How novel experiences boost well being

Geri Dreiling

I always smile when I look at an old picture of my young children — clad in shorts and sweatshirts — standing ankle deep in the Pacific Ocean surf on a hazy day. They are engrossed in a conversation that has long since been forgotten. And though the family trips sometimes blur together in my mind, the clarity of certain moments and specific emotions remain.

When I flip through photo albums, I recall the feeling of happiness and the sense of closeness. I remember the anticipation of a new adventure and delight that comes with encountering new experiences. The anxieties of navigating a new place, setting aside vacation time and sticking to a travel budget have been washed away like a sand castle at high tide.

Of course, I’m not unique. The field of positive psychology is brimming with findings that show that novel experiences naturally boost our dopamine levels and sense of happiness. Researchers have found that shared experiences strengthen bonds. And when we step away from our ordinary lives for a while, we tend to appreciate them more when we return.

Here are my top three benefits of travel and how they improve well being.

1.  Boost your happiness

Psychologists have been measuring things like depression and anxiety for decades. It has only been relatively recently that some scientists have turned their attention to happiness. There are several different components to happiness – and having a billion dollars and a closet filled with designer clothes aren’t the key ingredients.

But one of the ways people do find a path to happiness is through novel experiences. For some, it might mean trying a new restaurant. For others, it might be visiting a new city, country or continent. It seems that the mix of novelty – along with the fear and anxiety that the unknown can provoke – lead to a more rewarding and happy experience.

If you’ve ever landed in a country where you don’t speak the language and you need to navigate public transportation to get your hotel, you understand that anxiety. When you arrive at your destination successfully – and enjoy the sights and sounds of being immersed in a foreign culture along the way – you also know the rewards.

2. Shared experiences strengthen emotional connections

Researchers who have measured happy marriages have found that one of the key ingredients is sharing new experiences. A boring rut can lead to feeling dissatisfied with your partner. However, couples who do something new, different or exciting tend to rate their marriages more positively than those who do not.

Some couples may decide to take dancing lessons. Others may decide that a hike on a new trail is what is needed. Couples may find that holding hands while exploring the narrow streets of a medieval town in Spain foster feelings of closeness.

3.  A new appreciation for your own life

When I am at home for a long period of time, I tend to forget how comfortable I find my bed. I take for granted the pots, pans and dishes that I can use to cook what I want, when I want to. I stop seeing the charm of my neighborhood. When I’m around the house for a while, I see the weeds and not the flowers.

In other words, I adapt to my surroundings.

But when I go away for a week or two, I begin to miss what I have. When I land at the airport and begin the drive home, I find the familiarity of my city comforting. My front door is welcoming and when I cross the threshold into my house, I get the satisfaction of knowing I am home.

In a few weeks, I will embark on another travel adventure. As I go through the hassles and inevitable stress of planning and completing work projects, I’m also focusing on the rewards.

The road first traveled can lead to many happy trails.