Words by Nicole Lutze
In the midst of a pandemic and a rapidly changing climate, holidaying might not spring to mind as a positive or necessary activity. But getting away can have profound benefits to your mental health and, viewed with a different perspective, it’s far easier – and closer – than you think.
Despite early predictions the technological revolution would lead to an increase in leisure time, things in the western world haven’t exactly gone to plan. Back in 1930, John Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, predicted five-day weekends would exist by 2030. Nine years out from that date, we are working more than ever. In fact, economist Juliet Schor estimates pre-industrial workers had more time off than modern workers do now. She hypothesises they had anywhere from eight weeks to six months off work annually – though being a medieval peasant wasn’t all holiday selfies. Regardless, it’s fair to say our modern lifestyle hasn’t lived up to expectations and our addiction to work comes at a cost.
We all dream of planning grand adventures. Of making lists, of packing, saddling up and setting off to create memories that will last a lifetime. But now more than ever, human lives are busy and complicated. As well as work pressures, there’s more often than not other lives – human or otherwise – which rely on our inputs and which impede on the realities of being able to get away for much longer than a day or two. And that’s before we take into account the travel restrictions.
But what if we could all look at our current situations as an opportunity to make realistic plans for adventures that still give us the mental nourishment of ‘getting away’. Adventures that can also support our many local communities still suffering the economic consequences of bushfires and lockdowns.
When it comes to short ‘staycations’, the natural world should be our playground of choice. Writers and poets like Henry James Thoreau and Mary Oliver have long sung the benefits of being outdoors. In Japan, shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ has been recommended as an eco-antidote to modern stress since the 1980s. And finally, modern researchers have proved spending at least two hours a week outdoors in green spaces benefits our health and psychological wellbeing regardless of our occupation, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
Thankfully, you needn’t travel too far to find yourself immersed in national parks and wilderness areas in Australia. They can be a short bus, train, bike or car ride away and are often only kilometres from our city centres. Outdoor adventures could be anything from bushwalks, camping trips, beach walks or ocean swims – or as simple as taking your lunch break in the least-popular corner of your local public gardens. The mental nourishment comes from stepping away from the monotony and comforts that currently define your day-to-day. By allowing yourself some time to turn your back on all those things which combine to make our lives busy, you’re affording yourself the same wellbeing benefits you gain when you saddle up and set off, just in shorter, much-needed bursts.
Travel can change your brain. Researchers across the world have determined what many of us have suspected for years: experiences, like holidays, can make you happier than acquiring material possessions ever will. And that’s not just because we’ve given ourselves time to switch off from work. The benefits of travel can begin long before we hit the road, and these kinds of experiences even have the potential to change our brain’s neuroplasticity and rewire how we think.
Professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School has has led numerous studies into the connection between international travel and creativity. His research found that because neural pathways are influenced by our routines and surroundings, those pathways are sensitive to change. New sights, sounds, smells and language can fire up different synapses in the brain to potentially revitalise your mind. And a brain with more cognitive flexibility (or active neural pathways) is frequently a key component of creativity.
The good news is, there’s no minimum timeframe required for experiencing these mental changes; even a short break can provide them. And, with the right attitude, local travel can be equally as beneficial.
‘If the traveller is treating the experience like another culture they are excited to learn about, adapt to and integrate into their world view, even local travel can positively affect creativity,’ Adam says. ‘If they’re not, then even overseas travel will not produce these benefits. It all comes down to mindset.’
Planning is an important part of the process. While spontaneous adventure can be exciting, when it comes to nurturing our mental health, planning is an important part of the process.
A 2002 study by the University of Surrey found people are at their happiest when they have a getaway planned. And a 2014 study by Cornell University showed planning and anticipating a holiday can substantially increase a person’s happiness.
One of the Cornell study authors, Amit Kumar, says, ‘people might think an experience is somewhat fleeting — it only lasts a few days or weeks if you’re lucky. But actually, the value you derive from these experiences extends over time. Holidays don’t just make us happy while we’re on them, but also before and after.’
