Can travel change you?

By: Amanda Arnold
Some argue that travel sets the stage for personal growth. See pictures of paradise.
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Many a travel writer has offered up colorful, anecdotal evidence that travel is a life-changing affair. Books like "Eat Pray Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert, and movie classics like "City Slickers" present travel as an adventure likely to heal your spirit, alter your outlook and leave you with a smile on your face -- and perhaps even a calf on a leash (in Billy Crystal's character's case). Who hasn't been wooed by the potentially transformative powers of a trip to a faraway place? "I've always believed that happiness is just around the corner," writes Eric Weiner in his travel book "Geography of Bliss." "The trick is finding the right corner."

If you're turning corners in places far from your home turf in hopes of lucking upon personal transformation, you might actually be on the right track. Travel does, in fact, set a nice stage for personal change, and there are several reasons why: First of all, there's a placebo effect. When we embark on a trip, we expect change that we don't expect at home -- we swallow the travel pill willingly, believing that it will flood our veins with personal growth. We've already mentally committed and made ourselves vulnerable to change before we've even left [source: Kottler].


And then there are other factors that make it easier for us to change our behavior during travel. Especially if you travel alone, you're completely severed from the usual influences. There's no one to shoot you a sideways glance if you act differently from your usual self, which gives you room to try out new behaviors [source: Kottler]. "When you're traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road," said travel writer William Least Heat-Moon.

Not only that, but your senses are heightened -- you smell, hear and see things you wouldn't notice at home -- and your emotions are aroused. You experience fear and anxiety about simple things like hailing a cab, finding a market and ordering food in a language you barely speak. These factors make you vulnerable to change. They also put you in a position where you must behave differently to have your basic needs met. After all, you have to eat to live; so, being proactive becomes imperative, rather than optional [source: Kottler].

How else does travel set the stage for personal growth?


Transformative Travel

Purist travelers will tell you there's a difference between travel and tourism. And that difference may actually affect how much transformative power your trip can offer.

According to noteworthy literary historian Paul Fussell, tourists visit "pseudo-places" -- airports that look like every other airport, hotels that look like every other hotel and stores that hawk pseudo local goods. They're fed the familiar, even while they travel to a different country. On the other hand, travelers visit real "places," which are "odd and call for interpretation," says Fussell [source: Fussell]. Travel, as opposed to tourism, delivers misadventure and a heady dose of the unfamiliar.


If we go by Fussell's definitions of travel and tourism, then in terms of transformative power, travel packs more of a punch than tourism. While misadventure and discomfort afflict the traveler, they don't necessarily afflict the tourist, except by accident. And, according to the experts, the more alienation, panic and solitude one feels on a trip, the more likely he or she is to be changed by it [source: Evelein].

If you're looking to design a trip with the power to change you, consider including the following elements:

  • a destination completely different from your home, where you engage in completely unfamiliar activities
  • lots of engagement and conversation with people who live in the host country
  • going alone -- by removing yourself from your usual influences, you can experiment with new behaviors
  • time for reflection each day on what you've learned -- perhaps by talking with a group or by journaling about it
  • post-trip activities that help you to continue to reflect on what you learned on your trip

If, for example, you travel to a foreign country and settle in with a host family for home-cooked meals and conversation strained by a language barrier, you'll be stretched in ways you may not anticipate, and you may begin to see your home society and your host society in a new light [source: Ross]. Learn more about how travel may change you on the next page.


Evidence That Travel Changes Us

As you might expect, studies show that inserting oneself into a new cultural structure can broaden one's outlook. For example, a study on study abroad programs in the University System of Georgia showed that students who studied abroad tested higher for intercultural learning skills post-study abroad than a control group who never studied abroad. They showed a good understanding of how a different cultural setting might affect one's reactions and interactions with other people, for instance [source: Inside Higher Ed]. And a separate study on a Lesley University educational trip to Cuba showed that students second-guessed U.S. news reports about Cuba and felt a connection to the country 11 months after they'd returned from the 10-day trip [source: Brown and Smith].

People looking for transformative travel experiences often choose certain kinds of trips: adventure challenges, volunteer trips, study abroad or spiritual pilgrimages [source: Ross]. And they often head to the wilderness. How effective are such trips into the woods at delivering lasting personal change? According to a survey of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) participants, even five years after their two-week or 30-day wilderness adventures with the organization, NOLS alums credited their experiences with increasing self-confidence levels and helping them to cope with difficult circumstances in their present lives. They also gave NOLS high marks for providing them with lasting leadership skills, team building skills and a "personal perspective on how life can be simpler" [source: Sibthorp].


But not every potentially transformative trip delivers lasting changes. For example, a study on Outward Bound participants showed that while the participants cherished their experiences with the outfit, they found it hard to hang onto any personal changes once they got home [source: Cushing]. And studies on how vacations affect happiness levels have consistently shown that glee levels peak during vacation and then promptly drop off post-trip [source: Nawijn].

However, another study did show that five weeks after vacation, vacationers reported less physical complaints than prior to their trips [source: Strauss-Blasche]. And even if a travel's transformative effects wear off days, months or years after the trip, there's always the opportunity to seek out another travel experience to, yet again, change one's life.

For more travel and adventure articles, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "Academic Outcomes of Study Abroad." Inside Higher Ed. July 13, 2010. (July 5, 2011)
  • Brown, Phyllis C. and Cheryl A. Smith. "Travel as Transformation: A Cuban Experience in Education." The Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice. (July 5, 2011)
  • Cushing, P.J. "Translating Transformation into Something Real." Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education. 1999. (July 5, 2011)
  • De Bloom, Jessica et al. "Do we recover from vacation? Meta-analysis of Vacation Effects on Health and Well-being." Journal of Occupational Health. 2009. (July 5, 2011)
  • Evelein, Johannes F. "Exiles Traveling." 2009. (July 5, 2011)
  • Fussell, Paul. "Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars." Oxford University Press. New York. 1980. (July 5, 2011)
  • Kottler, Jeffrey. "Making Changes Last." Brunner-Routledge. 2001. (July 5, 2011)
  • Nawijn, Jeroen et al. "Vacationers Happier, but Most Not Happier After a Holiday." The International Society for Applied Quality-of-life Studies. Feb. 10, 2010. (June 16, 2011)
  • Ross, Susan L. "Transformative Travel: An Enjoyable Way to Foster Radical Change." ReVision. Spring 2010. (July 5, 2011)
  • Sathre-Vogel, Nancy. "The Effects of Travel on Children's Education." The Washington Times. Oct. 3, 2010. (July 5, 2011)
  • Sibthorp, Jim et al. "Long-term Impacts Attributed to Participation in Adventure Education: Preliminary Findings from NOLS." Coalition for Education in the Outdoors. State University of New York College at Courtland. Jan. 11, 2008. (July 5, 2011)
  • Strauss-Blasche, G. et al. "Does vacation enable recuperation? Changes in Well-being Associated With Time Away From Work." Occup. Med. 2000. (July 5, 2011)
  • Weiner, Eric. "The Geography of Bliss." Hachette Book Group. 2008. (July 5, 2011)
  • Wilson, Brenda. "Relax! Vacations Are Good for Your Health." Aug. 17, 2009. (July 5, 2011)
  • Wyatt, Caroline. "'Paris Syndrome' strikes Japanese." BBC News. Dec. 20, 2006. (July 5, 2011)
  • Yoder, Stephen Kreider. "Halfway: More Anxiety -- But Plenty of Joy." Wall Street Journal. May 29, 2011. (July 5, 2011)