How to Get the Mental Health Benefits of Travel Without Going Anywhere
Here's how to experience the feel-good effects of adventure from home
Travel has the power to transform you. When you leave the everyday behind and encounter a vastly different culture or landscape, it not only inspires awe and leaves you feeling happier and refreshed, but also has the potential to ignite a deeper mental shift that can lead to more long-term fulfillment and self-awareness.
"[When you're in a foreign land] you might feel a sense of freedom, where there aren't the same types of boundaries, and that might mean you're able to think in new and different ways," says Jasmine Goodnow, a researcher in the department of health and human development at Western Washington University.
While most of the world remains grounded for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus pandemic, research suggests you can get the emotional benefits of travel without going far—if anywhere. Of course, there's no substitute for the thrill of waking up in a foreign country, watching an iconic mountaintop sunrise, or savoring the heady scent of exotic street food. But with no firm date when widespread international travel will reopen—or how many people will feel comfortable getting on a plane when it does—here's how to get the feel-good effects of travel now.
Plan a trip.
Planning a trip is half the fun, or so the old adage goes. You may not feel comfortable booking a plane ticket quite yet, but that doesn't mean you can't start thinking about where you'd like to travel next. By painting a mental picture of your dream destination, imagining yourself there, and pouring over images and written accounts of possible adventures and activities, you might get as much satisfaction as if you were actually there. According to a 2010 Dutch study, the greatest spike in people's travel-related happiness actually comes in anticipation of a trip, not during it.
Why? It has to do with reward processing. "Reward processing is the way in which your brain processes pleasurable or rewarding stimuli in your environment," explains Megan Speer, Ph.D., a social and affective (emotional) neuroscience researcher at Columbia University. "Rewards are broadly defined as stimuli that evoke a positive emotion and can elicit approach and goal-directed behavior." This positive emotion comes from a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine (known as the "happiness hormone") from the midbrain, she says. And, interestingly enough, "anticipating future rewards elicits similar reward-related responses in the brain as actually receiving a reward," says Speer.
Reveling in the minutiae of planning, including plotting multi-day hiking routes, researching hotels, and finding new or undiscovered restaurants, can be an exciting experience. Many bucket-list adventures also require tons of advance planning in order to secure permits or book accommodations, so this is a good time to choose a destination that requires some forethought. Immerse yourself in guidebooks or travelogues (like these adventure travel books written by badass women), visualize details about the destination through a mood board, and imagine moments of fulfillment or relaxation that you'll experience there. (Here's more on How to Plan a Bucket-List Adventure Trip.)
Remember the good times.
If scrolling through old travel photos on Instagram in search of #travelsomeday inspiration feels like a time-waster, you can scroll easier knowing that a healthy dose of nostalgia may boost your mood. Much like the joy to be found in anticipation of travel, looking back on past adventures can also increase happiness, according to research published in Nature Human Behavior. "Reminiscing about positive memories engages brain regions responsible for reward processing and can both decrease stress while also increasing positivity in the moment," explains Speer.
Go beyond virtual throwbacks and take the time to print and frame a couple of favorite photos that you can look at every day, revisit the lost art of the photo album, or practice mental recall by envisioning yourself back in a foreign place during meditation. You could also try journaling about past travels to relive a cherished memory.
"Mental and written recall don't seem to differ in terms of eliciting positive effect," says Speer. "Whichever method leads to the most vivid and salient memory for a particular individual is the most beneficial to wellbeing."
What does seem to make a difference, however, is remembering trips made with friends or family. "Reminiscing about positive social memories can lead to the greatest reduction of stress hormone levels, especially since people may have felt socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic," explains Speer. "We've also found that recalling memories with a close friend can lead to remembering those experiences as being more vivid and positive."
Immerse yourself in another culture.
