Travel, as we knew it before the pandemic, is likely not going to return anytime soon. In fact, with all the disruptions and destruction that COVID-19 has caused, international travel may never truly recover the full force it had at the beginning of 2020. And although not everyone sees this as a bad thing—with many sustainably minded-folks urging others to rethink their pre-pandemic habits and travel providers pledging to do better by the environment going forward—it is understandable that there is a sense of malaise being experienced by a large portion of the formerly mobile population.
Despite infections decreasing and restrictions being lifted in many places, there is a lot of nervousness and uncertainty accompanying the prospect of venturing too far from home. Understandably, some are suffering adverse mental health outcomes as a result.
Cycling is good for your mental health! The regular, uniform movement of cycling has a relaxing effect on the brain, stabilising both physical and mental function. #wewillcycle #mentalhealth pic.twitter.com/1a6R0FXo5e
— Active Travel (@activetravelie) January 12, 2021
At the same time as many of us are experiencing travel anxiety, though, we also have a desire to take advantage of the newfound freedom that is available. After being cooped up inside for a year and a half, people are eager to reconnect with the sense of adventure and freedom that many have felt sorely lacking while we endeavoured to stay home (and stay positive) during these challenging times.
So, how does one rekindle their appetite for discovery without putting themselves at risk or having to negotiate the constantly changing rules of international travel? Planning an awe-filled local biking adventure might just be the perfect solution.
Looking at the world with a fresh set of eyes
Prior to the pandemic, there was a significant emphasis placed on the value of novel experiences, far-flung travel, and exotic encounters. But what if our focus on needing to bear witness to the unfamiliar left us unable to appreciate what was right in front of us the whole time?
— cycletoworkday (@cycletoworkday) July 6, 2021
In the context of lockdowns and restrictions on freedom of movement, there has been a renewed interest by scientists and experts on the value of looking at our immediate surroundings in a different light. And their findings offer a lot to be hopeful about—suggesting that in indulging our ever-growing hunger for the unknown, we might have been overshooting the mark.
For example, in one study, a group of 60 participants, 60 to 90 years old, were instructed to venture out for 15-minute weekly “awe walks” and take pictures. The study was conducted by Dr Keltner, faculty director and co-founder at the Greater Good Science Center, and his team of researchers who study the effects of awe on the human body. Ultimately, they discovered that, relative to a control group, the awe-oriented participants “reported greater joy and positive prosocial emotions.” The New York Times described the phenomenon as such: “While many of us might consider these moments [of awe or wonder] rare, ephemeral and tricky to reproduce, scientists are finding that this reverence is a skill that can be cultivated and has remarkable mental health benefits.”
So, can we train ourselves to experience wonder at the world around us? It is certainly an intriguing prospect.
Appreciation of nature as a powerful tool for mental health
In addition to the simple fact that getting outdoors and moving one’s body is pretty much always a reliable mood-boosting activity, the added focus on natural wonder is proving to be a powerful force in combating anxiety and depression. When we have the chance to connect with nature on our own terms, we focus less on our existence as autonomous and responsible individuals (and all the stress and worry that can carry), and we start to see how we fit into the bigger picture. You don’t have to be standing over the Grand Canyon to experience this phenomenon either. It is simply a matter of taking the time and making a point of acknowledging the world around you.
How a micro-adventure can help spark awe
Of course, when we are caught up in the grind of daily responsibilities or even when you do make it out for a ride—but feel like you’re looking at the same local park for the seemingly millionth time this year—it can be hard to summon a sense of appreciation for your surroundings. Where is the awe to be found?
One answer may be micro-adventures. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a micro-adventure is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a short, uncomplicated adventure that takes places close to home. The proliferation of the term was largely thanks to Alastair Humphreys, who, in his book Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, tells readers: “I can guarantee that within a mile of where you live, there will be something that you’ve never seen or noticed before.” And, as his logic follows, “once you go somewhere you’ve never been, you are being an explorer.”
A bike is a perfect tool to help stimulate curiosity and enable exploration
The simplicity of his concept taps into an element of adventure that, as hinted above, was largely lost to us before the pandemic. Adventure is about curiosity, surprise and getting away from familiarity. The more curious you are, the more you start to see—and cycling provides the perfect vehicle to appreciate your surroundings in a new way. Your bike already comes equipped with everything you need to access new locations and to have fun getting there. So, if you’re ready to tap into the mental health benefits of rediscovering your surroundings—here are a few tips to help you do so.
Keep it simple
The idea of a micro-adventure is indeed about planning your own escape, but it need not be complicated or time-consuming. If you frequently ride your bike past a nearby lake, for example, plan to stop by for a swim. Or maybe it’s time you finally did an overnight bivvy camp on your local hill. Focus on finding something that can help switch up your weekly schedule without necessarily requiring much manoeuvring or changing pre-existing routines.
Stick close to home
The whole point of a micro-adventure is that it takes place close to where you live and allows you to engage more deeply with an area you’ve thus far overlooked. To find the right spot, just have an open mind next time you’re out for a ride in your local area. Keep a look out for lakes, hills, rivers or local points of interest. These are all ideal starting points for an enjoyable micro-adventure.
Take some time to record, reflect on or share your experience
In a world where we are so inundated by picture-perfect versions of other people’s lives, we aren’t advising that you necessarily document every component of your micro-adventure on social media. That being said, do make a point of creating some form of documentation, be it visual, written or audio, that you can reflect on later. By having something to anchor your future reflections, you’re more likely to get the most out of your experience and benefit from all the feel-good vibes that it has to offer.