Through my work in the travel industry, I’ve seen many travelers draw clear lines in the sand around the nature of their vacation. Some plan for only luxurious beach getaways, others a backpacking trip, and some embark on a specifically designed volunteer vacation. Travel, however, is more deeply nuanced than any of these bold delineations. The underlying values that inspire some to volunteer on their trips are actually a core pull inside each one of us. How we manifest this in our own lives is a different story. Let’s take a look at the research behind the intertwining concepts of giving and prosocial behavior. Then we’ll go a step further to consider how implementing these ideas make for a more connected and transformative travel experience no matter which style of vacation you choose.
To start, we have to understand the wiring in our brains. According to researcher Ariel Garten, we are preprogrammed to foster connectedness with others. Prosocial behavior is wired into our brains from birth. Researchers contend that behaviors that benefit others better allowed our ancestors to develop and survive within communities. In fact, humans displaying prosocial behavior not only care about their own wellbeing but take the wellbeing of others into account. This field of study is used to explain everything from the rise of the giving mentality to calls for more volunteering. Our brains reward us for actions that support the common good.
In his book about the giving mentality, author Adam Grant notes that “giving” means supporting and encouraging those around us. His book uses this mentality to specifically examine workplace dynamics, but it’s more widely applicable as well. Though volunteering is a natural way for travelers to display the giving mentality on the road, there are other ways too. With all those prosocial behaviors inside of us, we can make any travel experience an ideal way to make more connected interactions with new cultures.
I propose that we reframe the conversation about travel around the idea of empowering travelers of every way and means to better serve and give to the communities they meet on the road. The stories you’ll best remember can come at any moment in your trip, and it’s not always when or how you’d expect. As a traveler, widen your idea of giving so every trip can bring you opportunities for connection and curiosity.
I believe many travelers would happily move into the role of giver if they better understood how to positively impact the places they visit. Loosening the ideas that a trip is classified as one thing or another allows a huge range of travelers — from luxury to cruise ship to backpackers — to explore the world on their own terms.
To form connected, deeply local experiences many travelers crave, often a mindset shift is in order. Those same researchers looking into prosocial behavior found a reciprocity model works throughout many human interactions as well. Genuine curiosity and friendliness go a long way in most parts of the world. Using this giving mentality to spend money more wisely is just as beneficial to the giver as it is to the developing economies receiving these funds. Social enterprises are an ideal example of this model, but even this is but one way to cultivate a better mindset for travel.
By using social enterprises, and through volunteering, travelers are actually creating an opportunity to ask more questions and more directly interact with the local culture. These are just vehicles that create the opportunities to more deeply connect. I have wonderful memories of the people I met while visiting social enterprises in Panama, Thailand, and Jordan. But I also had a fascinating conversation with an Indian family at a McDonald’s in Jaipur, India — I left that encounter with an equally authentic experience. It took only curiosity to experience those personal connections.
The surest way to uncover meaningful experiences is to genuinely care about the places you visit. The rise of “authentic” travel marketing, alongside the growing research in disparate fields, gives evidence that travelers are looking for ways to connect with people, places and cultures.
3 Things You Can Do This Year for More Connected Travels
- Research the culture ahead of time and read local authors. Forming a strong baseline knowledge of cultural norms is an ideal first step for any upcoming trip. Once you have these norms, read local authors for a nuanced view of a country’s social and political situations. This research becomes the foundation of respectful and connected experiences with locals. You can read a destination-specific travel book, search for recent news articles, or even follow local bloggers.
- Travel with the curiosity of a child. Use the local markets and ask questions when you don’t recognize a new food. Use your local guides to dig deep into any cultural questions — most guides are quite willing to share their story.
- Support local businesses. While some sites within the growing sharing economy are designed to facilitate dinner with locals or homestays, it can be even simpler. Choose a local tour company and shop at locally run businesses. Pick the mom-and-pop spot for dinner. All these small moments add up and ensure your trip supports the local economy while also forging deeper, more culturally connected travels. The GV social enterprise database is the perfect place to start this research for you next trip.