The Many Ways Travel Is Good for Your Mental Health
Americans are notoriously hardworking, sometimes to the detriment of our own health. We take fewer vacations than most other countries in the developed world. We're much less likely to travel, as well. "The average U.S. citizen has been outside the country three times. In other countries, it's more like a dozen times," says Dr. Joshua A. Weiner, a psychiatrist practicing in McLean, Virginia.
Though there hasn't been a lot of direct research into this, most experts agree that travel has powerful mental health benefits. "A lot is based on making reasonable conclusions based on other things we do know," says Dr. John Denninger, a psychiatrist, expert on mind-body science and the director of research for the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. On balance, he says, travel is "absolutely" good for mental health.
Here are 12 ways traveling boosts your mental health:
Travel is a form of behavioral activation. Depressed individuals tend to isolate themselves and avoid things that can bring pleasure, which only makes their depression worse. Increased engagement in activities that have been shown to improve mood, like travel, can help. "It can be as simple as going for a walk, but something more involved, like travel, we can say by analogy almost certainly is worthwhile," Denninger says.
Experiences trump "stuff." Multiple research studies have demonstrated that happiness is increased much more by experiences than by things," Denninger says. "People think the thing that will make them happy is the new Mercedes, but in fact, what makes them happier is the trip they took to Disneyland, or wherever." A 2014 paper in the journal Psychological Science that looked at four previous studies concluded that "people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good."
[Read: A Look at Depression Around the World.]
Travel teaches resilience. Anyone who has ever traveled, even on a supposedly easy vacation, knows that a road trip is rarely fun every minute. "There are always challenges and conflicts, like in the rest of life. Travel is a chance to recognize that this stuff does happen," Denninger says. "I try to teach my kids that you can have those hard moments, even in the midst of vacation, and it does not 'wreck' the vacation. It's a moment, and you move on, and that is a good example for when you return to your regular life. Those lessons can be learned in a more concentrated way when traveling."
It can alleviate seasonal affective disorder. By the middle of winter, everyone yearns for some warm sunshine, but those with SAD often need it to combat seasonal depression. "I have patients who, if they have some sort of SAD, I tell to make sure they go on a cruise or head somewhere sunnier every winter," Weiner says. "It is unclear if it works because of the vacation or whether it's the week in the sun, but either way it seems to do the trick."
It's a break from daily stress. "You are more likely to disconnect from the phone, and focus on the relationships that really matter, like family," Weiner says.
Travel connects you with nature. A trip that includes time in natural settings has proven positive health effects. "Our experience of being on a mountain or by the ocean feels sustaining," Denninger says. For instance, studies have found that going for a walk in nature -- rather than an urban environment -- can boost your mental health.
It "stretches" you. "Any time you have the opportunity to do something a little less comfortable, to expose yourself to new things, that does two things," Denninger says. "It creates experiences that can build happiness, and it trains you to be more flexible in your daily life. Travel is often a great opportunity to do that."
Travel encourages human interaction. "One of the most important contributors to mental health is relationships with other people," Denninger says. "Travel gives couples, families, groups of friends and even people who meet as strangers an opportunity to connect over new experiences. That is incredibly important to mental health."
[See: Am I Just Sad -- or Actually Depressed?]
It increases physical activity. Not all vacations are based on skiing or hiking, but on most vacations people tend to be more active. "They walk more, go out to do things, and physical activity has consistently been shown to improve mood," Denninger says.
It challenges you. Travel often involves problem solving and creative thinking. When your navigation app sends you in the wrong direction, you have to find your way. When your flight is delayed or canceled, you have to figure out how to get to your destination. Solving problems creatively has been shown to help maintain and improve cognitive health. "This type of stress can be experienced in positive way," Denninger says. "It's almost like the no pain, no gain idea. If you are always comfortable, you are not growing, so a little discomfort is good. It shows you can get through it."
It encourages gratitude. A lot of data suggests that showing appreciation, in the form of gratitude journals or diaries, is a powerful tool for mental health. "Travel is great time to keep a gratitude journal and to write down new experiences," Denninger says. "Travel is a great thing to appreciate, to remind yourself that not everyone has the opportunity to do this. That appreciation has been demonstrated to be positive for mood and mental health."
[See: Before You Travel: Have You Gotten Recommended Vaccines?]
Travel may extend your life. A 2013 white paper titled "Destination Healthy Aging: The Physical, Cognitive and Social Benefits of Travel," prepared by the Global Coalition on Aging, the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies and the U.S. Travel Association, reports that travel, especially for retirees, helps prevent dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. The famed Framingham Heart Study found that women who took a vacation every six years or less had a significantly higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from coronary disease than women who vacationed at least twice a year. And men who did not take a yearly vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease.
As the Destination Healthy Aging paper concludes, "Ponce de Leon visited Florida 500 years ago in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. Though he did not find it, by traveling, he was on the right track. Travel and healthy aging, the process of remaining as vibrant as possible in body and mind, are in fact closely associated."
David Levine is a freelance health reporter at U.S. News. He is a contributing writer for athenaInsight.com and Wainscot Health Media, a former health care columnist for Governing magazine and a regular contributor to many other health and wellness publications. He also writes about lifestyle and general interest topics, from history and business to beer and baseball, as a contributing writer for Westchester, Hudson Valley and 914INC magazines. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage and dozens of other national publications, and he is the author or co-author of six books on sports. You can connect him on LinkedIn.