To the casual reader, the title of this post may seem a little bit over the top. It sounds self-indulgent, perhaps a little elitist and dripping with self-righteousness. But those people all misunderstand me. The purpose of this post isn’t to say how amazing traveling to the hidden pockets of the globe is and if you only traveled more often then you’d live a happier and healthier life. No, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how the art of travel, whether it be to that aforementioned secret nook tucked away on another continent or to a town a couple of hours away, no matter how we travel, why or to where the experience necessarily changes us. While it has come to shape my life perhaps more dramatically than for some others, I think that the lessons I’ve learned and how travel has made me a better person can be extrapolated to just about anyone. And yes, to go back to my rhetorical statement above, travel does make our lives almost inconceivably better.
I live in Washington, DC and am therefore a natural born cynic prone to cranky outbursts. Over the years though I have been drawn out of my shell of skepticism through the people I meet, most notably when I’m not at home. All over the country and the world, I have seen countless examples of good acts and genuine kindness from mere strangers. This has a unique pay-it-forward effect. I truly believe that this behavior is imprinted on all of us as we travel and when it comes time for us to aid someone in need, we are standing by the ready to help and assist. Sure, there are always going to be bad actors and unfortunate events that happen when we travel, but on the whole it is a wonderfully positive experience that (almost) always makes me proud of my fellow man. Then I come home to Washington.
I have my foibles, as we all do; I’m prone to getting annoyed fairly quickly and my personality errs on the side of crankiness. Travel has helped temper these negative sides of my personality. When commingled with the gentle maturity that aging provides, travel has made me a much more patient and even tolerant person. It’s hard not to improve in these areas when you travel; delays, lost possessions and other travel mishaps teach us all to slow down and relax. Tolerance comes from meeting so many new people from around the world and understanding that we’re really not so different after all.
Although at one time in my life it was hard for me to believe, I now realize that education happens on a nearly daily basis. This process of learning not just about new facts and figures, but a more interpersonal kind of intellectual development occurs on hyper-speed when we travel. It is impossible to leave home and not pick up something, whether it’s from a formal tour, in a museum or by talking with new friends. We always learn when we travel and this lifelong quest to know more is what drives me to hit the road as often as I do.
The biggest impediment to travel is fear; fear of the new and unknown, fear of danger and risk. Visiting new places helps us conquer these fears, to push our travel envelopes and become more confident in ourselves. Travel also gives us the ability to face specific fears. For some reason many people take on a mantle of bravery when they go on vacation and do and try things they would never do at home. I experience this frequently, like the time I was in South Africa and decided to bungee jump off of a soccer stadium. I still can’t believe I did it and I really don’t want to do it again, but the fact is that I did it once. I faced my fears and literally made the leap. Many of us experience this same phenomenon, whether it’s trying out a new language (fear of making a mistake) or swimming with sharks (fear of being eaten), we all become braver, more confident people when we travel.
Happier and Healthier
Yes, it’s true, traveling helps us be healthier people. Studies have shown a whole host of benefits including a lower risk of heart disease and coronary death in people who take annual vacations. No surprise there really, taking a vacation helps us relax and calm down in what is an increasingly stressful world. The act of travel itself is also healthy, I know I get much more exercise when I’m on the road than when I’m at home. That same study also showed a lower percentage of depression amongst people who travel, so getting out there and seeing the world helps us be happier people too. Happier people are of course healthier people, so the act of travel helps us physically and mentally. Most Americans do not use all of their annual vacation days, a shocking statistic given how few we get in the first place. Trips don’t have to be long or expensive for you to realize health benefits, the simple act of taking time off and leaving the house, even on a short trip, yields tremendous benefits.
In what ways has travel helped you become a better person?