The study also noted the anticipated happiness of an experience is significantly higher than the joy associated with anticipating a material purchase. The reason, it seems, comes down to social value.
‘Experiences make for better stories than material possessions. And, they’re more likely to be talked about both before and after the trip,’ Amit says. ‘Then there’s also the during phase. It turns out, even during an experience different from their day to day, people are happier than those in the midst of material consumption.
‘We think this is also down to social value. Experiences often involve other people, whereas material consumption usually happens on your own.’
It Starts At Home
Further good news for those who travel on a budget: you don’t need an overly expensive holiday to experience joy. Adam’s study factored in the cost of both experiences and material possessions throughout his research, and from a statistical sense, he ruled out cost as an underlying reason for the gratification provided. Again, the results showed it was social connections that bought the most joy.
‘Humans are a social species,’ Adam says. ‘If there’s any advice I can give from my research into happiness, it’s this: tilt your spending a bit more in the direction of experiences and a bit less in the direction of material items. That’s likely to enhance your social relationships and make you feel better.’
And your local community is the perfect place to start. At a time when community has never been so important, balancing new experiences with supporting businesses in your local area who are doing it tough can have really positive experiences for all involved.
Exploring our own backyard is convenient in an era of unpredictable lockdowns and border closures and has the important added bonus of creating less carbon emissions than interstate or overseas holidays. Though, of course, sometimes we want to explore a little further afield or visit loved ones.
If air travel is unavoidable, pack light to avoid extra fuel being burned and be sure to offset your trip through a carbon offsetting program. It’s important to note that while carbon offsetting schemes are helpful, they’re a bandaid solution to a much bigger problem and probably shouldn’t be regarded as a free-pass to air travel.
If you’re travelling by car, road trips can be made more efficient by carpooling with friends or family and packing light to avoid excess fuel consumption. When you compare the fuel consumption per 100 km of a car and divide that emissions quota between passenger, it’s generally a better environmental option for a family to drive to their destination than it is to fly. But once again, trains and buses are always the best choices (or pedal power if your mobility permits it).
Two years ago, the World Health Organisation added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’
Unsurprisingly, to combat burnout we need to allow ourselves a break from work. Research shows us that just four nights away can reduce our stress for up to 45 days. Beyond that, short breaks and nature explorations will help us manage workplace stress to avoid burnout altogether. It might be an overnight camping trip nearby with the family on the weekend, a hike up your nearest hill to watch the sunrise, or an afternoon exploring a walking trail in the bush without electronic notifications stealing your attention. The important thing isn’t how far away you are or how long you go for, it’s making the time in the first place, and allowing yourself to immerse fully in the experience.
In 2010, the noun staycation was added to the Oxford dictionary after it became a popular way to describe athome holidays which feature day trips to local attractions or getaways within your own country. One global pandemic and a climate crisis later and staycations are, well, here to stay.
Your eco-travel planner
TRY SOME OF THESE USEFUL RESOURCES AND TIPS WHEN PLANNING YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE
Ecotourism Australia is a not-for-profit focused on environmentally sustainable and culturally responsible tourism. They’ve been certifying eco-tourism products and designations for over 30 years and have compiled The Green Travel Guide (greentravelguide.org) as a useful source of eco-travel inspiration.
Caravanning can be an enjoyable and family-friendly option for exploring the great outdoors. Check out camplify.com.au or shareacamper.com.au for hire options for every budget.
Travelling on foot can be the best way to explore the great outdoors. Most States and Territories have fairly comprehensive guides to walking paths available online, and Tourism Australia also has a guide to our country’s most popular hiking trails. Be sure to take adequate safety precautions when hiking, like notifying friends on where you’re headed, when you’ll be back, and packing sufficient supplies. Emergency distress beacons are available to hire from national park authorities.
If you’re new to camping, it can be fairly expensive to get a reasonable kit assembled. Look for secondhand equipment online and aim to build up your kit slowly.