Sunday, June 8, 2014

When Travel Changes You

Last weekend, I posted my thoughts on the differences between travel and tourism. In this weekend's post, I continue that discussion. The focus though is not so much about differentiating between the two terms but about making the most of our travels.

Foreign travel is generally seen as fun, exciting, adventuresome and cool. These descriptions are definitely true. However, the experience of traveling to a foreign country can be very deep and profound as well. As discussed in my previous post, travel is not just about sightseeing, taking pictures and bragging about it. While there is nothing wrong with these aspects of travel, they rarely lead to a deep and life changing experience for people. This is sad, because the potentialities of travel are immense. Travel can truly be profoundly fulfilling and life changing, but only if we do it with the right mindset.

If recent research is to be believed, travel can literally change our personalities. But before we go into the details of how travel may alter our personalities, let me very briefly describe what I mean by personality, because the word means different things to different people. Although the term 'personality' has many connotations, we psychologists use it to describe individual differences among people in the way they think, feel and act. Or in other words, personality simply refers to the array of traits that give people their uniqueness. A point to remember here is that personality traits are generally viewed as stable, because if people's personality traits changed easily and quickly then they would be useless to measure individual differences among people.

If personality is stable then why do I say that travel can change our personalities? The point is that stability does not mean permanent. While our personalities change, the process is generally so slow and incremental that we rarely ever notice any differences in the short run. Our personalities, however, do continue to develop throughout our lives. And if we are exposed to life circumstances and challenges that are very different from what we are normally used to, then we can even expect some significant changes in our personalities.

Going back to travel's influence on personality, last year, Julia Zimmermann and Franz Neyer (researchers from Friedrich-Schiller-Universit├Ąt in Germany) published an article in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which they examined the effect of foreign travel on personality. They tested 1134 students on a personality inventory that measures the “Big Five” personality dimensions (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability). 527 of these students then went abroad to spend a semester or a full academic year in a foreign country; the remaining 607 students did not engage in international travel. The authors tested all the students again after a year. They found that students who traveled abroad tended to show an increase in Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability relative to those who did not travel. The effects were not large but statistically significant.

To state the findings in simple words, increase in Openness to Experience meant that students who spent four to eight months abroad tended to have higher imagination, intellectual curiosity, appreciation of art, sensitivity to beauty, openness to emotions, liberal ethics, and tolerance of individual and class differences. Increase in Agreeableness meant that they showed tendencies of being more kind, cooperative, warm, empathetic and considerate. Similarly, increase in Emotional Stability means that they tended to be more calm, even-tempered, and were less likely to be rattled by the stressors of life. Of course, we are only talking about average increases here, which means that not all students who spent abroad had such positive impact on their personalities; some had more positive impact, some had less, and some had none. Unfortunately, it was beyond the scope of the study to explain the differences between the sojourners who improved and those who did not, but to me that would be the really interesting thing to explore.

To summarize, I think many of us today have traveled a lot, but not all of us have let our travels have a deep impact on ourselves. Such an impact is possible only when we approach travel with a different mindset. We get what we seek. If all we seek are some cool pictures or some opportunities to have fun, then it's unlikely that we will get anything that touches us at a deeper level. As Marcel Proust is supposed to have said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." When we get these "eyes" that Proust talks about, we will start getting brilliant insights even when things are unspectacular and life is the regular humdrum affair.


  1. This inspires me to plan a trip to one of my dream places all alone (No kids, not husband)

    1. That's an excellent idea! I wish women also had the same level of freedom that men enjoy when it comes to travel (and other spheres of life). After Adi grows up a little bit more, you should let husband take care of both your kids and then go off on your trip. You really should!