“We travel to grow up, wake up, and stay on our toes.” ~Robert Fuller
I am writing this blog post in anticipation of our coming 3+-week vacation to Europe. In fact, by the time this post goes live on the SMART Living website and you read it, I am actually on the other side of the globe from where I live. At the same time, thousands of people from around the world are descending upon my city for one of the biggest music festivals in the world—The Coachella. And even though that awesome event is in my own back yard, I’m choosing to travel to Prague and Croatia because it is something I’ve always wanted to do. So why do I and so many other people like to travel and are willing to spend the time, money and resources to do it? Here are some ideas I’ve uncovered that go into making travel an art we can all appreciate.
I suppose I should admit that I’ve appreciated travel for my entire life. My parents moved frequently when I was young and it never bothered me a bit. As an early teenager, I saved up all my babysitting money just to travel by train to visit relatives in mid-America. For a reason I couldn’t understand, my parents insisted my older sister go along. Still, I always knew the motivation and plan was all mine. As a junior in high school I took a job working 20 hours a week using nearly all of it to make my first Trans-Atlantic flight to Europe with fellow students. Even then, earning money was primarily a means to go somewhere new, different and interesting. Barely out of high school (and long before cell phones) I drove across the U.S. by myself in search of love and adventure. And while many young people today are far more daring than I ever was, at the time I was very unique among my family and my peers.
So what is it about travel that appeals to me and others who also have the travel bug? This is what I uncovered:
A) It satisfies our curiosity. While not everyone is as curious as others, science says that curiosity is a trait that has evolved in our species as a capacity for lifelong learning and a deep attachment to each other. This trait allows us to pick up new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking and allows us to adapt to new circumstances. As St. Augustine said long ago, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Computer scientists have discovered that even when they are attempting to teach a computer to learn new information, the computer itself will get bogged down into routine unless there is a program also installed that encourages exploration. In other words, if computers aren’t at least a little curious themselves, they cannot maximize their learning capacity. Neither can humans. According to an article written by Tom Stafford, “Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time.”
B) Travel makes us more creative and multidimensional. Specifically, studies exist that show that leaving our homes and familiar locations stimulates our minds and thinking. According to author Jonah Lehrer, whenever we are seeking solutions or faced with a problem, our thinking becomes more concrete when it feels “close.” This sense of “closeness” can be physical, temporal or even emotional. As Lehrer says, “When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities…”
The practical advantage of this type of creativity was recently tested by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He put students into two groups and then asked them both to solve a transportation problem. He told one of the groups that the task had been designed by other students in their home state of Indiana. The other group was told that students from Greece designed the task. Surprisingly, the group that had been told that students from Greece designed the problem came up with significantly more transportation possibilities.
In another study, Jia found that people were much better at solving puzzles when the people solving them thought they were created by people from California instead of down the hall. Yet another study from a business school in France and at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago discovered that students who had lived in another country were 20% more likely to solve a common psychological task than those who had never lived outside their birth country.
What’s going on? According to Leher, “The larger lesson is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective.”
C) Travel makes us more open minded and accepting. After you’ve experienced how others lived and seen that most of the time we all are seeking happiness, peace, meaning and love, it is much easier to relate to and understand others. A quote by Mark Twain says it all, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
D) Travel helps us discover more about ourselves. As Robert Fuller says, “Travel not only invites us to see the world anew, it gives us an unaccustomed look at who is doing the seeing. None of the benefits of travel compares to the oblique glance it allows us of our selves. By placing us outside ourselves, travel provides us with the distance required to see what it is we are habitually doing and the anonymity to risk new ways of being in the world.”
E) Travel helps us appreciate what we have back home. I always love to go but I equally enjoy returning home. It is a gift to love your work and where you live so much that the homecoming is as beneficial as going. But just as distance allows me to grasp new possibilities, it also helps me to appreciate what I have. And as Robert Fuller says, “Fear is part of what makes travel so enlivening and revelatory. You’re perpetually off-balance and on guard. After a while one yearns for the mindlessness of familiar routines. And when you do return home, old pleasures are much the sweeter for having been suspended.”
So as it stands I probably won’t be posting quite as regularly here on SMART Living as I do when I’m home—but you can be certain that when I return I’ll have some new insights and ideas to share. One thing is for sure, I intend to do as Robert Fuller says, “We travel to grow up, wake up, and stay on our toes.”