Willful wandering


March 1, 2023

Whether visiting a cabin in the woods or a far-flung destination halfway around the world, travel can improve our mental health and quality of life.

by Krisha Chachra

According to the U.S. Travel Association, each year more than half of Americans leave vacation time on the table — hundreds of millions of unused days. Another study published in Nature found that people who change their scenery regularly tend to be happier. Despite the emotional benefits, we seem to ignore that using our extra time to travel is an important ingredient to improving ourselves and our mental health. Time is a gift, and how we use it reveals what we care about. Yet so many of us don’t prioritize using our time to travel. 

Why does the thought of putting effort into travel stress us out? The key to eliminating this feeling is to be intentional about traveling the same way we are about the food we eat, our workout routines or the clothes we wear. Think about it — have you booked a “dream” vacation only to navigate large crowds and wait in long lines? Maybe you hoped to relax on a picturesque beach but returned feeling more anxious than before you left? If this is familiar, you are probably not being intentional about travel.

As a travel writer and consultant for more than 20 years, I have noticed that several people, especially moms, dread planning travel for their families. They don’t want to bother with hauling their kids anywhere or deal with bad attitudes or a spouse’s complaints. I get that. I am a mom. There is nothing more deflating than spending your precious time planning something just to have your family whine about it. But there is a formula for planning a successful travel experience, which in the end can create stronger bonds with family and result in more productivity, creativity and mental positivity at home and work. It’s about reframing how we think about travel.

1. Don’t view travel as a luxury. View it as a part of your mental well-being — as a growth opportunity. Travel can be luxurious, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you can’t afford luxury, you can’t afford to travel. Your body does not know the difference between an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora and a cabin in the North Carolina mountains. Your mind might know — but your body doesn’t care. What your body craves is the visceral experience that happens when your scenery changes. According to the extensive research conducted by Michael Merzenich, the author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, travel is linked to brain health. When you step outside your comfort zone, your senses awaken — an involuntary defense mechanism when you’re in new surroundings — and you’ll notice the cognitive benefits in observing something, tasting new foods or walking new paths. You don’t need to spend a lot of money going overseas or staying in a high-end resort to get a break. You don’t even need to take an entire week off work. Instead, take a day or two and try that one thing that you always wanted to do. A vacation doesn’t need to be a place, it can be an event. Get your body there and your mind will follow. 

2. Think of a place you want to go, not necessarily a place where everyone else is going. Travel is not a destination bucket list that you need to check off. Ask yourself why you are putting so much pressure on yourself to book a week at Kiawah Island, a trip to Europe or the perfect Disney vacation. Is that really where your family will thrive right now? If your kids are into rock formations, go to the Grand Canyon or a cool quarry. If you need inspiration, maybe choose an artist town like Santa Fe, N.M., St. Petersburg, Fla., or Asheville. Listen to yourself and select the place that best fits your needs at the moment. Destinations offer wonderful opportunities to learn about other ways of living. Pick one where you might harness new life lessons to bring home.

3. Timing is everything. Recently I read a social-media post where a mom was beating herself up about dropping the ball on spring break. She called herself a “bad mom” and felt immense guilt for not providing a vacation experience for her family. Here’s the thing: Spring break is an artificial time to “need” to travel, and the industry capitalizes on the pressure you’re feeling to go somewhere. If it doesn’t work for your schedule, then don’t travel that week! Your kids will be fine. Instead, make plans for a week and location where the whole family can accomplish your vacation goals. 

4. Have vacation goals! Really think about this one. Write them down. It is okay to be spontaneous on a trip, but direction is important. Don’t get lost satisfying everyone’s demands. If your goal is to bond with your spouse, then pick a place that affords opportunities to connect. Plan something that you both like doing (like hiking, exploring or wine tasting) and something that you’ve never tried together (like canoeing, rafting or sailing). Carve out time for your own goals — but follow through with your plan.

5. Discover something about yourself that you didn’t know. We all have an unknown window — information we don’t know about ourselves that is only unmasked in new situations. Travel makes us more of ourselves; it coaxes out our capabilities, likes and dislikes and uncovers our unknown areas. 

Wherever you go this year, remember to be intentional — travel can be a vehicle to enhance your quality of life. It doesn’t need to be stressful, a bucket-list competition, or an out-of-reach luxury. Instead, view travel as a mental-health necessity — an opportunity to bond with others, connect with something new and learn more about yourself.  SP

Krisha Chachra is a Charlotte-based travel writer. She has visited more than 50 countries in six continents and loves exploring new destinations with her husband and daughter. Contact her at krishachachra.com or on Instagram @destinationsanddelish and @krishachachra.


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