Here’s why planning a trip can help your mental health

Even during a pandemic, thinking about travel can make you happy.

With the pandemic far from over, now may not be the right time for leisure travel. But that doesn’t mean trip planning is canceled too. There’s some good news for globe-trotters: According to researchers, looking ahead to your next adventure could benefit your mental health. Even if you’re not sure when that adventure will be.

Some psychologists tout the mental benefits of vacationing somewhere new. One 2013 survey of 485 adults in the U.S. linked travel to enhanced empathy, attention, energy, and focus. Other research suggests that the act of adapting to foreign cultures may also facilitate creativity. But what about the act of planning a trip? Can we get a mental health boost from travel before we even leave home?

Scientists talk travel

Planning and anticipating a trip can be almost as enjoyable as going on the trip itself, and there’s research to back it up. A 2014 Cornell University study delved into how the anticipation of an experience (like a trip) can increase a person’s happiness substantially—much more so than the anticipation of buying material goods. An earlier study, published by the University of Surrey in 2002, found that people are at their happiest when they have a vacation planned.

Amit Kumar, one of the co-authors of the Cornell study, explains that the benefits are less about obsessing over the finer points of an itinerary than they are about connecting with other people. One reason? Travelers “end up talking to people more about their experiences than they talk about material purchases,” he says. “Compared to possessions, experiences make for better story material.”

(Related: This singer traveled halfway around the world to witness one breathtaking performance.)

Among the pandemic’s many challenges: quarantine measures greatly reduce our ability to create new experiences and connect with other people. And we’re craving those those connections and their social benefits more than ever.

Kumar, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says that the social-distancing experiment the pandemic forced on us has emphasized how much humans—social animals that we are—need to be together. He even suggests replacing the phrase “social distancing” with “physical distancing,” which better describes what we’re now doing; after all, quarantine measures are designed to protect our physical well-being.

Managing emotional well-being is a different challenge. While we may not be as physically close to others as usual, we’re still able to interact with each other socially through voice and video chats. But you still need something to talk about—and plans for the future can serve as the perfect talking points for enhancing social relationships.

Kumar’s co-author Matthew Killingsworth, now a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says trip-planning encourages an optimistic outlook.

“As humans, we spend a lot of our mental lives living in the future,” says Killingsworth, whose work centers on understanding the nature and causes of human happiness. “Our future-mindedness can be a source of joy if we know good things are coming, and travel is an especially good thing to have to look forward to.”

One reason Killingsworth thinks that planning travel can be such a positive experience? The fact that trips are temporary. “Since we know a trip has a defined start and end, our minds are prone to savor it, even before it’s started,” he says. “Sometimes people even prefer to delay good experiences like a trip so they can extend the period of anticipation.”

(Related: Is virtual travel here to stay, even after the pandemic subsides?)

There’s another reason travel planning can produce happiness: We often know enough about a trip to imagine it and look forward to it—but there’s also enough novelty and uncertainty to keep our minds interested.

“In a sense, we start to ‘consume’ a trip as soon as we start thinking about it,” Killingsworth says. “When we imagine eating gelato in a piazza in Rome or going water skiing with friends we don’t see as much as we’d like, we get to experience a version of those events in our mind.”

Planning during a pandemic

The post-pandemic future of travel is still unmapped. But Killingsworth recommends planning a vague itinerary (where to go, what to do)—without getting attached to taking the trip at any specific time. Then, start booking flights and hotels once experts say it’s safe to travel again. “If the experience becomes more stressful or depressing than fun, file it away for another time.”

Former clinical psychologist turned author Alice Boyes agrees the general approach is best for now, “like learning about a national park you want to visit.”

Montana’s Glacier National Park is iconic “because of its breathtaking, glacier-carved peaks and flowing river valleys,” says photographer Emily Polar. The 10th most visited national park, Glacier welcomed three million visitors in 2018, many of them to its renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Montana’s Glacier National Park is iconic “because of its breathtaking, glacier-carved peaks and flowing river valleys,” says photographer Emily Polar. The 10th most visited national park, Glacier welcomed three million visitors in 2018, many of them to its renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Photograph by Emily Polar

While travel can be anxiety-inducing—especially in the era of COVID-19—Boyes suggests that trip-planning can be calming.

“If you’re anxious by nature, trip-planning can give you a sense of comfort and reduced anxiety,” she says. “For instance, I like to know exactly how I’m going to get from the airport to my hotel upon arrival in a foreign country. I like viewing the walking directions to places and using street view on Google maps, all in advance, so I have a good idea of what to expect and feel confident.”

“This virus can stop our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams,” says travel expert Rick Steves in conversation with the New York Times. Planning for travel—thinking about it, talking about it, imagining it—may in fact be the best thing you can do to stay optimistic and, when this is all behind us, be ready to embark on your trip of a lifetime.

Tips and tricks

Erica Jackson Curran is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia, and the founder of Parennial Travel, a travel site for millennial parents.
This story was updated to clarify that author Alice Boyes is a former clinical psychologist.

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