Travel and Wellbeing

This is how my trips usually began.

Save for the street lights and blinkering dashboard, the rest would be blanketed in darkness. It would be the witching hour, a time that is both very late and very early. Ordinarily, neither of us – my driver nor myself – should be awake. My phone would sleep face down atop my documents. In this inky space, screen glares would feel rude, whereas small talk remained welcome.

Invariably, the driver would ask, ‘Where are you flying off to?’. And I’d respond, careful not to sound too enthusiastic. Travel is a luxury, while the graveyard shift certainly wasn’t. We would warm to the conversation. He’d wish me safe travels as I hauled up my backpack – the fatherly types would hold it steady – and we’d part ways. I, through Changi Airport’s belching doors, and he, to chase the early dawn.

Invariably, as I found my boarding gate, my senses would run on overdrive. What was this: Nervousness? Interest? Some effect of sleep deprivation? Colours seemed brighter and sounds richer, like someone turned the floodlights on my dim universe. It sticks with me for the trip.

But invariably, as soon as I am on the return flight, it drops off.

I would wonder then: How might I recreate this?

If anything, the boom of the 2000s spoke volumes of the magic of travel. Was it just escapism, hedonism or was there more at play?

Why does travel give our wellbeing such a boost?

I tried to frame this through positive psychology’s PERMATM, an academic theory that aims to answer an aeons old question: What makes life worth living? ‘Positive emotion’ and ‘Engagement’ jumped out at me right away. A modern-day Phileas Fogg (ref: Around the World in Eighty Days) might think otherwise for the element of ‘Accomplishment’.

Being on the road nurtured my sense of engagement. In my twenties, those jitters were probably the closest I got to feeling present, as in the state where all my energy are tuned into the now. Out of my comfort zone, I never felt the impulse to ruminate or put my mind on anything else but what was unfolding before me.

Then, there is wonder, a curiosity that lights up as you brush against the limits of the known and realise – with some relief – that there’s more to the world. Simply seeking more can be immensely invigorating, but first, you would have to find the edge. After all,

It is not understanding that destroys wonder, it is familiarity.

John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy

In optimising our days, we have boxed ourselves in too well.

Finally, there is awe, an experience where we are suspended away from our egos and held instead by something much greater. In those moments, the Self dissolves into a profoundly humbling sense of interconnectedness.


It is easy to see how travel feeds into our wellbeing. Is this effect exclusive to travel? A definite no.

For starters, the PERMATM was meant to broadly encompass life’s many aspects rather than just a single self-care practice. Personally, my self-care practices have grown. I wish I could say that age has made me wiser, but really, it is because the pandemic forced an adjustment. Thankfully, it also allowed me to try something different.

So, each weekend, I unbox myself and make small shifts to break out of the familiar: Old tasks done different or old paths viewed with fresh eyes. Somehow, by inviting all that crazy inconvenience, my brain snaps, filters fail, and I drift into wonder.

I cultivate awe by immersing myself – all the fibres of my being – in nature, galleries, and remarkable architectural examples. I marvel at the things that I had not noticed before: Complexity, collective effort, and cultural importance. I try my best to peel past preconceived notions, see the limits of the known and invite wonder.

I put my phone away. I socialise. I meditate. I do yoga. I journal. Despite not having travelled since 2019, my wellbeing has improved.

These days, I wonder: What more can I do for my wellbeing?

References

PERMA™ theory of well-being and PERMA™ Workshops. PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being and PERMA™ Workshops | Positive Psychology Center. (n.d.). https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/learn-more/perma-theory-well-being-and-perma-workshops.