May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a Great Time to Reflect on Travel’s Role in the Space.
Can you remember the last time you were lonely? When the thought of reaching out to others for a social outing left you feeling anything but…social.
Interestingly, our bodies provide key indicators into how being lonely affects us. Research has found those excluded from social interactions have a noticeable drop in skin temperature. This is likely a protective mechanism, but it brings an entirely new meaning to the expression, giving the cold shoulder.
The impact of loneliness is profound. So much so, that it has been compared to cigarette smoking, as chronic loneliness is shown to increase the risk of early deaths by 14%.
Mental health is susceptible to loneliness too. Being lonely warps the way we view relationships. Our internal news feed is an endless loop of negative thoughts:
Do I really fit in with this group? It doesn’t matter what I have to say. What’s the point in trying to connect?
To be clear, this is not an isolated phenomena. In fact, it’s estimated 40% of people feel the painful stab of loneliness at some point in their lives.
Knowing this, what are we to do? First, we must call it out for exactly what it is: Loneliness is a thief. Joy, community and adventure, to name a few, have all been ransacked by this faceless burglar. The vicious cycle of being lonely is exacerbated as these intense feelings often lead us to withdraw further from the things we desire most: connection, acceptance and feeling alive.
Answers for Loneliness?
Small-scale solutions have been attempted in the past. In 2016, the UK issued a call for grant proposals aimed at combating loneliness. Officially known as the Social Isolation and Loneliness Fund, more than $600K was awarded to organizations to help those suffering from being lonely. Further, the country of Denmark launched a program known as The World Eats Together to encourage people to share a meal in the company of others.
These efforts are admirable and should continue, but humbly, I present you with an alternative. Some may call it radical or expensive, but when considering the price you pay, it could be quite the bargain. My solution is all-natural and even gluten-free. I suggest moving, going, exploring, helping. More specifically, there’s a good chance a cure for loneliness is quite simple: purposeful travel.
Unorthodox? Maybe. Hear me out. Once removed from our normal bubble of routine, we are forced to reevaluate all of our relationships – and this often gives us new insight into the lives we are living. Think about it, why do people on dating apps always talk about how much they love to travel – because it makes them feel more connected! International travel has this amazing power to reset one’s perceptions.
Presently, people operate like computer programs. We are wired to feel, react and respond based on our design and the inputs from our environment. But truthfully, many of us are in need of an update, a refresh, and travel does just that. By removing us from our current reality, our perspective changes and our responses follow suit. We are gazing at the same canvas of life, but from a different angle. Initially this new vantage point can be uncomfortable, even stressful, but with time, the change of scenery helps to alter our thought patterns. Being exposed to new foods, cultures and people, triggers this.
When people travel with a small volunteer group tour, they share an intense experience which bonds them together with other travelers – even if they started out as complete strangers.
It’s pretty difficult to be preoccupied with whether or not your travel companions like you when you’re helping a nesting mother Olive Ridley sea turtle bring new life into the world. Or just try to keep that stern look on your face while teaching English to a classroom full of smiling students in Tanzania.
Vacations with Purpose are a Growing Trend
My intention is not to make light of loneliness, as I too have had my dark moments. And certainly travel is not all sunsets and waterfalls, but the struggles – which will inevitably arise while on the journey – can be used to shape us and reshape our views. Suddenly, our troubles feel less burdensome when compared to the global issues we all face. Plastics in the ocean. Intense water shortages. Access to education. Are all major concerns. Traveling responsibly to work on projects to combat these threats is a win-win for the causes you support and the calming of your mind.
For those worried about who to travel with, you may be relieved to learn solo travel has become very popular. This concern and countless others (work, finances, family obligations) can dissuade you from booking that plane ticket. But this is worth it. You are worth it.
We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that beyond breaking free from loneliness during your travels, you could theoretically, quite possibly, potentially…..have fun. Or who knows, even the time of your life.
Once you return home, be prepared that your environment will most likely be the same. But it is you that will be different. Your outlook. Your feeling of connectedness. Even your heart. While it may be a stretch to call your new self the 2.0 version, here’s to meaningful new experiences and not feeling cold.
Learn more about Discover Corps’ Vacations with Purpose here.