Whether you're envisioning a future trip or recalling fond travel memories, you can deepen the process by bringing in some real-time cultural experiences inspired by the destination. One of the great pleasures of travel is discovering a place and understanding its traditions through food. If 2021 has you dreaming of Italy, try mastering lasagna bolognese or growing an Italian herb garden to add authentic flavor to homemade pizza. (These chefs and culinary schools are also offering online cooking classes right now.)
Learning a new language also has a positive impact on mental health and improves brain function, including better memory, increased mental flexibility, and more creativity, according to a study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. So, while you're perfecting your at-home sushi making and daydreaming about future cherry blossom strolls in a yukata, why not learn to toast your meal in Japanese? Turn to an easy language-learning app like Duolingo or Memrise, or consider auditing a college class on a platform like Coursera or edX for free (!).
Go on a microadventure.
When you travel, you're less stressed, more present, and experience an enhanced sense of freedom, all of which can lead to better mood and positive personal change, says Goodnow. "It's this idea of liminality or the perceived sense of being away from home, both cognitively and physically," she explains. (Liminality is a word often used in anthropology that describes relating to a sensory threshold or being in an intermediate, in-between state.)
Luckily, for everyone confined to regional travel over the coming months, you don't need to cross oceans to achieve this feeling of being away and the positive effects that come with it. "I've seen that there's no difference in the sense of liminality between people who traveled long-term and people who went on a microadventure (going somewhere local for less than four days)," says Goodnow. (More here: 4 Reasons to Book a Microvacation Right Now)
The key to getting the same satisfaction and mood boost from a local adventure as you would from a far-flung journey has more to do with how you approach the trip than about where you go. "Approach your microadventure with a sense of intention," advises Goodnow. "If you can create a sense of sacredness or specialness around the microadventure, as most people do with [long-haul] travel, it primes your mind and you make choices in a way that's going to help elevate that sense of liminality, or being away," she explains. "Wear your travel clothes and play tourist. Splurge a little bit more on special things like food or get the guided tour of a museum." (You get even more benefits when it's an outdoor adventure-style trip.)
Much like getting on a plane signals to your mind that you're on vacation, creating a threshold you cross over on your local adventures also helps make a microadventure feel important. This could be as simple as taking a ferry to get to your destination, crossing a border, or even leaving the city behind and entering a park. Companies across the globe are also turning their attention to local travelers and developing microadventure itineraries, including the Haven Experience by ROAM Beyond, a four-night glamping adventure in Washington's Cascade Mountains, or Getaway, which offers mini cabins near major cities to allow people to escape and unplug. (Here are more outdoor adventure trips to bookmark for next year, and glamping destinations you might be able to check out this summer.)
Rediscover the familiar.
It's easy to feel present when you're somewhere exotic and awe-inspiring. There's a rush of new sights, sounds, and smells when you land in a foreign country that makes you feel hyper-aware of your surroundings and helps you notice details that you don't at home. But learning to acknowledge the beauty in your everyday environments gives you the opportunity to cultivate mindfulness.
"When you're on a local adventure, perk up your senses by noticing what you see, hear, and smell," says Brenda Umana, M.P.H., a Seattle-based wellness expert and mindfulness consultant. "You could also choose to listen more and speak less for a portion of your local adventure." On a hike? If you're with friends or family, take a break from catching up and stay silent for 10 minutes, and if you're alone, ditch the earbuds and just listen to what's around you. (You can even create a home wellness retreat if you don't want to leave the house.)
"This awareness or noticing can be referred to as active concentration, and eventually that concentration takes us into meditation," explains Umana. "By cultivating mindful awareness when we're out in nature, we're removing the stressors of city life and giving the nervous system, which is constantly overstimulated, time to regulate." When we do this locally, we also don't have the stress that can come with long-haul travel, like coming home to a mountain of work. (Related: Why You Should Meditate While You Travel)
"These small moments of curiosity around our everyday environments can carry over into other parts of our lives, and lead to a bigger change in our wellness, whether it's physically, emotionally, or spiritually," says Umana.