Coming off the winter holidays, most of us start dreaming of, if not planning, our spring and summer getaways. It’s tempting, of course, to default to the same vacation each year: your family’s cabin, a familiar beach town, your favorite city, that resort the kids loved. We often choose to spend our hard-earned dollars for comfort, predictability, and relaxation, and there are benefits to doing so.
But as a psychologist, I believe that travel should routinely be used to achieve the opposite: to get out of your comfort zone, expose yourself to uncertainty, and eschew rest for exploration and learning. The result is personal growth — greater emotional agility, empathy, and creativity. A recent trip to Sri Lanka, with an unexpected stop in Thailand, led me to think more deeply about the positive impact of adventures that challenge us.
The first benefit is enhanced emotional agility, or the ability to not react immediately to emotions, but to observe those that arise, carefully collect information to understand the possible causes, then intentionally decide how to manage them. In a study of 485 United States adults, exposure to foreign travel was linked to a greater ability to direct attention and energy, which helps us function effectively in diverse situations and display appropriate verbal and nonverbal signals of emotion. Visiting more countries (breadth) or greater immersion into the local culture (depth) enhanced these effects, and they remained after the study subjects returned home. By spending time in unfamiliar towns, cities, or countries, you become tolerant and even accepting of your own discomfort and more confident in your ability to navigate ambiguous situations.
I felt this growth during my two weeks in Sri Lanka. Standing amid a slew of older, short men dressed in rainbow-colored robes and speaking Sinhalese, I’d never felt more foreign. I knew I wouldn’t be able to navigate the narrow roads full of tuk-tuks, bicyclists, and pedestrians in a rental car, and the prospect of purchasing transport, food, clothes, or art without any indication of their price was daunting. But eventually I got my bearings. After a few days on the ground, I even got up the nerve to take a yoga class taught entirely in Sinhalese. I now know that any initial anxiety is just a reaction, one that will dissipate as I begin to operate in it.
Empathy also increases when your travels thrust you into new territory. In that same study of Americans, those who’d traveled abroad showed a greater ability to suspend judgment about a person until acquiring information beyond surface qualities (age, sex, race, or ethnicity). They were also more adept at discerning whether another person’s actions reflected deep-seated personality attributes or a variety of situational factors that could be influencing their behavior. When researchers in China gave a survey to 197 adults before and after traveling, they uncovered similar influences on the exertion of effort to attend to pronounced cultural differences in normalized values and behavioral patterns in everyday social interactions. People who traveled to more countries developed a greater tolerance and trust of strangers, which altered their attitudes toward not only strangers but also colleagues and friends back home. They became more appreciative of people with new knowledge, philosophies, and skills.