A recent trip to Sri Lanka, with an unexpected stop in Thailand, led me to think more deeply about the positive impact of adventures that challenge us.
The first benefit is enhanced emotional agility, or the ability to not react immediately to emotions, but to observe those that arise, carefully collect information to understand the possible causes, then intentionally decide how to manage them. By spending time in unfamiliar towns, cities or countries, you become tolerant and even accepting of your own discomfort and more confident in your ability to navigate ambiguous situations.
I felt this growth during my two weeks in Sri Lanka. Standing amid a slew of older, short men dressed in rainbow-colored robes and speaking Sinhalese, I’d never felt more foreign. I knew I wouldn’t be able to navigate the narrow roads full of tuk-tuks, bicyclists and pedestrians in a rental car, and the prospect of purchasing transport, food, clothes or art without any indication of their price was daunting. But eventually I got my bearings. After a few days on the ground, I even got up the nerve to take a yoga class taught entirely in Sinhalese. I now know that any initial anxiety is just a reaction, one that will dissipate as I begin to operate in it.
Empathy also increases when your travels thrust you into new territory. People who travel more develop a greater tolerance and trust of strangers, which alters their attitudes toward not only strangers but also colleagues and friends back home. They become more appreciative of people with new knowledge, philosophies and skills. In Sri Lanka, I noticed an ivory Buddha statue in a glass encasement surrounded by gaudy, blinking neon lights on a city street, a mismatch to me, but not to the locals. When I went to the gym for an elliptical machine workout, the three television sets hanging from the ceiling showed a Kabbadi match — what looked to me like a dozen people playing tag.
The third benefit is creativity. A study of 46 Dutch workers found that after going on an international holiday for two to three weeks, they were able to generate increasingly diverse ideas for alternative ways to use everyday objects such as bricks, tires, spoons and pencils. Researchers in Singapore have likewise found that greater exposure to other cultures through traveling, having international friendships, studying languages and consuming music and food from other countries is linked to unconventional problem solving.
This article was inspired by an expedition that I was lucky enough to experience. But I believe that it’s possible to achieve similar growth by traveling closer to home — to new states, cities and even households, from urban to rural, north to south, east to west. As long as you’re spending time in an unfamiliar environment, with people whose backgrounds and belief systems don’t entirely match yours, you’re succeeding at stretching yourself.
(Todd B. Kashdan is a professor at George Mason University.)