when the triggers for performance change, habits often do as well, the study indicates. For example, if their new dorm-mates don’t read the newspaper regularly like their old dorm-mates did, students might cut down their newspaper reading, notes the study’s principal investigator, Wendy Wood, PhD, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology at Duke University.” (6)

The point is, it’s much easier to find yourself — to be who you truly are — when you’re in a novel environment, free of the triggers of the past. Travel gives you the opportunity to be who you are, authentically.

In Conclusion

Even if times may not be ideal for travel, it’s important to expand past your comfort zone. To continually progress. To question your beliefs. To experience different ways of life and otherness. To cross borders. Travel is often referred to as the greatest teacher, and the above factors may help explain this phenomenon.

If you want to inadvertently become a better human, all that’s required is a bit of travel. A bit of dancing with foreignness, a willingness to go beyond.

For more in-depth information on how to travel for next to nothing, order my book “Journey On

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References

  1. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/1/130
  2. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/vacations-and-your-heart/
  3. www.sciencedaily.com%2Freleases%2F2019%2F06%2F190620153443.htm
  4. https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20180828/take-a-vacation-your-heart-will-thank-you
  5. https://time.com/4881326/vacation-health-happiness/

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Digital nomad, I/O psychology student, entrepreneur. Visited nearly 30 countries. Author of 5 books on freelancing, travel, mental health.

Bellingham, WA
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