Studies That Prove Travel Is The Key To Living Your Best Life In 2019


This post has been updated and expanded for 2019.

Travel is inherently good for you. We’ve been told this again and again from Mark Twain to Patricia Highsmith to Leslie Marmon Silko. Hell, we’ve been told that travel is transformative since the time of Homer (and probably long before that too). The stories are universal: The journey, the road, set sail, grift hard, meet people and make them laugh, find love, get your heart broken, experience the wonder, live with the mad ones.

These ideas are so universal that, for some, it’s pretty much divine scripture. Today, though, it’s more than just well-cobbled words in a book or a story told over the crackling of a fire in the dark night. There’s real, hard science to back up all the wonderful changes travel can bring to us both mentally and physically. We have real numbers from long studies that look at real benefits to our minds and bodies that travel brings. So, if the promise of amazing experiences isn’t enough to get you on the road in 2019, maybe a little hard science espousing the benefits of travel will.

We’ve pulled the receipts from a long list of recent studies into how travel makes us healthier, sexier, and more open-minded human beings. Use the below research to convince your boss that you need that sabbatical, your parents that you need a gap year, or yourself that you need a good old-fashioned vacay.

Travel makes you more creative.

Unsplash - Hanny Naibaho

This one feels the most esoteric but, in reality, is the most science-based. There has been a lot of serious research about how travel makes us more creative. It’s all about getting out of our comfort zones and how our brain adapts and, literally, changes.

Adam Galinsky over at Columbia Business School has done the lion’s share of the recent research on how travel changes the synapses in our brains. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought,” Galinsky explained to The Atlantic. “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation.”

In short, our neural pathways are built around where we are and what we do. When we challenge the norm via travel, we physically change those neural pathways, making them stronger. This, in turn, allows us to be more creative.

This isn’t simply “Hey, if I hit the road I’ll automatically be Scorsese or Kendrick” though. Engagement is crucial, according to Galinsky. The experience of getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing a new culture, and living a new way of life is the magic spot where the synapses flourish and multiply. That ability to engage in foreign situations, problem solve, adapt, and operate outside of your norms leads to a more creative life, according to science. Does it mean you’ll turn into Klimt or Twain after your year backpacking Asia? Well, no. You still have to put in the hard work and paint or write every day. But it does mean you’re giving yourself (your brain) a nice boost by building some helpful neural pathways that help you thrive in that artistic life.

Travel makes you smarter.

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That’s a bold claim right there. Without getting into biological imperatives, IQs, and socioeconomic variables, “smarts” are hard to measure. There are endless variables wrapped up in the word. So let’s focus more directly on creativity and cognitive practice in action.

A study in 2014 of MBA candidates found that those who engaged in multicultural environments via studying abroad were able to deal with complex issues more easily and had better luck on the job market. Basically, having to live and deal with a new culture gave the students the ability to hold multiple viewpoints in their mind at the same time, while being highly engaged.

Living abroad, in short, makes you better able to deal with people who think differently. It’s really as simple as that.

Another study, from 2009, addressed this issue tangentially. A psychology study at Indiana University set two groups of students to a task. Each had to think up as many transportation methods and vehicles as possible. The wrinkle was that one group was told their assignment came from students at Indiana University while the other group was told the task came from the study abroad program in Greece. Surprisingly, the group who thought they were conducting a study based on foreign land and culture excelled at the task, by being a third more creative and productive. The head of the study surmised that “creative generation profits from greater spatial distance.” That is, just thinking about being somewhere else makes you think more creatively.

So, yes, travel is going to help your brain’s ability to deal with complex issues. But, this is also achievable through priming your brain with the suggestion of a foreign locale. This makes us wonder if spending a little time with a foreign culture in your own backyard will have similar benefits. Who’s ready for a trip to Chinatown or Little Italy?

Travel improves your sex life.

Unsplash - Becca Tapert

Travel is inherently sexy. A quick browse through social media influencers on Instagram makes that clear. There’s a reason the platform is full of ripped surfer bros with birds nest blond mops and vagabonding models. Add in a dog and get ready to collect followers. “Sex sells” is a little too simplistic though. It’s more a longing that travel creates. It’s the Sirens singing their songs about truth and transcendence, beckoning Odysseus into the rocks. It’s the vagabonding friends — diverse, young, alive — sitting on a precipice of a mountain valley, looking into the great blue yonder, making us wonder why we’re not there too. We long to be there and when we’re there, yes, we long for the sexual freedom that strange locales seem to automatically conjure.

So is there science to this speculation that travel turns us on? Yes. Certain people have an excess of dopamine in their bodies thanks to a mutation in the gene DRD4. That excess of sweet, sweet dopamine leads people to be impulsive. Kayt Sukel, who wrote the Art of Risk, states “people are running slightly different algorithms that help define whether or not they will take a risk.” People with this variation have the hard-wiring to take more risks and, thereby, have a real need to travel. That also means they’re more open to living in the moment and having new and exciting experiences. Which, in turn, can lead to more sex with like-minded people on the road.

