Travel

The mental health benefits of travelling the world alone

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Anna Brech
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Image credit: Sylvia Stojilkovic

In a world where we’re forever “on”, solo travel creates vital space for reflection and self-growth

Anyone who’s ever felt stifled by a desk job will know that urge to break free. And the instinct could well be evolutionary, according to a paper published in the British Journal of Psychology last year. The “Savannah theory of happiness” – developed by evolutionary psychologists – found that smarter people are happier alone. This, says researchers, is because alone time emanates the solitary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors, creating a foundation for happiness in modern times.

Certainly, alone time (a chosen value that is very different from loneliness) is an elusive concept in our whirlwind lives. Deadlines, WhatsApp, dinner dates and family commitments: all complete for our finite swag bag of focus and attention.

Yet, travel is one of the few ways to reclaim some much-needed headspace, which may explain why a growing movement of women are exploring the world alone. From backpacking through Chile to trekking the Caribbean coast of Colombia, more and more of us are opting to fly solo with intrepid trips abroad.

While it would be naive to suggest that this kind of solo travel solves every problem, it does hold a raft of benefits that promote positive mental health. Here, the travel experts at Flash Pack – an adventure company that draws together solo travellers –explore just a few of these perks:

Connect with people

The ability to make new connections – whether with our next-door neighbour or a street vendor in Bangkok – is a vital facet of happiness. Social interactions fire up the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of happy hormones oxytocin and serotonin. Research shows that even little daily fixes of this –the greetings or chats that don’t seem that significant at the time - give us a sense of belonging to a larger community.

When you travel alone, you’re instinctively more sociable. Without a companion to lean on, you’re far more likely to reach out to people you meet on the road (this is the same reason why single people tend to have stronger social networks that their married counterparts). Your tendency to look outwards at those around you – rather than inwards to those you’re with – means you’re better able to spark the neurological hit that comes from meeting strangers. Win.

Develop resilience   

Flying solo means you come face-to-face with your inner sense of grit; a quality that is blurred by the secure social structures of everyday life.

“We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define ourselves,” says Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic theorist and solitude researcher. “In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within.”

People, he tells The Atlantic, need to have “the ability to know that you’re going to survive, that you’re going to be okay if you’re not supported by this group”.

We all have the skill for tenacity but surrounded by other people, it tends to lie dormant. By breaking free from the group, you’ll fire it up, giving your muscle for self-reliance a welcome workout. Hello, the most liberating feeling ever.

Blitz brain fog

Solo travel carves out the space for self-growth, yes. But it’s not about endless navel-gazing. In fact, setting out alone actually distracts you from too much inward focus, by presenting a series of simple day-to-day actions that you’re obliged to tackle all by yourself.

You simply won’t have the time to think about whether you’ll ever be happy in your job when you’re busy planning how to get from A to B, or tracking down the best Pisco Sour in town (it’s all about priorities).

At the same time, the essentials of travel – deciding where to eat and sleep, rationing your clean clothes – is a great way of eroding the thousands of decisions that clutter your life back home.

“I believe a lot of our own energy goes into thinking too much,” says London-based jewellery designer Arabel Lebrusan, who travelled around Polynesia and Central America last year. “Travelling is like going right to basics… after a few months [into the trip], I had this incredible burst of creativity.”

Travel simplifies things, and the effect is enhanced when you’re alone – the onus is on you to make the trip work. You untether yourself from the stress and obligations associated with people who know you, and blitz the brain fog that may well cloud your everyday life.

A happy medium

Image credit: Sylvia Stojilkovic

Not everyone wants to travel completely alone, of course, and that’s where Flash Pack comes in. We’re on a mission to break the clichés around group travel, drawing together like-minded travellers for potent adventures around the world. Our trips have nothing to do with matching caps, and everything to do with people who share a solo travel mentality. 

We provide experiences to send your comfort zone spinning within the framework of a group of strangers, bringing you one step closer to travelling alone.

“Travelling solo is one of the best life hacks to combat the stress and fatigue that comes from constantly meeting the expectations and needs of others,” says Flash Pack co-founder Radha Vyas (pictured above). 

“We are always trying to make someone else happy; your boss, your colleagues, family, friends, friends of friends or social media followers. Travel alone and you have two weeks to worry and think of no-one other than making yourself happy. It’s total bliss.”

So, whether you’re travelling alone or testing the waters with a group of strangers, go forth and conquer. The world awaits.

Flash Pack curates travel experiences all over the world for small groups of like-minded solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Visit flashpack.com for more info 

Main image and pool image: Sylvia Stojilkovic, other images: Flash Pack

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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