As summer rapidly approaches, I find myself looking up vacation deals and conjuring visions of sitting at a café anywhere other than the immediate radius of my home office.
I'm not talking about going to Florida for a few days. I’m not talking about beach vacations and swim-up bars—which have their place. I'm talking about being somewhere where people don't speak the same language, where you must relearn how to get from A to B, and where going to the grocery store can give you the feeling of wonder and curiosity that was commonplace as a child.
These trips force us to go outside of the known and quite possibly come back as different people than who we were when we left.
We travel to seek fulfillment
The desire we have for traveling and the hope that it can change us and our lives on a deep level is not a construct of the modern era. Alain de Botton, philosopher, and writer, talks about travel and how the benefits of it have long been held up on a pedestal. We hope and believe that it can provide something for us beyond what is available at home. De Botton writes, "Though most of us no longer believe in the divine power of journeys to cure toothache or gall stones, we can still hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address complaints of our psyches and bring about some sort of change in us in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we just remained in our bedrooms. There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us."
“There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us.” - Alain de Botton
Whether you're wounded or not, travel allows us the chance to discover alternative ways of being. That “sheer difference from our homelands” propels us forward and demands that we activate our creative mindset.
Travel is good for that creative slump
If you've ever experienced that brain-halting sensation of “slump,” as I have, of trying to figure out a solution to a problem, or a new way to write a story, or present a research report in a way that's interesting, grab your passport and book a trip. Preferably to some place far away.
Long-term and faraway travel is proven to influence and improve creative thought, according to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School. He writes, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms."
While short vacations should not be scoffed at (we do what we can do, right?) if you can swing a longer trip you allow yourself more exposure to experiences that can stretch and strengthen the brain's capacity to perform the deep connection Galinsky mentions.
Graham David Hughes traveled to every single country in the world without ever getting on a plane. Listen on as he provides some fascinating insights into cultural norms and peculiarities from his many adventures around the globe.
During a study Galinsky conducted, he followed several executive-level fashion directors on their international travels and discovered that the quantity of time spent away matters just like the quality. Those directors who spent time bouncing around from country to country did not reap the same benefits as those who stayed in one place for an extended amount of time.
I find myself as a bike passenger
I am lucky enough to have family and friends in both Sweden and Denmark, which means that when I can tear myself away from work I have places to stay free of charge. This also means I can stay longer, and work remotely as necessary. It also means I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in different cultures over time. I think at this point, many people are familiar with the Danish concept of hygge, but Denmark is also one of the most bike-friendly and bike-centric cities in Europe. Nine out of ten Danes own a bike versus the four out of ten who own a car.
During a visit to Copenhagen, to see my friend Tine and her boyfriend Roland, they suggested that instead of me renting a bike as usual, that I simply ride in Roland's bike cart usually reserved for his upright bass. I looked at the large wooden box attached to the front of Roland's bike and laughed at their joke.
Tine asked why I was laughing. I said because in America if one adult was giving another a ride around in a large wooden box, there would be questions asked. Then I realized I wasn't in America. So, I climbed in.
In America if one adult was giving another a ride around in a large wooden box, there would be questions asked. Then I realized I wasn't in America. So, I climbed in.
I discovered that it's delightful to have someone else cart you around. And no one cared or even seemed to notice. From that point on, I spent the rest of my trip as a passenger. I let someone else take the wheel both literally and metaphorically.
Foraging for mushrooms
During the same trip, Tine took me to her family's country house where we foraged for mushrooms, mostly chanterelles. Later, we cooked the mushrooms up and ate them. I'm pleased to say there was a lot of butter and cream involved. No regrets.
Tine taught me what mushrooms to look for and which to stay away from (anything with a bright color) and which spots were best for chanterelles. Not only that, but I learned that mushroom picking is also a serious deal for the Danes. Tine said that people tend to be secretive about good spots they find, lest someone else take advantage of their mushroom bounty.
These events may seem small and inconsequential, but they are so far removed from my daily life back home. They were experiences I would not have had if I stuck on the tourist path. Yes, I was lucky to have Danish friends, but these are experiences that can be sought out if one wants to. These are the types of experiences I try to find wherever I go–they simultaneously make me feel more alive and present in the world and more connected to the people around me.
You can activate or enhance facets of your personality
Between my biking around and mushroom foraging, I noticed a change in myself. A change that stuck with me when I returned home. I was more interested in seeking out new experiences and people.
Some psychologists say by traveling and engaging in new social circles, different facets of our personalities are activated or enhanced. Often, it’s the “openness” that expands, along with agreeableness and emotional stability.
I like to consider myself an open person, but if someone back home had first asked me to ride through downtown Chicago in a bike box, I would have politely, and firmly, declined. And not just because our bike lanes are pot-holed.
If someone back home had first asked me to ride through downtown Chicago in a bike box, I would have politely, and firmly, declined. And not just because our bike lanes are pot-holed.
Both openness and emotional stability are qualities that make us less reactive on a day-to-day basis, which is super important for dealing with work stress and making us generally more pleasant to be around. I know I'm always much more emotionally equipped to deal with tight deadlines after a quality, long vacation. And often, the distance equips me with a new perspective to attack problems that plagued me before a trip.
Travel to find out what matters
We can't tidy up our inner lives and psyches in the same way we can declutter with Marie Kondo-like precision. I know Kondo argues that cleaning up can change our lives for the better, and I'm sure she's right to an extent. However, I will always be an advocate of traveling. I'd gladly trade in a trash bag for a plane ticket.
By exposing ourselves to what is new and stimulating, we can come back to our old lives with a fresh perspective and new eyes to keep what matters and toss the rest. Or even, as de Botton writes, “salve the wounded parts of us.”
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.