Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Using Travel to Boost Well-Being With Dr. Andrew Stevenson
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 419 of Live Happy Now. With Memorial Day behind us, our thoughts are turning to summer vacations. We know they’re fun. But do you know how good they are for us?
I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I’m talking with Andrew Stevenson, a social anthropologist, filmmaker, and senior lecturer in psychology at the Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew’ s new book, The Psychology of Travel, looks at what travel can do for us, and he’s here today to talk about how we can approach it differently to get the most out of it. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:38] PF: Andrew, thank you for joining me on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:41] AS: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here, and hopefully we can have a good conversation about travel and health.
[00:00:48] PF: Yes. Oh, it’s such a wonderful – first of all, it’s timely, because audience doesn’t know until right now, that on the day we’re talking, it’s the day your book is being published. It’s a very great day for you.
[00:01:02] AS: It’s a good day. This is a project which really came out of the pandemic, I supposed, when we had the lockdown imposed upon us and there was no opportunity to travel. I was thinking about travel a lot over about a year or 18 months and decided to put some of my interests in psychology alongside my interest in travel. I was quite surprised how many different directions –
[00:01:25] PF: I do want to dive into that answer just a little bit. What made you decide to look at it through the lens of psychology? Can you tell us a little bit about your background and why that was the natural path for you to go down?
[00:01:35] AS: Yes. Well, I, in my day job, I’m the professor in psychology or lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, here in Manchester. My specialist subject in psychology is culture and space and place and I’m really interested in the way that places affect the way that we feel and think and act. Of course, that’s never more relevant than when we’re actually experiencing new places. Travel is – I mean, somebody said that travel is the best bits of our lives, isn’t it? It’s the bits that we tend to remember. Of course, not being able to do it for a couple of years, you brought this into sharp focus. I was missing it. I wanted to think about it and use some of the psychological concepts that I had worked with every day.
[00:02:25] PF: Yes. You’ve delved into it so well, in your book. I was curious how you go about studying this. We have a lot of travel books. We have a lot of different ways to look at travel. How do you actually study the psychology of travel and how that affects us?
[00:02:42] AS: That’s interesting. I think, it was combination of bringing together some of the areas that I personally have researched. Some things I’m interested in include things like, migration and movement, and the way that movement across borders affects our perceptions of people, that kind of thing. I’m also interested in social psychology and the way in which people behave differently in groups. Of course, when we travel, we’re thrust into all sorts of groups, people we don’t know, surrounded by people.
As well as some of my own personal interests. I also was aware that quite a lot of people have written about things like fear of travel, wellbeing and travel, mindfulness, and travel memory, and those types of things. I decided, I also was aware that there isn’t really a book about the psychology of travel, even though there are lots of academic interests and academic articles, which are quite inaccessible for most people. So, I thought, well, my job here is to just take some of the most interesting articles and topics that I’ve looked at travel from a psychological point of view, and put them into a coherent collection that we can all enjoy. I tend to write in a slightly more accessible way than some of the articles I’ve been reading. That’s not a criticism. It’s just the way that things are, I think.
[00:04:04] PF: Yes. I think that is important to know, because when you hear about the psychology of travel, it sounds heavy. But it’s really not. As you said, it’s a very accessible read, and very engaging.
[00:04:16] AS: I think, travel is something that we all enjoy doing. Psychology is really just about people and how they behave and think differently. Bring those two things together, you’re bound to get some interesting things.
[00:04:28] PF: Yes, and one of the things that you talk about, you say it’s virtually impossible to travel alone. Can you explain that and then talk about how other people affect our travel experiences in the way that we see travel?
[00:04:41] AS: Yes. It’s something that dawned on me really, is people often say, I’m going traveling alone.” But of course, I defy anyone, really, to genuinely travel alone. Because whenever we move from one place to another, whether it’s on foot or across the city or by air, we’re surrounded by people, and we’re surrounded by people, most of which we don’t know. We may travel without our own family. But our decisions, even if it’s down to things like which restaurant shall I go to? Which beach shall I go to? Whose are these footprints? We can even be influenced by people who aren’t even there anymore.
But the idea of a crowd will affect our destructive decisions. We may visit, for example, a monument or a gallery, because other people are doing it. We may be tempted to stay in that hotel because TripAdvisor says, “You’ve got lots of good reviews, and those people are affecting us.” If on the other hand, you’ll be anti-social like me, you might be more likely to go to a place where it’s practically empty because you quite like to get away from the crowds. But these are both – whatever direction you’re interested in, whether you want to do things that are conforming, or whether you want to be a rebel, you’re doing it in relation to what other people have either done or not.
