As someone who shamelessly scours Goodwill for second-hand finds, this confession is particularly painful: New is better.
New experiences — that is. I will forever cherish my vintage t-shirts and maps.
Over the past year, I have put those vintage maps to use, traveling to five countries.
While traveling can tire (that said, I have a sneaking suspicion that you are not shedding any tears for me), fresh experiences rejuvenate — at least anecdotally. Even when they seemingly sap every reservoir of energy and patience.
Backpacking in Sitka, Alaska right now, this self-admitted city slicker is admittedly out of his comfort zone. Roughing it — at least for me — means lackluster room service and a lukewarm shower temperature. Needless to say, Alaska has a different definition. But even if there isn’t a proverbial mint under my pillow, my cycling and hiking (mis)adventures have inspired. There has been a palpable excitement — even joy — at the unpredictable and unfamiliar.
Would I stare down a bear? What strangely fascinating Alaskan character(s) would I encounter next? And how refreshing would that Baranof Island Brewing Company lager taste?
I am out of my comfort zone. Far removed from home and its creature comforts, I have embraced the new, different, and dangerous (in Sitka, bears are more than just cuddly stuffed animals).
And this — even more than the stunning scenery — is why endorphins have staged a coup d’etat against my once-depressed brain. When in a new, unfamiliar environment, it is tempting to retreat into tried and true behavior. By upending the status quo (and exposing yourself to new and different), we learn to be comfortably uncomfortable. And retrain our mind in the process.
During my travels — which have spanned Sitka to Santiago, discomfort has been a traveling companion. And, of course, there have been perilous moments–from attacking insects to seedy accommodations to ne’er-do-well pickpockets. But over the past year, I have made a concerted effort to expose myself to discomfort. And these experiences have transformed my self-perception. After finding myself in so many precarious situations (you try communicating with a Slovakian police officer in English), frustration and impatience are now met with a wry smile, not a snide comment.
Science corroborates my intuition. Our brains are incredibly dynamic, reflecting our exposure to new experiences. An average adult generates somewhere between five and ten thousand new cells every day. Research finds that even two hours of playing a videogame can structurally change your brain. The takeaway: Our minds are continually changing–and it is up to you and me to nourish them. Each and every day.
This has a far-reaching impact for mental health. As opposed to lamenting our biological quirks (as a mental health consumer, who’s hasn’t groused about “faulty” biological hardwiring?), we have an active role in retraining our minds. This means reshaping our environment and using our experiences to strengthen our self-identity.
And, in the process, turning discomfort into something as comfortable as that favorite vintage t-shirt.