by Stacy Lastoe and Hilary I. Lebow
Here’s why experts say you should consider making time for a vacation this year.
Travel lovers, rejoice. As of Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted the requirement for airline passengers to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a flight into the United States. After more than two years of stay-at-home orders and other travel restrictions, the majority of Americans are ready to venture out and explore, according to Tripadvisor’s annual travel forecast. And that actually may not be a bad idea, because research has found that satisfying our collective wanderlust has a surprising number of benefits for our mental — and possibly even physical — health.
It’s not only because time away from work and the responsibilities of daily life helps us shed stress. Our brains, it seems, are happier when we take them to new, far-flung places — though it’s best to check the CDC’s COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination before booking any trips to check travel restrictions.
How does travel benefit us? Here are five ways your next trip may contribute to your overall health and well-being.
1. Travel Makes You Happier
People who travel regularly (defined as trips at least 75 miles away from their home) report being about 7 percent happier than those who travel rarely or not at all, according to research on a Taiwanese population published in January 2021 in the journal Tourism Analysis.
Even before the pandemic, researchers identified a link between travel and happiness. They tracked the location of 132 adults for several months. The results, which were published in May 2020 in Nature Neuroscience, indicated that people who spent time in a variety of places reported more positive emotions than those who didn’t venture out as much. About half the subjects also underwent MRI scans near the end of the study, and the scans showed a strong association between visits to diverse places and activity in the hippocampus and the striatum, two parts of the brain that process novelty and reward.
Simply looking forward a trip may increase happiness. Results from a study published in the journal Psychological Science found that consumers experienced more positive feelings when they anticipated spending money on an upcoming experience (“doing”) than on a possession (“having”).
2. Travel May Lower Your Risk of Depression
You’ve likely heard that you “should” take your paid vacation time, but perhaps you’ve wondered if there’s actually evidence to back it up — and there is. Research published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal found that, of 1,500 women, those who took vacations more frequently reported less stress and depression.
Recent research supports these findings. In a study published in January 2019 in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health, experts observed positive results among a group of 3,380 working men and women ages 45 to 52. They found that 10 extra days of paid leave decreased the likelihood of depression by 29 percent for American women (there was no association in men).
“Travel can help with depression in that it gets people out of the rut of their everyday lives,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Flower Mound, Texas. “It can also be a great reminder of our own humanity, and seeing other people’s pain in the world as a whole can be a great connector when it comes to compassion for self and others.”
3. Travel Makes You More Creative
If you’re feeling burned out, travel may be useful for getting back on track. Adam Galinsky, a social scientist at Columbia University in New York City who studies the relationship between travel and creativity, has found a positive connection between the two. Adapting to different cultures, as often happens naturally and necessarily while traveling, can be powerful enough to foster creativity.
A study Galinsky cowrote, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that living abroad can facilitate a process called multicultural learning, which allows you to solve problems in new ways, increase your awareness of your surroundings, and reduce rigidity — all of which, researchers discovered, contribute to creativity.
Novel experiences may prompt you to be more creative, as you may have to think differently to navigate new situations, says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “The novelty of travel, including people, cultures, customs, and places, can broaden a traveler’s perspective, increasing positivity and allowing for creativity. Travel also offers us distance from a problem or situation, which can then give us the possibility of a new perspective.”
Recent research supports this view. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2021 assigned 274 workers to self-report their creativity before and after vacation. Researchers noted that while workers reported less creativity the first day back at work (while trying to tackle accumulated tasks), they felt overall more creative two weeks after a vacation when handling new tasks.
4. Travel Can Strengthen Your Relationships
If you feel closer to your loved ones after a vacation, you’re not imagining things. There is some research to suggest travel can bring you closer together. “Couples who travel together report more satisfaction, experience better communication, and have longer-lasting relationships. This also seems to be true for friendships and families. More time spent in leisure activities, which is more accessible when traveling, enhances our relationships,” explains Lurie.
Women who took two or more vacations per year had a higher level of marital satisfaction than those who took a vacation every two years or less, researchers reported in the Wisconsin Medical Journal. And couples who vacation together are more cohesive and flexible as a unit, with lasting effects well after they return home. The more positive vacation experiences you have with your partner — like communication, shared moments, and affection — the better your day-to-day functioning at home will be post-vacation, noted researchers after studying 112 couples for a study from December 2019 in the Journal of Travel Research.
5. Travel Relieves Your Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but long-term or chronic stress can negatively impact both your mental and physical health, per the American Psychological Association.
Even a short vacation may lower your overall stress, according to a study of 40 German middle managers published in July 2018 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The small study concluded that a four-day solo stay at a wellness hotel had a significant, positive, and immediate effect on stress and well-being (and suggests short vacations can be as effective as long ones).
Other research indicates that even looking forward to a planned vacation may blunt the effects of stress. Fifty-four workers completed surveys and wore devices to monitor their heart rate in the weeks leading up to and after a vacation. The results indicated that they were less affected by stress in their everyday lives the closer they got to their approaching vacation, according to a study published in August 2020 in the journal Psychology & Health.
The stress-busting effects of a well-timed vacation may be due, in part, to how it increases your connection to the present moment, which means travel can share similarities with the practice of mindfulness, says Elizabeth Jarquin, PhD, a licensed therapist in Dania Beach, Florida. “Individuals who are stressed usually have a lot going on in their minds and are unable to connect with the present. But when people travel, they are in a brand-new environment, one that is out of the ordinary.” This, she says, can lead them to be more mindful of what is going on around them, and may result in a greater connection with the people around them, their surroundings, and the moments they are living in.
After two years of staycations, now may be a good time to dust off the old passport, or plan a weekend or day trip somewhere new. As COVID-19 restrictions relax somewhat in the United States, a summer getaway could be just what the doctor ordered, and for good reason. Research shows that taking a vacation has multiple potential benefits for your mental health. Not only does some research indicate it can increase happiness and help prevent depression, but it can also help you recover from burnout, heighten your creativity, and expand your horizons — literally, of course, but cognitively, too.
Before you use up those vacation days, though, be sure to glance over the CDC’s guide to COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination in order to help keep you and your family safe.
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