[00:06:07] PF: Then, I know from my experience, you can make incredible friends and strike lasting friendships with people that you meet while traveling. I’ve got people that I met 20 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch and it was one encounter. We haven’t seen each other since then. But we have stayed in touch. How does that shape our lives too? We’re getting all these experience with people from other cultures and other walks of life?
[00:06:32] AS: Yes, it’s fascinating. There are so many different ways to answer that question. I mean, first of all, there’s the social aspect of traveling with somebody we already know, and having been on a journey with somebody who you may have known a bit before you went traveling together, that can really draw you together. Because what you’re doing there is you’re experiencing, not everyday life. You’re experiencing a particularly intense part of your life, but the best bits of your life. You’re traveling with somebody and two weeks with somebody who was a friend before or an acquaintance before, then you really become a lot more friendly with within those two weeks. You get to know about all their characteristics and so on. That can really propel a friendship forward into the future.
There’s that aspect. How it affects the friendships we already have with the acquaintances. But the other thing is as well, how does traveling to a different country, for example, affect your attitude towards the people who already live there. There’s that whole thing about hosts and visitors, isn’t it? It’s a bit – it could go either way, and a lot of researchers found that when you interact with cultures who you may not have met before, the most meaningful way of doing that, and the way that produces the best relationships is the way you interact with people on an equal footing, that can often mean meeting people socially.
So, if you go to Mexico, for example, and you meet people who are from Mexico, and you meet them as colleagues, or you meet them as equals, then your attitudes towards that entire group of people is likely to be a lot more positive than if you only ever meet people who are for example, serving you coffee, or cleaning up after you. To me, so there’s that status issue. But there’s also, there’s no doubt. But just being around people from different cultural groups, means that you’ve got much more firsthand experience of people that you may otherwise only read about in the press. We all know that that can lead to some kind of prejudice.
[00:08:48] PF: It also, for myself, it has created such a deep appreciation for the life that I lead, and where I have so much gratitude. We’d spent some time in Canada up with the indigenous people a by the polar bears. We were there to see polar bears, and it’s an indigenous culture up there, and seeing how they live and how challenging their lives are, what they have to go through to get food, to get water, things like that. It just instilled in me such an incredible appreciation for the simple things of being able to walk to a tap and turn it on and get a glass of water.
[00:09:23] AS: In the whole – I identify without a lot because the whole idea of appreciating cultural diversity and realizing that the way that we live in our bubbles in our day to day existence is just one way of living, isn’t it? In a way, the ideal of travel is to highlight the commonalities that we have with other people that we may not have met, before but also to appreciate distinct challenges that they may also face.
I do a research project in Central America and we have collaborators in Guatemala City and we do a lot of work with young people there. One of the things that we’re looking at is the concept of resilience and how people overcome challenges that they face in their everyday lives. It’s never anything other than surprised and impressed by the way that people cope with things that often we don’t cope that well here. The traffic in Guatemala City, is to me who live in Manchester, in England is incredible. But I would say the level of stress that the traffic causes is much lower. People just accept it as part of the everyday life. Here in Manchester, where I live, often the level of what we call road rage is quite a lot higher. The differences, the way that we cope with – the way that people cope with everyday challenges, we can understand that a lot better through travel, I think, and learning about different cultural groups.
[00:10:56] PF: That is so true. Obviously, not everybody loves to travel. Some people, you mentioned it, they have fear of travel. There’s travel anxiety. Where does that come from? How does leaving our comfort zone help us manage that?
[00:11:10] AS: Yes, that’s interesting. I mean, we talk about travel anxiety. Psychologists talked about travel fever, travel, fear, travel, anxiety, worry about travel. Think about that, they’re all challenges, but some of those challenges are actually quite useful. If we take something like travel worry, it’s actually quite a good idea to be slightly worried about traveling because that can heighten your defenses, and it can help plan the journey a little bit more thoroughly. It’s not a bad thing to be a little bit concerned and worried so that I can help you plan.
The challenge that’s a bit more difficult to explain is what you might call travel phobia, where sometimes people have a – they might have an irrational fear of something like flying. In fact, statistics suggest that the chances of coming to harm in an airplane are a lot less than they would be just crossing the road or riding on a bus, for example. But some psychologists have pointed out that when you take a flight to another country, you’re not just participating and potentially worrying for transport. You’re actually leaving all your familiar objects and people and land. And it’s that almost that fear of losing contact with things that you’re attached to. So, it’s almost like an attachment anxiety. Sometimes that can be one of the reasons for something like fear of flying, because the statistics don’t bear out the amount of irrational fear that sometimes people have with flying.
