Secret no.42 Travel

100-year-old Margaret Turnbull planned to travel the world with her husband, John, when he retired. Sadly, John died in 1979 before they got the chance but he made Margaret promise to keep to their plans – and she did, visiting Hawaii, Alaska, Africa and Spain.

Margaret thinks that travelling helped her reach 100: she puts her long life down to “good exercise, good healthy meals, good friends – and travel if you can.”*

We know that travel is supposed to broaden the mind but can it increase lifespan as well?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Just possibly. One study ( a follow-up to the large-scale Framingham heart study which started in the 1960s) found that women who traveled at least twice a year had a lower risk of a heart attack or dying from heart disease than those who traveled less frequently.

For men, a nine-year study found those who did not take an annual vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease. The authors conclude: “Vacationing may be good for your health“.

So what might be going on here? Why might it be good for us to travel? This paper for the Global Commission on Aging (admittedly commissioned by the American Travel Association) reviews the evidence and suggests that travel increases physical and mental activity, gets our brains working (how do you say ‘a soy latte and a breakfast muffin please’ in Spanish) and gets us socially engaged, all of which have positive health benefits.

Now if you’re reading this while eating cold airport food in a crowded departure lounge at Luton waiting for a Ryanair flight to Magaluf that’s been delayed for half a day, this may all seem a little idealistic. And it is surely true that, as this research concludes, “poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away“.

But a good holiday, well planned can be a genuine tonic – and much better for us than spending our money on a new car or a watch. Thomas Gilovich, the Cornell professor who has made a career of studying the subject, shows that spending on experiences such as holidays makes us much happier than spending on objects.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” he writes. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

The sad part for Margaret is that she didn’t get to share those experiences with John. But at least she got to have them.

*As well as the travel, Margaret enjoyed swimming, hiking and gardening. At the age of 80 she was still teaching line dancing and taking ice-cold swims in Saranac Lake.

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