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Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

Travel as a growth experience - Dr Edward Hoffman

Do you like to travel? For many people, it’s one of life’s most fulfilling experiences - not only inducing happy relaxation, but also offering new philosophical and spiritual horizons. Precisely from this latter viewpoint, the famous American writer Mark Twain (see Samuel Clemens) declared in his late-nineteenth century memoir 'Innocents Abroad' that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of (people) and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Echoing similar sentiments several decades later, the Spanish-American philosopher Georges Santayana extolled the benefits of tourism in declaring, “There is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

Such sentiments were certainly shared by luminaries of modern psychology including Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung. After graduating from high school in Germany, Erikson (founder of developmental psychology and play therapy) wandered as a vagabond through Europe for about a year in seeking to find his identity, before deciding on art school. In later life, Erikson argued that most young people need this type of “gap year” (or years) between schooling and workforce participation in order to discover themselves meaningfully. Both Adler and Jung traveled extensively and joyfully to promote their work. Both not only reveled in the acclaim they received from diverse audiences, but also gained important insights into how cultures influence personality. For example, as early as the 1920s, Adler correctly predicted that America would become the world leader in psychology because of its emphasis on individualism. “The United States is like an ocean,” he poetically asserted. “An individual has infinite possibilities for development in such a country, but he also has greater difficulties to overcome. The incentive to ambition is great but the competition is also very keen. In Europe, they are still swimming around in a bathtub.”  

As for Jung, he had a lifelong fascination for the Eastern world, and his 1937-1938 visit to India permanently influenced his later work. Before this trip, the Swiss-born Jung felt that Indian meditative practices like yoga were not really suited to Westerners, but afterward, he insisted that the West had much to learn from Indian culture about the human psyche. In Jung’s 1939 article, 'What India Can Teach Us,' he praised Hinduism for its embrace of “the whole man from top to bottom” and appreciatively stated that India had avoided the “fatal dissociation between an upper and a lower half of the human personality.”

Among the leading psychological researchers today on travel is Dr Sebastian Filep of New Zealand’s University of Otago. In forging a new approach to tourism, Dr Filep identifies five different types of experience, each with its particular value: 1) recreational, which provides general wellbeing and idle pleasure; 2) diversionary, which mainly offers distraction from current stress; 3) experiential and 4) experimental, which involves respectively a search for self-authenticity and alternative ways of living; and, 5) existential, which may transform our habitual patterns of thinking or acting. Undoubtedly, it is the existential mode that most often spurs personal growth.

I’ve recently led a study in China on peak-experiences involving travel among young adults. Not surprisingly, the majority reported a wide range of uplifting moments, encompassing such aspects as aesthetics (witnessing lovely architecture), nature’s beauty, family togetherness, deep friendship, and a sense of personal freedom. For example, a male student commented that, “When your mind and body get totally relaxed, then your attitude toward life changes. You learn a lot and you grow up a lot.” A female student related, “I realized that my dreams could come true as long as I tried my best, and that I am in charge of my life.”

It’s not always possible to travel whenever we want, but we can always reflect on what we’ve experienced. Take a few minutes to answer these questions: How has travel strengthened your open-mindedness, and your appreciation of beauty and excellence? How about your gratitude? In what ways do you think that travel enhances your creativity and problem-solving ability? Finally, where would you most like to travel next, and why?

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org