But the other thing, of course, is about anxiety and travel, is that there’s this concept that we call eco anxiety. Now, I know that many people think about global warming, and the climate crisis a lot. During the pandemic, one of the perhaps, one good thing that came out of that is that – I don’t know what it was like where you were living, but where we were living, we were able to take an hour of exercise every day, and we were able to go for our walks in the local community. Through that, many of us discovered green spaces and little treasure troves of green spaces that we didn’t know about before. Those types of things could really help us with our mental health a little bit. It also helps us to understand that we can experience some very precious travel moments without flying across the globe.
I think people are – well, figures suggest that eco anxiety is this genuine, understandable anxiety about the state of the planet. People are starting to modify their travel a little bit more now and maybe take fewer long-haul flights. Or maybe when you do take a long flight, stay in the place you’re going for a little bit longer, rather than making four or five shorter journeys. I don’t know about you. But the pandemic opened my eyes a little bit to the beauties in my own country.
[00:14:29] PF: Absolutely.
[00:14:31] AS: I’m not going to give up flying, but I’m maybe starting to think a little bit more that there were some great things to see that are on my doorstep as well.
[00:14:39] PF: Yes. We had that shift in mindset of where before we take another big international trip, let’s really start looking around the US because there’s amazing things here that we haven’t discovered yet and we’ve constantly said, “Oh, we want to go there, we want to go to Big Ben. We want to check out Red Rocks.” We want to do these things and we haven’t so it’s like, when we start getting that travel it, instead of saying, “Hey, let’s jump on a plane and hop across a pond.” Let’s discover what’s in our backyard, because it’s a big backyard.
[00:15:10] AS: That’s true. Quite often, quite often that the most wow moments or the great travel moments often called through some of the more mundane things that we see in our everyday lives and mindful to everyday experiences. Mindfulness is something we are encouraged to practice in our everyday lives, isn’t it? The idea is that you try to appreciate the world in a constant childlike state of wonder and you can enjoy the simplest pleasures like a cup of coffee, or a walk, or stroking a stray cat and those types of things can be appreciated, not necessarily only on the other side of the world. It’s about recognizing that travel, enjoyment, and pleasure, aren’t exclusively on a set list of destinations that we’re told to do.
[00:16:07] PF: Right. Yes, I think it can probably open your eyes to your everyday world a little bit more, and the things that, as you’re talking, just the things that you can appreciate that are around you every day.
[00:16:19] AS: Yes. That’s right. I mean, one of the key things about mindfulness is being able to appreciate your surroundings but without making too quick of judgment about whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes when we suspend judgment, we give ourselves the time to enjoy whatever it is we’re doing a little bit more with taking a breath or savoring the moment a little bit. In the era of five-star reviews, and TripAdvisor, there’s often a quickness to try to say yes, this is five stars, this is two stars. It might be a better idea just to be with that travel moment a little bit more, and not be in such a quick rush to keep it a certain number of stars. Because sometimes we don’t realize how satisfying an experience is until we’ve spent a little bit more time doing it.
[00:17:11] PF: Another thing that I’ve noticed with myself, you mentioned savoring, and I’ve noticed that oftentimes, when I get home, I enjoy that trip experience more than I did in the moment. I wanted to know what that’s about, because there’s been so many times like, especially on a long trip, by the end of it, you’re like, “Okay, this is great, but I’m ready to go home.” When you do get home and you really have time to sit with it, I don’t know, I just feel like I appreciate it so much more after the fact even than I do when it’s happening.
[00:17:41] AS: Yes, that’s interesting. It relates to the idea of wellbeing and travel. I suppose one of the reasons we’re talking today is just to think about whether travel makes us happy or not and it’s something I’ve discussed in the book is the relationship between happiness and travel. Psychologists have come up with this idea of different types of happiness. One of them sometimes known as hedonistic enjoyment, hedonistic travel, which is all about pure, physical joy in the moment. We often get this experience through, I don’t know, skiing down the mountain, or windsurfing, or something like that.
Then the other type of enjoyment is sometimes are viewed eudaimonic happiness or wellbeing. That’s the kind of wellbeing that accrues through something like developing a skill, learning a language, understanding a culture, and it’s a little bit more of a marathon rather than a sprint of your life. I think that what you’re referring to there is the way that the skill, let’s just say, of learning a language when you visit a place or learning a little bit about a local artist that can visit Mexico City and learn about Frida Kahlo, a fascinating historical figure. Those types of eudaimonic enjoyment, are often the ones which research suggests stay with you longer after the visit.
