Travel is good for the mind, body and soul

by Jack on November 2010

Most people like traveling, or at least the idea of traveling. Part of this is because people tend to associate travel with holiday time, going some place that they really want to go, and doing whatever they want, whenever they want. This is the fantasy version of travel – absolute freedom, excitement, and liberation.

Other people don’t like traveling very much at all. For some people, this is because they “know” that the only place where things are done right is where they live. Traveling more than a short distance means eating strange foreign food, staying in a small, unfamiliar room, walking around too much, waiting in lines, and being among crowds. You’re reading this article, so you aren’t likely to be someone who holds these attitudes (which tend to be strangely common among people who haven’t actually traveled very much).

The thing is, both the dream version and the nightmare version of travel don’t capture the full story. For those of us with curious and active minds, travel is a great opportunity to rethink the way we do things. Repeating the same actions, in the same place, day after day, is a recipe for putting the creative mind to sleep. On the other hand, traveling to somewhere unfamiliar activates the creative mind in many ways.

Interrupts your assumptions and habitual patterns. Big, iconic tourist attractions are predictable, since you’ve seen their images many times before, and you know that they are going to be where you expect them. For example, yes, Sydney Opera House looks like the pictures of Sydney Opera House. (I find that it’s still worth checking out the major attractions – after all, you’ve traveled all this way, and it’s nice to merge the images in your mind with the reality.)

Maybe I’m weird, but I always find it really exciting to see all the little “ordinary” things that are different – things like currency, typefaces, transportation, language (whether different English slang or else a different language entirely), and all kinds of other details. When I’m visiting a new country, I get most curious about doing everyday things like going to the supermarket, getting a cup of coffee, taking public transportation, or just walking down the street. Every minute brings you a stream of new reminders – that you’re in a different place, and that your familiar assumptions about the world don’t apply in the same way. Perhaps you’ll find that you like who you become when you travel – a little bit more curious, more daring, and more hungry for experience of life.

Induces “Beginner’s Mind”. When everything you see is mostly familiar, but just a little bit different, you see everything as new, through fresh eyes. And you interpret the world through what Zen teachers call “beginner’s mind”. A beginning student doesn’t bring the assumptions to the table that a slightly more experienced student will. Seeing the world in this way for a while provides a great boost to your creativity. This is a good thing.

Reminds you of time limits. Just as the name of this web site is a reminder to take advantage of the time that you have as a human being on planet Earth, travel serves to remind you that time is limited. When you’re in our home city and the future appears to stretch out before you, you may forget your sense of urgency, and forget to seize the day. On the other hand, when you have only a limited time in a new, unfamiliar, and exciting place, then it feels important to make the most of every minute. After all, you aren’t in Mumbai, or Perth, or São Paulo every day! (If you are in one of those places, then pick a different place! ;)) Each day matters, whether you’re at home or traveling, at work or at play. Sometimes a short time in a new place is all it takes to remind you of this truth.

Pushes you outside your comfort zone. Changing the assumptions around you and opening your mind isn’t always a comfortable thing. Most of the time, the mainstream news only focuses attention on distant places when something unfortunate happens. This can give people the mistaken impression that they are safe at home, and that the further away they get, the more danger looms. In fact, most places are pretty calm most of the time. This doesn’t mean you should ignore travel advisories or the advice of locals. But it’s important to understand the difference between your unfamiliarity with something different, and actual danger. Most of the time, when you travel, it’s just the former.

Teaches you that people are generally the same everywhere. Yes, this is a nice idea in the abstract, but when you go to different places, it becomes tangible and real. Whether a little bit different, or a lot different, English-speaking or not, expensive or inexpensive, different places are all populated by people who want pretty much the same things. For example, positive relationships with other people, work that they enjoy, and enough money and leisure time to have fun. We are not all that different from each other.

Separates the “important” from the “nice to have”. When you decide to fit everything you’re going to live with for a week or two (or ten) into carry-on luggage, setting priorities becomes a priority. If you try to pack everything you “might need” or “might wear”, you’ll quickly come up with five or ten times more than what will actually fit. The same thing is true of other limits like money and time (see above). When you bring this lesson back home, it can help you think twice when you consider buying that next widget that would be “nice to have”. (“But I really need another dog biscuit warmer with built in tie rack!”) While you don’t have to go totally minimalist (unless you really want to), it’s always refreshing to know that you can fit everything you really need into just a small bag or backpack.

So there you have it – travel as a means of expanding your mind, body, and soul! I hope you have a great time planning your next trip around the world, and that you grow enormously from the experience.


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Nacho Jordi December 2, 2010 at 18:33

My case is a peculiar one: I’d like that I liked more to travel. I quite recognize myself in the list of disadvantages you mention at the beginning of the post. This is an issue that troubles me, so I really thank you your contribution to the issue, beyond cliché. What you said about touristic attractions made me remember a story of mine; the time I was in Paris with a group of friends and I refused to see the Eiffel tower because I was fed up with them… and I had only seen it in pictures! Of course, I was younger and more radical then… 😉


Jack December 3, 2010 at 10:16

Hi Nacho, thanks for your comment. Everyone seems to have a mix of both “travel lover” and “travel hater” in different amounts, and at different times.

Interesting story about Paris and the Eiffel Tower – though that sounds like more of an interpersonal thing! 🙂 Some of these famous sites have such an image in peoples’ minds that it can be hard for the real thing to live up to that.


Rob December 3, 2010 at 16:29

Man, I completely agree. The ‘beginners mind’ you speak of is spot on, and it seems that’s what I basically live for.

I wrote a similar article (remove link if it’s not allowed!) on whether or not travel was the answer for people who are seeking something MORE from life, and came to similar conclusions to yourself 🙂


Jack December 3, 2010 at 16:50

Hi Rob,
Appreciate the comment. I enjoyed reading your article and the quotes therein. You make some good points about reading versus direct experience, as well as some of the more “ignorant” manners of traveling. Of course, travel doesn’t guarantee you’ll open your mind, but if you’re willing, it seems to help.
PS. No worries about the link – I can tell it’s part of the conversation, not spam. 🙂


Rob December 3, 2010 at 16:54

true, there are no guarantees, but I find that the vast majority of people who DO step out to travel to places that are far different from back home generally do improve as people. They become more receptive, hospitable and open-minded. Maybe travel should become mandatory? 😉

(ps. thanks for the comments on the article)


Jack December 3, 2010 at 17:27

That’s true, sometimes unexpected positive changes can happen to unlikely people via travel. 🙂


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