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Why planning a trip is good for your mental health

We all know how good travel can be for us – it has been linked to greater happiness, empathy, and creativity. But what about the act of planning a trip? Can we get a mental health boost from travel before we even leave home? Scientists suggest this may be the case.

A 2014 Cornell University study explored how the anticipation of an experience (like a trip) can substantially increase a person’s happiness – much more than the anticipation of buying material goods. So, although there are strict travel restrictions in place in many parts of the world, there’s no reason to put off planning a trip for the future.

“As humans, we spend a lot of our mental lives living in the future,” says Matthew Killingsworth, co-author of the study. “Our future-mindedness can be a source of joy if we know good things are coming, and travel is an especially good thing to have to look forward to.”

The fact that trips are temporary could add to the satisfaction we get from planning one. “Since we know a trip has a defined start and end, our minds are prone to savour it, even before it’s started,” he says. “Sometimes people even prefer to delay good experiences like a trip so they can extend the period of anticipation.”

Travel planning should be about more than just finding the best restaurants and culture spots though. With some careful planning, you can find hotels with the most convenient cancellation policies and the airlines that offer the best refund or rescheduling options.

Being prepared with travel flexibility allows you to dream of the next trip without having to worry about losing money or sacrificing deposits.

Why is travel planning such a positive experience?
Another study, published by the University of Surrey in 2002, found that people are at their happiest when they have a holiday planned.

It suggests we often know enough about a trip to be able to imagine it and look forward to it but there’s also enough uncertainty and novelty to keep our minds interested.

So, at a time when looking after mental health is extra important, having something to look forward to – even if it is months away – could be just what you need to lift your spirits.

Even having a vague itinerary of where to go and what to do can help but try not to get attached to taking the trip at a specific time. For example, don’t plan a trip to Japan all around the best places to see the cherry blossoms.

While travel planning does not replace travel, it does give us inspiration for future trips. And if you’re not ready to book anything due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, by planning now you’ll be ready to book as soon as we get the all-clear.

Virtual travel can be fun too. You can revisit old holiday destinations and try to find your favourite cafe on Google Maps or explore the many museums and galleries that have put their collections online for everybody to enjoy for free.

If you start finding the experience more stressful or depressing than fun, file it away for another time and come back to it when you’re ready. 

Travel planning – researching, talking about it and imagining it – can help you stay optimistic and can get you ready to embark on the trip of a lifetime once this is all behind us. 

Did you get to travel at all last year? Do you have any trips planned for 2021? Or are you waiting until we have more information?

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Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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