I was asked to provide transportation between Galena and Rockford, IL yesterday for a couple of young men. I had the pleasure of meeting a 15-year-old who was going back to the Chicago area after visiting family friends. We talked about our travels. For a fifteen-year-old, he has traveled quite a bit including Hawaii and Honduras. He was to leave today for Montreal and intends to study in Berlin for a short time during his high school years. He would’ve preferred to study in Spain to improve his Spanish language skills.
The other young man is a 17-year-old Rotary foreign exchange student from Slovakia who has been here for almost a year. He just spent two weeks with other foreign exchange students on the US east coast. He described his trips to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston, and Washington, D.C. as the best two weeks of his life.
This reminded me of a wonderful opportunity I had when in my early thirties. I volunteered to provide evaluations of American Airlines flights from booking to departing. I was expected to fly in the US twelve times within six months. I became accustomed to traveling to cities alone and learned to prefer it. If I had limited time to enjoy a new place, I didn’t want to be slowed by having to accommodate to another’s habits (sleeping late) or preferences (I want to see this, not that). At the conclusion of the six months I was given a free flight to use as I chose. I was surprised that this experience broadened my world view in dramatic ways. I gained an experience of the variety, depth and breadth of the United States and Hawaii. In short, I loved it and did it again for an additional six months.
Why do some people travel and others are home bodies? People who enjoy trying new things and engaging in new experiences are high in Openness to Experience. Others who choose to remain in familiar environments are low in Openness to Experience. One study found that students who chose to study abroad were generally higher in Extroversion, Conscientiousness (a need to follow rules and to complete tasks) and Openness to Experience than students that did not travel.
Motivation for travel is complex and reflex factors such as age, gender, emotions and experience. Older people tend to be less adventurous in their choices, preferring to use modes and visit destinations that are familiar. Perceptions of danger and safety strongly affect the destinations we choose.
What are the benefits of travel? When we are away from our problems, we’re more likely to see new ways of dealing with problems at home. Geographic distance leads to more creative and expansive problem solving. Our thinking gets more expansive and we are less tied to assumptions. We develop new skills from navigating our way in an unfamiliar setting. We become accustomed to doing new and unfamiliar things.
Travel affects our brains and personality. A 2013 study of Chinese travelers found that people who traveled regularly saw a long-term impact in terms of sense of direction in life and well-being. Another study of under-grads who had studied abroad for months found that they often experienced significant personality shifts, making them more open to new things and to fulfill tasks.
Extended foreign travel takes people outside of their comfort zone. Travelers have to adapt to new people and different cultures. Mahatma Gandhi called travel “the language of peace.” Extensive immersion in a culture over a significant period may increase compassion and tolerance, expanding a “boundary of empathy.”
Where is your next trip?