The Best Vacations You Take Are the Ones That Expand Your Inner World

Smiling senior couple looking at ocean with coin-operated binoculars
Smiling senior couple looking at ocean with coin-operated binoculars

When you reach the midlife years and beyond, travel is as much about expanding your mind as it is about getting away from it all. According to the perspective called "Innovation Theory," people who like to experiment with novelty are generally most likely to adapt successfully to getting older. Not everyone is an innovator, but Israeli researchers Galit Nimrod and Arie Rotem, writing in the journal Ageing and Society, believe that we all can benefit from stretching our minds as well as our legs when we go on vacation.

Innovation theory proposes that midlife and older adults who become involved with a new leisure activity may experience a range of psychological benefits, including an enhanced sense of meaning in life and well-being, and even a feeling of self-reinvention. Travel is a leisure activity that has unique potential to offer these benefits. When we leave the comfort of our homes, we also leave our comfort zones and force ourselves to change our daily routines. Depending on how far from home you venture, these routines can change quite drastically. Your customary fat-free milk may not be an option for breakfast as it is by reaching into your own fridge, and you'll have to learn new ways to navigate your daily bathing rituals perhaps having only a shared bath with minimal amenities. You have to learn your way around the highways and byways of new cities and towns, and you may not even be able to speak to people you meet along the way without needing more than a bit of rough translation.

In our globally connected society, it's possible to experience some of the benefits of travel without having to leave your hometown or even your home. You can take a virtual trip on Google Maps, checking out everything from the Eiffel Tower to a remote village in eastern Europe. You can sample exotic concoctions from the market or a local Vietnamese snack bar. However, getting some distance from your familiar surroundings is important, at least on an occasional basis, to immerse yourself more completely in the travel experience. It's not a bad idea to get away from the email or humdrum household routines either.

As it turns out, though, not even all foreign travel is created alike when it comes to psychological benefits. Nimrod and Rotem developed a questionnaire that allowed them to predict which retired vacationers would get the most out of their exploits. The questionnaire asks travelers to rate the frequency of experiences they had in their last travel abroad. "External" innovators used their travel to become introduced to new cultures, visit places they'd never gone to before, meet new people, participate in new activities, and try new food. Sounds pretty good, right? We all can benefit from expanding our cultural horizons. In contrast, the "internal" innovators used travel to learn something new about their relationships, themselves, and life in general as well as to gain a new ability or skill. The internal innovators enjoyed new foods and activities, but not as much as external innovators.

If you were to predict who would actually learn more from their travel experience, you might predict that it's the external innovators. By getting the taste, both literal and figurative, of a new culture, they should expand their mental horizons as well, we might argue. The internally oriented, you might think, could do the same amount of introspection at home as they could while abroad. However, the results showed that, quite the opposite, it was the internal innovators who gained the most out of their experiences even though what they learned the most about was themselves.

Perhaps you've traveled with people who fit the description of the external innovators, or perhaps you are one yourself. What are the vacations like for these journeyers? In the first place, they tend to be the "tourists," meaning that the spend time sightseeing in the big cities or parks on organized tours. However, the internal innovators also took plenty of sightseeing opportunities, and were as likely as the external innovators to go on a cruise, visit galleries, and take pictures. The main differences between the two groups were that the internally oriented vacationers got to know the locals, exercised, and actually spent some time gambling or at casinos. When they got back, the internally oriented retirees felt that they had grown as a person, enjoyed themselves, felt it was healthful, felt they were active, liked developing new skills, and despite their greater level of physical activity, came back feeling more relaxed and well-rested.

Looking at the behavior of either group of innovators while on vacation, then, they might not look all that different although there was a tendency for the internal innovators to do more traveling on their own. It's what they were thinking, almost more than what they were doing, that differentiated them. As the study's authors note, being externally oriented while you travel may give you a sense of excitement and even self-development, it does not help you experience that deeper process of self-discovery. Going on vacation with the intention of expanding your inner horizons seems to be a way of ensuring that when you return, you will continue to expand those horizons.

Use your travel experiences to have fun, but see them as an opportunity to engage in self-reinvention. Obviously, you will want to enjoy those new places, try those new foods, and even take up a new hobby. However, as long as you use your time away to look inside yourself, and your relationships, you'll come back with new insights into your inner, as well as the outer, world you inhabit.