The Psychological Benefits of Travel
Eric K. Mason, MA, MS
To have lived abroad, is to have seen the world through the lens of another. Indeed, traveling abroad often broadens your horizons and allows you to see the world through another’s perspective. Expats living abroad often find that they have changed or evolved in many ways that prove beneficial to their lives—careers, life satisfaction, and happiness, in general.
When you live or travel abroad, you learn to adapt to new situations. In fact, it is pretty much impossible not to adapt. Things that you may have found highly inconvenient in your first few weeks abroad often are not a problem after a few months. This is because you have adapted. To not adapt would mean to continue to sit in the problem rather than the solution. Psychologically healthy people tend to seek solutions rather than problems. In other words, they engage in adaptive thinking.
There are many psychological benefits to adaptive thinking. Studies suggest being adaptable may actually improve brain functioning, as it forces us to think and behave differently according to any given situation. This is the essence of learning. Furthermore, improvements in brain functioning will lead to better short-term and long-term memory and may help to delay the onset of cognitive disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Although there are many products on the market, such as mind puzzle games, which attempt to challenge our brains in order to keep them sharp and encourage adaptive thinking, when you live and travel abroad you are forced to engage in adaptive thinking every day until it actually becomes a part of who you are.
In addition to the cognitive benefits, living and traveling abroad can also allow you to develop a more flexible personality. For example, when living and traveling abroad things may not always go exactly as you planned. Sometimes, you have to accept certain realities you cannot change about how things are done within a certain culture and just learn to go with the flow. Learning to do this is psychologically beneficial, as well. People with less rigid personalities tend to report greater happiness and satisfaction in life. If you allow yourself to have a more flexible personality, most likely you won’t experience stress as intensely as people who are rigid. High levels of stress are often linked to real diseases, such as hypertension and depression. Therefore, being more flexible may in fact lead to a longer and healthier life. When living and traveling abroad, you have to learn to go with the flow, because if you don’t bend little, you might just break.
Of course, some people may find it more difficult than others to adapt abroad due to their particular life circumstances, such as profession, family matters, or previous experience abroad. If you think that you are taking longer than normal to get over culture shock and you are experiencing abnormal levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, it may be worth consulting with a counselor or psychologist to help you break out of your rut.
In my opinion, traveling and living abroad makes you a better person, overall. It opens your mind to other ways of life and forces you to realize that your way of doing things may not be the only way. Likewise, you may come to realize that other cultures may even have some better practices or traditions, aspects of which you can adopt in to tour own way of life. On the other hand, living abroad may allow you to come to appreciate aspects of your native culture which you had previously taken for granted.
Although appreciating parts of your native culture can elicit positive thought s and feelings, focusing only on what is better about your native culture or constantly comparing your native culture with the culture in which you are living, can limit your own personal growth and be psychologically unhealthy, as well. Psychologically healthy people choose to focus on how they can improve themselves or the lives of others in any given situation, rather than on how their surrounding bring them down.
Having lived abroad makes you a member of a very small club. If you have lived abroad for any significant amount of time, you may begin to think of your expat life as routine or the norm. However, a very small percentage of the world’s population has ever had the opportunity to live abroad. A recent UN survey estimated that only about three percent of the world’s population currently lives abroad. Once you have lived abroad, you’ll never be the same again. If you embrace all the challenges expat life brings, you will surely undergo a great deal of personal growth and fulfillment.
Eric Mason is the director of lighthouse human services in Bangkok where he provide general counseling, substance abuse counseling, and mental health counseling. He has degrees in psychology, international studies, counseling, and is a licensed professional counselor. A native of the United States, Eric has lived abroad in Germany, Japan, and Thailand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.