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Why I feel "psychological rich" when I travel on my own
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Many years ago, I discovered the joy of traveling on my own. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want to miss trips with my husband Niko for a million. But venturing out on my own allows me to learn about myself and the world in a particular way.
The experiences on my tours are pretty mixed. There are glorious moments - like when I stepped into Claude Monet’s Garden in Giverny and saw hundreds of water lilies and the famous bridge. There is lots of curiosity-induced roaming in neighborhoods like the quaint city center of Reykjavik or the ultramodern Docklands in Dublin. And there is strain, for example, during a flight from Germany to India that took 24 hours instead of just nine and included unplanned stops in Zurich, Oman, and Dubai.
In the past, I often found it hard to explain why I find so much fulfillment in these trips. After all, alongside positive feelings, there is plenty of insecurity and frustration involved, certainly more than when I travel with others. But recently, I stumbled over a psychological concept that provides a useful framework for the draw of my solo stints. According to a group of psychologists and philosophers, they are prime examples of psychologically rich experiences.
For the last several years, Shigehiro Oishi (University of Virginia), Lorraine Besser (Middlebury College, VT), Erin Westgate (University of Florida), and other researchers have explored what they call a psychologically rich life. It’s a life in which people engage in a variety of activities characterized by complexity, novelty, and change in perspective. These can be firsthand experiences – like my solo trips all around the world - or vicarious experiences such as reading novels or watching movies and sports on TV. What matters is the effect on people’s minds: While pursuing these activities, people feel engaged and aroused and experience numerous deep emotions, both positive and negative ones.
Many people – like myself – enjoy being in such a state. But there is a problem: The two concepts of the good life most common in psychology and philosophy do not account for experiences like that: A happy life (hedonic well-being) is characterized by comfort, joy, and stability; a meaningful life (eudaimonic well-being) centers on purpose, coherence, and societal significance. Oishi and his colleagues try to fill this gap. The psychologically rich life is thought of as a complement to the two other conceptions to allow for experiences that are engaging and perspective-changing but not necessarily very pleasant or societal meaningful.
How many people are drawn to this kind of experience? In a study published in 2020, Oishi and 22 colleagues from all over the world tried to find out. They asked close to 3,700 participants from nine countries – namely the USA, Japan, Korea, India, Norway, Singapore, Portugal, Germany, and Angola - what kind of life they wanted to live if they had to choose between a happy, a meaningful, and a psychologically rich life. The result: The majority of people chose a happy life (between 62% and 70% depending on the country). The meaningful life came second, preferred by between 14% and 39% of respondents. But a substantial percentage of people chose a psychologically rich life. It was particularly popular in Germany (17%), India (16%), and Korea (16%). In the second part of the study with only American and Korean participants, the researchers asked indirectly: What do you regret the most in your life and would like to reverse? The percentage of people who said they wished they would have lived a psychologically richer life was even a third (US: 28%. Korea: 35%).
The researchers also looked at what facilitates psychological richness. Certain circumstances are more helpful than others, namely situations and activities that are:
- challenging and involve struggle
- out of one’s element
- mentally stimulating
Personality plays a role, too, Oishi and his colleagues found. Three traits seem central: curiosity, open-mindedness, and spontaneity. Also, it helps when people have plenty of energy and time.
In one paper, Besser and Oishi sum it all up in a helpful vignette:
An individual pursuing the psychologically rich life, follows her curiosity without concern for stability, comfort, or purpose. She purposefully places herself (in real life or vicariously) in novel situations that test her. She tries to get out of her element and seeks out the company of those who challenge her. She craves mental stimulation and the variety of emotions that it generates. If she is lucky, she may pursue a career with built-in adventure or one that allows flexibility, but if not, she’ll seek out engagement and arousal in her daily life.
When I look at my solo adventures, they check many boxes of psychological richness. A good example is a trip to Iceland in March 2017. It was only four days, but in these four days I felt so alive. High up on my to-do list was a visit to the hot springs and geothermally heated pools, an essential part of Icelandic culture you find all over the island. I had planned to visit The Blue Lagoon, probably the most famous pool in Iceland and a “must-see“ as many websites stated. But then on the day before my visit, I decided against it because the spa seemed very touristy and I wanted to experience something more authentic. My Airbnb host suggested Laugardalslaug, Reykjavic's most extensive pool facilities, which include a 50m outdoor pool, two water slides, numerous hot tubs, and steam baths. This is where the locals go, he told me. So this is where I went.