Whereas if you visit a place and you purely want to live in, maybe just live in the fast lane and purely want to have hedonistic enjoyment, that’s great while it’s happening. But there may be a bit of a holiday hangover when you get back and the enjoyment may not be such so long lasting and memorable. To be honest, I think, the secret really to a good visit is to try to do a little bit of both of those, so that you can have, let’s just say there’s a cliché, travel can broaden the mind. That would be the longer lasting enjoyment, but you might want to party a little bit as well, but I think it’s being able to combine those.
[00:19:54] PF: I was having a conversation with a friend a few days ago and she was talking about how her in laws always go back to the same place. They do not want to travel to other places. They find things that they like, and then they just go to that over and over. She, of course, wants to try something new every time. Does that affect us differently? Or is it just a personality type? What makes us tick that way?
[00:20:18] AS: Well, that is interesting, and again, you’re going to have those people who are quite habitual, and who get a lot of enjoyment through developing routines. I think there are other people who struggle with sameness, and struggle with repetition. I think, there are good and bad aspects to both of those in terms of the experience of travel, because I think there’s a lot of value personally in immersing yourself a little bit in the place, and trying to find a little bit about how it ticks. If I visit a city, for example, let’s just take, I don’t know, Los Angeles, or Mexico City or something. If I’m there for a week or so, there’s an awful lot going on there a place like that and I would be reluctant to spend a day there and then jet off to New York to see what that’s like for a day, and they jet off to Washington to see what that’s like for a day. Because the richness of experience that is available in any city or town or county or whatever it is or region is really inexhaustible, I think.
So, it’s not so much about having routines. It’s about having the commitment to explore in a little bit more depth and have that mindful approach. I mean, I think the reason for this, we always talk about bucket lists, don’t we? People talk about a list of things I’d like to do before we go away. I often think – or while we’re away, as you say. I often think that the itineraries that we make for ourselves or develop for ourselves when we travel, sometimes there are things that are coming from our own interests. But sometimes we follow an itinerary, which is almost been presented to us, and I think we often fall victim to this travel guide. We become slaves to the travel guide.
[00:22:22] PF: Absolutely, yes.
[00:22:23] AS: We can often have the experience of taking the same photograph that everybody else is taking, and that kind of thing. I think there are people who are quite happy to just take the commodified view of travel and take the photograph. There might be a queue of people taking the same photograph. Well, the people are more likely to try to be a bit more immersive and find out a bit more about what’s going on in an everyday sense about a place that they visit.
[00:22:52] PF: Yes. We’re running this as summer is kicking off, and people are starting to think about travel. Well, it is based on the book, everything that you’re studying, what’s your recommendation for travelers to keep in mind this season?
[00:23:07] AS: Well, I think, first of all, we need to think about who you’re going to travel with, and think about what social situation you want to put yourself in. But I think my number one piece of thing to think about, really, is when you travel, are you thinking of yourself as a traveler, or as a tourist? I’ve got a nice little quote here from the novelist Paul Bowles, who wrote The Sheltering Sky. It’s all about difference between travel and tourism. And he says, “The difference between a traveler and a tourist is, whereas the tourists generally always back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belongs no more to one place than the other, moves slowly over a period of years from one part of the earth to another.”
For me, the traveler is somebody who’s following their own dream about discovering something about themselves, trying to be mindful, and developing their own relationship with cultural diversity and finding something interesting about themselves. The tourists may be experiencing hedonistic travel. Maybe they’re having the same holiday that everybody else is having as well. I think you’ve got to decide which of those you want to be really. It’s not that one’s better than the other, but they aren’t quite distinct.
[00:24:27] PF: That is so interesting. Andrew, you’ve given us so much to think about. I love this conversation. We’re going to tell people how to discover your book because it’s such an important and accessible read and thank you for writing.
[00:24:38] AS: But also, to say, it’s not a big book, either.
[00:24:40] PF: I know. It goes quick. It’s a very slim volume. You can read it on a plane.
[00:24:46] AS: Exactly.
[00:24:47] PF: Andrew, thank you again. I appreciate your time today.
[00:24:50] AS: Thanks for having me on Paula. Have a great summer.
[00:24:53] PF: You too.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:24:58] PF: That was Andrew Stephenson talking about why travel is so good for us. If you’d like to learn more about Andrew, follow him on social media or check out his new book. Just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. While you’re there, remember there’s still time to swing by the Live Happy Store and take advantage of our spring special where you can get 25% off storewide just by entering the code Spring 25.
That is all we have time for today. We will meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.