How Travels Spurs Personal Growth

New research on peak experiences offers fresh insights.

Posted Feb 13, 2020

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” asserted Robert Louis Stevenson, the famed late 19th-century British writer. In his short life of 44 years, he roamed far from his native Edinburgh—and saw much of the world, seeking both adventure and love. But as my new collaborative research with Ahrisue Choi and Kristin Bongcaras reveals, Stevenson’s cautionary aphorism is incorrect. 

How so? In surveying peak experiences involving travel among over 200 people between the ages of 18 and 39, we found that nearly 82% reported that traveling had helped them in problem-solving or decision-making. Indeed, their elaborations showed a variety of psychological benefits surely unanticipated by the celebrated author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.   

To be fair toward Stevenson, he wasn’t alone in ignoring the importance of travel for personal growth and well-being. Virtually none of the founders of modern psychology analyzed this important connection or even noted it. You might think that Abraham Maslow had insights to offer, but perhaps because he traveled so little in his own life, the linkage eluded him. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that this conceptual bond was forged, when Peter Adler argued that the culture shock experienced by “exchange students, international volunteers, military and diplomatic personnel, and others engaged in cross-cultural {endeavors} needn’t be entirely negative.” Rather, Adler insisted, culture shock could spur self-development and even self-actualization by exposure to new beliefs, values, and lifestyles.   

Since Peter Adler’s pioneering formulation, research in this genre has focused mainly on tourism rather than work-related travel, probably due to the huge expansion of international tourism. For example, a study led by Chris Ryan of the University of Waikato in New Zealand found that touring backpackers had memorable experiences involving themes of difference, uniqueness, bonding with others, and a sense of achievement.  More recently, Ondrej Mitas at Breda University in the Netherlands and his colleagues identified a variety of positive emotions in leisure travel, including contentment, interest, love, and joy.   

How does travel/tourism specifically help with problem-solving and decision-making? Our study uncovered 7 distinct pay-offs:  

  1. De-cluttered and better thinking. For example, one participant related, “When I travel, I can make my world as slow as possible for me to think” and another recounted that, “It cleared my mind. It gave me time to really think and weigh things out.”
  2. Greater calmness and peace of mind. To illustrate this, one participant reported, “It helped me ease my mind from stress” and another stated that, “Travel helped me not to overthink problems, and to relax and have time for my family.”
  3. Increased hope and optimism. One participant commented, “To always be grateful for what I have” and another said that, “I helped regain my confidence when I was on the brink of giving up my job-hunting due to constant rejection.”  
  4. A broader perspective on human life and culture. Another participant recounted, “It helped me as a marketing officer to learn more about the culture of other people and to relate to them more easily.” Similarly, another related that, “It made me realize how big the world is and how everybody else’s lives just go on, no matter what I was going through. It gave me a broader perspective.”
  5. Heightened self-discovery through solitary time. Another participant mused, “Being free of day-to-day hassles helped me to focus on self-reflection” and another poetically recalled, “It made me see the <value> of every failure I had in the past and to be more productive in my work.”
  6. Enhanced gratitude and appreciation. One participant reported, “It made me appreciate little things in life and value more time for people whom I want to be with.” Another noted that “Somehow, it helped me to wonder about all the beautiful things in life and appreciate it.” 
  7. Self-empowerment—such as spurring greater courage, self-confidence, and autonomy. For instance, one participant commented that “It made me quit my routine job that was making me unhappy. It showed me that life is not only about making money; it’s about how you make the most out of the life that’s given to you.”

Can travel bring additional psychological benefits to people in their 20s and 30s? How about to those in midlife and beyond? To what extent are the growth gains outlined above influenced by our individual traits, interests, and goals? Moreover, how does travel enhance our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? Further research will tell us. But in the meantime, don’t hesitate to make your travel plans now.

References

Adler, P.S. (1975). The transitional experience: An alternative view of culture shock. Journal of  Humanistic Psychology, 15 (4), 13-23.    

Mitas, O., Yarnal, C., Adams, R., & Ram, N. (2012). Taking a "peak" at leisure travelers'  positive emotions. Leisure Sciences, 34, 115-135.   

Ryan, C., Trauer, B., Kave, J., & Sharma, A. & Sharma, S. (2003). Backpackers—What is the peak experience? Tourism Recreation Research, 28, 93-98.