Visiting a local swimming pool might not sound like a very adventurous thing to do. But this unplanned, at times awkward feeling immersion into Icelandic culture turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
Using a bus in a city you are not familiar with is an adventure in itself and my commute to Laugardalur Valley, where the pool is, was no different. How do I pay? Which bus direction to take? Where to get off? Thanks to a friendly bus driver who employed all of his limited English and my creative gesturing, I was able to figure it out. When I entered the pool facilities, I felt uncomfortable. Older and younger folks were swimming in the Olympic size pool or hanging out in groups in the tubs and baths. I was clearly a stranger here, unfamiliar with the Icelandic swimming pool rules (which are very specific in terms of how exactly to clean up before entering the pools and where to put your stuff) and unsure about how to best enjoy the facilities’ attractions. I was the only tourist on this chilly Friday morning, it seemed. I swam some laps in the pool, spent half an hour in a sauna room, and then tried out a couple of the tubs of different temperatures. I finally settled into a pleasantly hot jacuzzi.
After a couple of minutes, a guy in his late 30s entered the tub and greeted me with a friendly nod. Small talk about the weather kicked off a relaxed chat. When you travel all by yourself, starting a conversation with people you meet feels like the natural thing to do as there is no travel companion to run your thoughts and observations by. We talked about the differences between Iceland and the US, the tourism industry on the island, and what sights and restaurants I shouldn’t miss. There were more encounters like this during the next hour and a half. It turned out that an Icelandic pool was a perfect place for a solo traveler like me. I experienced firsthand what I had read in a magazine article: The pool is the country’s social space; in the hot tub, you must interact because there is nothing else to do.
When I left the pool facilities at noon, the woman at the exit who took my used towels invited me to grab a free coffee and a cookie supplied by a local bakery. “Hope to see you again soon,” she said. I felt like a local - and it felt great.
Psychological rich experiences come in all shapes and sizes; that’s an essential insight of Oishi and colleagues’ research. They can look mundane, or they can be dramatic. They can be a feature of your weekends and vacations or fill your whole life.
An example of someone who seemed to have geared his entire life toward psychological richness is the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who became famous through books like “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” and “Awakenings” and passed away in 2015 at the age of 82. The obituary in the New York Times describes Sacks as being driven by endless curiosity, writing on topics ranging from aging to hallucinations, ferns, phantom limbs, and swimming. Sacks once wrote: “I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer,” investigating „many strange, neuropsychological lands – the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.” Sack’s memoir recounts his adventures in California, where, while doing his residency, he embraced the culture, “befriending the poet Thom Gunn, entering weight-lifting competitions, and joining the Hell’s Angels on motorcycle trips to the Grand Canyon.” After moving to New York, he explained in an interview that living in California “was too easy and too sweet. I needed ugly, ferocious, and challenging.” And when he tore a quadriceps while running from a bull on a Norwegian mountaintop, his aunt said to him: “You’ve always been a rover,” having “one strange adventure after another.”
The researchers also provide an example at the other end of the spectrum: Natalya, a computer programmer. Her work is characterized by routine and predictability, but in her free time, curiosity and spontaneity take over the helm. She loves thrillers, cheesy romances, and stories from different countries and times. She often spends her weekends roaming for hours through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Natalya is a people-watcher, good at noticing the quirks and details of by-passers. Her favorite excursions are unplanned: she’d rather follow her mood and do what sparks her interest in the moment than be held victim to hotel reservations. This comes with its downsides, the researchers write: “To her family’s chagrin, she’s made them stay in their fair share of seedy motels, something even Natalya herself can find to be unpleasant. But seeking pleasant experiences is not her aim. She would always choose the unexpected over the safe and secure, for what Natalya strives for in her free time is to experience a range of emotions, from sadness to fear to shock and awe.”
Why does all that matter, you might ask? The researchers suspect the consequences of leading a psychologically rich life are far-reaching. While a lifetime of happiness gives rise to personal satisfaction, and a meaningful life allows you to contribute to society, they hypothesize that a lifetime of psychologically rich experiences should give rise to wisdom. This includes developing deep and broad knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life, providing good judgment and advice about difficult problems, and being aware that one’s insight is neither definitive nor universal.
This wisdom, the scientists believe, comes from the varied experiences people who lead psychologically rich lives have. In their day-to-day lives, they engage in novel activities, not just routine ones, which allow them to encounter a variety of perspectives and recognize life’s complexity. Accordingly, a psychologically rich life should be associated with holistic thinking styles and attributional complexity, giving rise to wisdom.
I like how Oishi and his colleague conclude their argument - by looking at the end of life:
On their deathbed, a person who has led a happy life might say, “I had fun!” A person who has led a meaningful life might say, “I made a difference!” And a person who has led a psychologically rich life might say, “What a journey!”
I am not on my deathbed yet. So we have to wait and see if I end up wise. But when I come back from my solo travels, I often say: “What a journey!” I like to think that‘s a sign that I am on my way. 😉
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