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The transformative power of travel

It’s time to get your airplane out of the hangar

“Oh my gosh, you fly airplanes?” The response is predictable when people find out I am a pilot. “That’s brave. You must see really cool stuff.”

I’m not sure if the Mississippi runway and green fields of the checkride area would count as cool stuff. But it’s what my flying days consist of, and I’m content in that routine. We used to go fun places, my husband and I, just jump in the Cessna 172 and go, or book an airline ticket when our own airplane couldn’t carry us far enough. But then our first daughter was born. And we heard about terror attacks in the streets of Paris and the Brussels airport. And then two more babies came. And then…COVID-19. Just one reason after another why staying closer to home and driving to comfortable haunts started to seem more attractive. I know how this sounds. I fly airplanes! We pilots are travelers, adventurers. We don’t let a little discomfort or fear of some unnamed risk stop us.

So, around Christmas 2022, when my husband casually mentioned that we should make another trip to Europe like we did when we were first dating, I initially put him off. “Too expensive,” I said. “Who would keep the kids?” All reasonable responses...that made me feel like a part of me was slowly dying. Maybe it was because I felt those three little human anchors exerting too much of a pull on my day-to-day thoughts, or maybe it was the way that absurdly handsome man smiled the way I knew he would when I told him to pack his bags, but I booked the tickets. On the morning of travel day, I climbed into seat 29J, a window seat of course. When the big, beautiful wing of that Boeing 787 flexed in the wind as we took off for a week of grand new adventures, I felt that old, nearly forgotten sense of anticipation.

Europe did not disappoint. One day in Azpeitia, Spain, I saw the same woman two different times. She showed up at the café wearing shoes that were far too fancy for a Tuesday morning, carrying a crossword puzzle and loaf of bread under her arm. (People in Spain eat bread all day long. Apparently carbs are not the enemy?) She proceeded to order a glass of red wine—at nine in the morning mind you—and had a little breakfast party for one. Later, I saw her in the town square, same fancy shoes, meeting a group of friends for a leisurely lunch that extended well into the afternoon. Did this woman not have a job? No daily obligations? I saw all kinds of strange and wonderful things like that. We went to a French chateau and met a fifteenth-generation wine maker who passionately taught us about the interplay between “Lady Nature” and the grapes. We happened upon cathedrals that were a thousand years old and so stunningly ornate that I could not even bring myself to take a picture. The space was too sacred. We ate food we couldn’t pronounce or identify and loved it so much that we didn’t care. In short, we came home feeling different, expanded somehow (and not just because of all the bread).

It turns out there’s research to suggest that travel changes us for the better. Neuropsychologist and professor Paul Nussbaum said, “When you engage in something that’s novel and complex, your brain thrives. We’re all sort of routinized animals. It’s when we get out of that and challenge ourselves that there’s a benefit to brain health.” Nussbaum says when we problem-solve to navigate a new landscape, our brain matter forms new connections that aid in future functioning with memory and focus. And you thought you were just sightseeing. Travel has also been shown to reduce stress levels. A 2017 German study found that when middle managers took a four-day vacation, their measurable stress levels were reduced for as much as 45 days afterward. Another study found that women who vacationed twice a year had lower levels of depression and heart disease compared to those who traveled only every other year. The studies cited “simply being away” and “changing the normal environment” as the reasons for the improved well-being.

In her book, The Happy Traveler, Jaime Kurtz details scientific evidence that travel can do everything from shaping our personalities to be more open and agreeable, to boosting relationship satisfaction and feelings of connection. “If happiness is our goal,” she says, “spending money on life experiences like travel buys us more than spending on material items. As aging people look back on their lives, they often express gratitude for their travel experiences, while others express regret for not having traveled more.” The next time you look at your lonely airplane in the hangar and come up with a million reasons why you can’t take it out and go exploring, I hope you listen to that voice of wanderlust that encouraged you to buy it in the first place.

Think of my fancy-shoed Spanish friend, and celebrate the adventure that is your life. Get away and go somewhere new. You’ll be better for it.

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