I have been fortunate to travel to a few different parts of the world: Iran, India, Italy, Mexico, and most recently, Spain. Every time I travel, I find that I learn something new about the world and myself. It’s wonderful to see all of the different ways that people choose to live their lives, there are so many unique expressions, so many different traditions and approaches that make this world a vibrant, colorful, and rich place to share with others.
As a psychologist, I am well aware of the assumptions and inaccurate judgments we make when we perceive others. We tend to view all people through the lens of our own culture, previous experiences, and expectations [1, 2]. The simultaneously beautiful and terrifying thing about traveling is that many of these assumptions and expectations for social interactions are quickly blown away. When I depart for a new city, I am constantly reminded of how many norms and traditions I project onto the world. My assumptions about how crowds of people interact and self-organize, the speed and manner of service when dining out, the types of foods that are desirable, the types of behaviors that are acceptable, social etiquette (staring, smiling, dress code etc), the meaning and impact of gestures, nonverbal language, the tone of voice… the list goes on.
Traveling is a quick way to summarize some of the key messages of social psychology: 1) people can only view the world through a lens (perception), 2) this lens is made foggy by our biased assumptions, and 3) these assumptions can help us navigate the world when everything goes according to the predictable plan, but they can lose their utility when we find ourselves in new and unexpected contexts.
That said, when I travel the things that strike me the most profoundly are the universals that we all share:
a need for social connection and community
a yearning for meaning, truth, and beauty
a need to be seen, heard, and supported in times of pain
Taking the opportunity to reflect on all that we have in common with our fellow human is a perfect antidote for feelings loneliness and alienation. It can be easy to forget when the majority of our public conversations focus on polarizing topics such as world politics, religion, and the fight for resources and ideas. Whenever we try to categorize people into convenient groups (us vs. them), we create cognitive and social echo chambers that only allow us to perceive what our foggy lenses are used to perceiving.
Identifying the many ways that these universal needs are expressed and shared throughout the world gives me a sense of deep connection with all of my fellow humans. Any time we open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a new experience, we strengthen our psychological muscles of empathy and compassion. Therefore, I put together a list of potential “diversifying” activities, or activities that are outside of your normal routine that promote cognitive flexibility and creativity . You can think of these practices as a kind of psychological strength training.
1. Travel – Get out your calendars and plan a trip somewhere you have never been before. Even if you can only afford to visit another city a few hours away, you can make this more interesting by “winging it.” Don’t obsessively research the reviews of all the restaurants you might want to visit, don’t curate your experience to be exactly how you think it would be perfect. Don’t visit somewhere you’ve heard lots of your friends speak highly of. Take a trip with the intention of breaking up your usual habits and repertoire. Arrive with an open mind and see if you can find something that makes you feel at home in a foreign place.
2. Talk to a stranger – Scientific research suggests that talking to strangers can be good for you. Statistically speaking, you are more likely to have a positive interaction than a negative one, and these interactions can therefore improve your overall well-being ! So go on, strike up a conversation with the person scrolling through social media on the laptop next to you at a café, or in line for the bathroom, or the person who rolls out their yoga mat next to you in class.
3. Learn something new/in a group – Most of us have hobbies and interests that we would like to cultivate: painting, meditation, hiking, sports, design, music, archery, dance, writing, etc. How about you finally enroll in that class or show up for that group meeting you’ve always been curious about? It could be the perfect opportunity to connect with some people you might never cross paths with otherwise.
4. Watch a foreign film – … Or read a bestselling foreign author, or listen to a new style of music. This is a much more cost effective version of “travelling” and it still gives you a chance to learn about and appreciate something you’ve never tried before.
5. Spend time in nature – Every time I take a trip out into the world, I am pleasantly surprised at what I find. We spend so much time in our daily routines: we wake up, go to work, come home, eat, and sleep. But what happens when we randomly take in a trip to the mountains or the beach? Research finds that spending time in nature helps to reset mental fatigue, and see things anew. When we spend time in nature, we are better able to notice new things we haven’t seen before or look at familiar things in a new way . Go outside and try looking for new colors, shapes, and patterns, let yourself be surprised by the wild and natural world.
We humans love the familiar and predictable. Sometimes when we travel outside of what we know, we find discomfort in having to stretch beyond what is natural and convenient for us. Even if the “trips” you take feel uncomfortable, you might notice upon your return that you have developed a more pronounced sense of gratitude for your life as it is. Part of the fun of travelling is coming back home and appreciating the small things you might otherwise take for granted: the comfort of your bed, your favorite foods, people, and routines. Yet these rewards are only available to those who venture beyond the mundane. I hope you get the chance to embark on your own journey soon. If so, please feel free to check in with me here and share what you find. Safe travels, my friends!
- Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1975). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124–1131.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2010). Social Psychology and Human Nature. International Edition. Belmont, USA: Wadsworth.
- Ritter, S. M., Damian, R. I., Simonton, D. K., van Baaren, R. B., Strick, M., Derks, J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2012). Diversifying experiences enhance cognitive flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 961-964.
- Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1980 -1999
- Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.