Travel Happy: Psychology’s tips for a great get away

It's Tuesday so this is an #IBOT post

Hip hip hooray. I’m off to the airport next week and jetting to the Gold Coast for the great big blogger get together known as ProBlogger Training Event.  Over 650 bloggers, social media experts, small business peeps, bigger business reps and photographers at the RACV Royal Pines Resort, sharing wisdom, knowledge, experience, laughs and maybe a drink or two over a long weekend.  I’m so looking forward to it.

my heart swings back and forth between the need for routine and the urge to run

A few days away in warmer sunnier climes chatting and learning is a great break from routine (did I mention warm? It’s still tops of eight degrees and rather grey and wet where I live). As much as I love my children, hubby and home and crave the reliability and order of routine sometimes, there is a time and place for chucking it all in and doing something completely different.

The opportunity to travel and get away is the opportunity to do just that. To make a break from the daily responsibilities of work and family and washing and the never ending meal preparation. To just be me for a few days. Like I said, I’m so looking forward to it.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of research by psychologists into travel; just the effects of commuting and that hardly counts.  But we do know that when we meet new people, explore new places, try something different and learn – the whole aim of most travel – we build new networks in our brains. 

We’re effectively growing our brains and allowing pathways of neurons to form.  This keeps the bits of the brain we need to think and solve problems well exercised, replacing any unused pathways with new ones and helping to keep the whole system in tip top shape.  A bit of fun, a change of scene and socialising can also reduce our stress and that is known to reduce the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression. 

The good news for your brain and well being doesn’t end there.  Here are three tips from positive psychology, the study of human flourishing, for making the most of a trip away and maximising your well being.

Psychology's Tips for a Great Getaway

1.       Buy experience not things. Is shopping on your travel agenda? Save the extra suitcases and use the spending money for a walking tour, a fancy night out or a chance to swim with dolphins instead.  Happiness research tells us that buying things makes us happy, but only for a short while.  Then we adapt to having those items in our lives and go back to being as happy as we were before.  As thrilled as you might be with your new dress, vase or gadget, it creates a happiness blip.  The positive feelings don’t last.

Experiences, on the other hand, have been shown to contribute to longer term contentment.  We absorb those experiences into our very being.  We keep the memories, the emotions, the knowledge, the very soul of the experience within us.  We don’t adapt to experience; we live it both in the present and into the future and that keeps the contentment we feel from the experience alive for much longer. 

Interestingly the experiences don't need to be positive to have a beneficial effect. Research suggests that  if we have a negative experience - your bags were stolen, you were violently ill on the scuba diving trip or the train's restaurant car was left behind in Poland and you travelled two days to Russia with only red wine, pumpernickel and a boiled egg for sustenance (that's mine) - if we talk about it afterwards we feel better about it and it also contributes to our happiness.  

Maybe that's why we all like to share our horror travel stories?

2.       Savour each moment.  You know that delicious anticipation of a holiday or trip away?  The mental conjuring of you by the pool in Fiji with a cocktail or taking in the view as you hike the Inca Trail.  Excitedly talking to your fellow travellers about how great it's going to be? Well that is a type of savouring and it's good for your mental well being.  

Savouring, in happiness research, is anything that we do to maintain or augment a positive experience.  When we do that in advance of the actual experience it's called positive mental time travel. How cool is that?

We savour in lots of different ways when we travel.  We take lots of photos and look back over these, we share and relive the day's experience with others, and we're more likely to notice and absorb what's around us - to be mindful - than we do in the humdrum of home life.  

The tip here is to be more conscious of our savouring.  Make sure you're taking it all in.  Savour the feelings, the sensations, the food, the fun, the awe and even the challenges.  Don't rush.  Oh and really relish in the anticipation and that positive mental time travel. 

3.       Be curious. If you're a traveller you're probably curious.  An interest in other places, lives and cultures, in new experiences, cuisines and scenes is often what drives us to take a trip and see the world.  But from a happiness and well being perspective there's a difference between just being interested in what we're seeing around us and really being open and curious.

Looking for what is novel or new in any situation, even when it makes us feel a bit anxious or uncomfortable, benefits our health, relationships, sense of meaning and our happiness says psychologist Todd Kashdan from George Mason University. 

Kashdan says we tend to think of curiosity as the feeling we get when we're presented with something new or different but it's more than that. It's an attitude of being open to new things and inspired; about really engaging with the world around us whether it's in our every day life or in foreign lands. 

When you're travelling you're in the perfect position to engage your curiosity. Everything is new and it's just up to you to open your eyes and mind, to put aside any anxiety or concern about outcomes and to really fully engage in what's around you.

You might like to try these:

  • Ask genuine questions. Find an angle that really interests you and go forth and ask questions of other people, whether it's someone new you're sharing a table with at dinner or the tour guide for your day out.
  •  Look for little details.  Examine plants, rocks and seashells.  Watch people go about their daily routine. Ponder the landscape.  Be in awe of the architecture.  Store every little detail away in your mind.
  • Practice.  Do this every day, when you're travelling and when you're home. Curiosity can be learned and practised and regular practice will grow your brain, expand your mind and improve your well being.  Happy travels.

Do you have travel plans? Let me know.

I’ve written this post for you and for this cool competition for ProBlogger and Virgin Australia.