However, the science doesn’t end there. Where impulse can certainly play a role in whether or not you’re open to some lovin’ while you’re on the road, there’s a hormonal reason too. According to a massive study conducted by Expedia, the stress hormone cortisol actually lowers while you’re traveling. Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, the psychologist who headed the study, found that “as stress and anxiety decrease, mood increases — bringing many, often unexpected, positive benefits in how we perceive ourselves, motivation and productivity, and our general outlook on life.”

We get more confident and being more confident leads to more sex. So, combine a mutated gene that floods our bodies with dopamine with a literal reduction in stress hormones and get ready for passion.

Travel improves your physical health.

Unsplash - Jeremy Bishop

This seems fairly intuitive. We change up our routine when we’re on the road. We walk more. We hike mountains. We have more sex. All of those activities burn calories at a higher rate than sitting around an office, car, or home day in, day out. Any positive change up in a fallow routine is going to bring positive benefits. Let’s look at how.

Simply being outside more and soaking up more sun has a big impact on your serotonin levels. And serotonin makes you feel good. Dr. Linda Papadopoulos of the aforementioned Expedia study on lovemaking also looked at mood. Her conclusion was that boosting ones’ mood has a direct impact on whether or not you’ll go out and actually do something, and serotonin levels can help give you that boost.

A different study at the U.S. Travel Association found benefits in longevity and travel. They found that people who travel at least once or twice a year have significant decreases in risk of heart disease and premature death. In some cases, men benefit from travel with a 30 percent decrease in risk of death from heart disease.

That walk around a food market in Barcelona or stroll through a museum in Paris or jumping around at a music festival in Iceland may literally prolong your life. And it’ll certainly make you happier. And if you can’t afford to travel to the other side of the world, maybe find a way to get a little more sun and movement close to home. You can still feel like you’re traveling by visiting a nearby flea market.

Travel improves your mental health.

Unsplash - Toa Heftiba

This probably seems obvious by now. Higher levels of serotonin mixed with lower levels of cortisol make you physically healthier and more confident. Plus you’re having more sex. You’re probably going to be in a better state of mind too. But what about when you’re not on the road?

A Cornell study looked into our hedonistic attributes and concluded that “consumers derive value from anticipation, and that value tends to be greater for experiential than for material purchases.” The effects of having an experience mean more to us than buying some gadget or device. That experience helps increase mood and decrease anxiety after just three days of vacation time. Moreover, the increase in mood lasts for weeks after the trip is over.

Can’t afford a vacation to some distant land? Don’t worry, just going outdoors into nature has a similar outcome. A study at Utah State University showed that going outdoors for a walk in the park significantly lowered depression. It’s not a cure-all — we’re not saying drop your depression meds and go for a stroll. But it’s a benefit that seems helpful to our mental health.

Allowing our brain some downtime either in nature or on vacation seems to help it reset. It gives our brains a break and reduces stress, while boosting our brain’s health. In short: Being on the road or in nature can mean a path toward better mental health overall.

Travel can fix insomnia.

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We’ve all been there. Staring at our screens as the witching hour turns into the wee hours of the morning, with sleep slipping just out of reach. Then another day breaks and it all starts over again, only now you’re mentally and physically spent, due to a lack of sleep. And in the back of your mind, you feel that niggle. You know that you’re going to repeat it all again as soon as night falls. Insomnia is a debilitating way to spend a night. But there’s a way to reset. It just takes a trip to the woods for a little camping.

According to a study carried out at University of Colorado’s Sleep Lab, the answer to your insomnia is a short trip away. After a short weekend camping with no light except for the sun, moon, and campfire, participants in the study were able to drastically reset their circadian rhythms to the point where ten plus hours of sleep was the norm. More interestingly, after that short trip, the participant’s bodies had completely reset their melatonin levels too, helping them stay on their new sleep schedules (as long as they didn’t readopt bad patterns).

If a camping trip isn’t in the cards for you, then there are ways to mimic the results of the study at home. The Sleep Lab director recommends “getting more natural sunlight, and that could be starting the day with a walk outside, or bringing more light indoors if you can, or sitting by a window.”

The point is to try and live by the day and night and not artificial lights. The benefits will mean a great night sleep and a healthier tomorrow.

Travel destroys bigotry.

Mark C -

This is the big one. We know travel will make you sexier, healthier, happier, and sleep better. And it turns out travel makes you a straight up better human being.

An extensive, worldwide study conducted by the travel site Momondo, found travel increases “trust in other people in general, trust in people from other nationalities, and trust in people from other religions, which indicates that traveling increases openness towards other people.” This takes us back to the first section about grad students who live abroad. It makes them smarter. When you’re smarter you’re more able to problem solve multiple tasks simultaneously. And when you have those skills you can better understand things outside yourself. And if you understand concepts outside of yourself, the idea of bigotry becomes absurd.

The same study showed 76 percent of respondents found “that traveling has given them a more positive view on other cultures in general.” A similar 75 percent claimed a more positive view of the people in the countries they visited after their trips there. That’s huge.

The results are clear. Travel opens our minds and gives us the ability to accept other people as, well, people equal to us. It’s sad that for many it takes something as simple as human contact to achieve this, but you don’t have to look far into your social media feeds to find the truth in that. And we’ve known this truth for a while. Mark Twain wisely wrote in The Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” These words echo louder today than ever before.