How Travel makes us Smarter, Wiser and All-Around More Awesome

I like to travel for a lot of reasons; it can be really fun, it makes me feel more alive and I love meeting new people and exploring new places. There’s also another, deeper motivation I feel to propel myself around the world: I feel like it makes me better. The constant flow of new experiences and challenges shapes me. It forces me to learn not just about the world around me, but also about myself.

In a recent article for The Guardian, Jonan Lehrer explains how travel actually can make people smarter. Not because former backpackers can bore guests at cocktail parties with their impressive knowledge of the Inca Trail, but because studies have shown that traveling gives individuals a sense of perspective that actually makes them better problem solvers.

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In the article Lehrer describes a series of experiments, where participants had to solve hypothetical problems based both locally and in a far away place. Participants consistently came up with more creative and inclusive solutions for the far away problems. This suggests that physical distance provides a kind of emotional barrier, which leads to more logical perspective:

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This in turn allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs”, as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in drawing-pin boxes in China. Maybe there’s a better way to attach a candle to a wall.

On a more introspective level, moving yourself physically helps you to look at your own life and problems from a new angle. The issues in your life just LOOK different when you are pondering them in a new city or on a foreign beach. People need perspective before they can truly see themselves.

Lehrer continues:

So let’s not pretend that travel is always fun. We don’t spend 10 hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn’t make up for the hassle of lost luggage. (More often than not, I need a holiday after my holiday.) We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

Now, this is not a high and mighty blog post about how people who travel are better than people who don’t. There are many paths to self-discovery of course. Travel is certainly not the cheapest or even the easiest one. But it IS stimulating.  I’m sure everyone has experienced that sensation of coming home feeling like a different person, even though nothing physically has changed. It’s an odd feeling, but an energizing one.

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For serious travelers travel is not an escape from the world. Intellectually, I know that travel is not going to solve all my problems. The things that are wrong with your life are going to be right there waiting for you no matter where your passport takes you. But the way we deal with these problems is dependent on our outlook and perspective on the world.  This reprioritization, this way of looking at things outside the box of my regular life forces me to grow and change. And that’s what I can’t get enough of.

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to be recounting some of the major lessons I’ve learned while traveling. What are some ways that you’ve learned and changed through travel?

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43 thoughts on “How Travel makes us Smarter, Wiser and All-Around More Awesome”

  1. Loved this! So glad you found that article and ran with it. It’s really true that perspective changes everything, whether it’s travel, going through something emotional, losing one’s job, getting married, anything. LOVED the travel angle! It’s so true. Problem solving and calm under pressure are huge lessons learned while traveling!
    .-= Abby´s last blog ..The dark side of being a single expat =-.

  2. The most obvious answer for me is how it’s brought me out of my shell. I used to be uber-introverted, and now I’d say I’m much more moderately introverted and can even be extroverted when I need to be. I learned that when I had to start reaching out to people during travel.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..You Should Know: Journeywoman =-.

    1. I had a similar experience. Travel really pushes me to be more social, to the point where people are always surprised now when I tell them I’m secretly an introvert!

  3. Excellent write-up Steph. Reminds me of a quote re: travel I love so much …

    “In a sense, it’s the coming back, the return, which gives meaning to the going forth.
    We really don’t know where we’ve been until we’ve come back to where we were.
    Only, where we were may not be as it was because of who we’ve become, which, after all, is why we left.
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Dealing With the End of Your Travels =-.

    1. I had a similar experience studying abroad my senior year of college. Totally rearranged my perspective on things.

  4. I think this is a great post. I do feel that I’m more mellow about things that seem to freak some other people out. This was not always the case. Perhaps surviving the challenges of traveling have a little something to do with it.

  5. I find that when going solo, you end up learning more about yourself than the world. Travel puts you outside of your comfort zone and that’s when you really grow as a person.

    The world is a big place and it’s a shame to see so many people who never experience it.
    .-= Paul´s last blog ..5 Things to Bring on a Backpacking Trip =-.

  6. So so true. Couldn’t have said it better! Also agree with you about how the pace of different cultures can really open your eyes. Great post Steph, keep ’em coming!
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..That’s Amore! =-.

  7. Ireland showed me how to relax and not have a million things going on. Everyone is very go-with-the-flow, few people go into the office on the weekend, and they just seem to really enjoy life as it comes along. People aren’t worrying about the next step, like how many 20 somthings in America are pressured to have the next 20 years mapped out.

    Rome did that as well, but more in the enjoying your meal front. No hoovering your lunch in 5 seconds to get back to work. I think a whole hour of enjoying the outdoors with a glass of wine for lunch would do wonders for workaholics. Your office will still be there, no client is going to die if you don’t answer the phone.

    1. A lot of Europe is a lesson in patience. Things just move slower there, you learn to slow down and enjoy life.

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