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How Vacations Support our Strengths

written by Aren Cohen 19 June 2012
Artwork in a Rio Favela

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

Recently, I took a wonderful vacation with my husband, Andre, to Argentina and Brazil. It was a bit of a last minute trip, as I had been working very hard and decided that I desperately needed an escape when I had the chance. So less than a month in advance, we booked our tickets and planned our get-away.


While Andre had been to both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro before, I had not.  Stylistically, we are somewhat different travelers.  I am the sort of person who likes to book hotels and to research sites and restaurants well in advance of a trip so that I know what sort of goodies I am going to experience.  Andre, who has traveled much more than I have, is comfortable with a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach.  Years of experience have taught him that he can always find food and lodging and that sometimes without a strict schedule, the unexpected goodies are more fortunate.

Coffeeshop symbol


Given that our vacation was planned speedily, it involved a mixture of our planning styles.  While we had reservations for our full stay in Rio, we had only one night of four in Buenos Aires booked.  Since I had been busy before our departure, I had done only minimal research on site-seeing or dining.  However, since Andre had been to both locations before, I decided I would try something new.  I happily entrusted myself to him and embraced his “go with the flow” approach to travel.

There appears to be little empirical research on the positive psychology of travel, although I am certain that in the future there will be much more investigation in this area.  Certainly the tourist industry would greatly benefit from understanding what the travel business contributes to well-being, as is suggested by Sebastian Filep’s doctoral dissertation on positive psychology of travel. Additionally, Greta Couper suggests that traveling fosters transformative learning, which allows a person to examine and change his or her “perceptions, values, and behavior.”  Both of these research studies examined students who participated in study-abroad programs.  Certainly that is a very valid approach to investigating the positive effects of travel, but it is very different from my 10-day trip to South America with my husband, which was also positive psychology because it provided us both with a tremendous sense of rejuvenation and well-being.

However, given my sample size and the fact that I am not prepared to tackle the needs of either the tourist industry or transformative learning, I have decided instead to share some thoughts on VIA Strengths I found amplified on our trip.  For the sake of brevity and relevance I will focus on eight:

Leblon Beach - Rio de Janeiro

      Leblon Beach: Rio de Janeiro

Curiosity:  If there is ever a strength that is related to travel, it is curiosity.  Generally when we go to new places, we go with the intention of exploring and discovering.  While Andre and I are both able to pursue our curiosities at home thanks to the Internet, it in no way compares with the actual experience.  When we travel, our curiosity is fueled with a much greater intensity because everything around us is new and requires investigation.  I can look at a picture of Leblon beach on my screen, but once I am there, I want to experience the water temperature and the taste of coconut milk.

Love of Learning:  There was a lot to investigate on our trip, and much of that required my curiosity.  However, there were other questions I started asking myself that required more in-depth research, and thus a chance to learn systematically. I was delighted to read plaques in museums that explained what life in the 1800’s was like in Argentina, and I quickly set about learning the history of the colonization of Brazil once I got home.

Open-mindedness:  Traveling requires open-mindedness. Going to a new place means that you will see things that are done differently and considered in ways that are different from your own.  A friend had told me that I should go see Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.  To be honest, I was expecting Recoleta Cemetery to be like Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts: open, rolling greens, benches secluded under willow trees.  Boy, was I wrong!  Recoleta is filled with mausoleums stacked more tightly than skyscrapers in Manhattan.  It was totally different from what I expected, but it was a chance for me to see how differently Bostonians and Argentineans choose to commemorate death.

Zest: Traveling for pleasure should not be undertaken halfheartedly.  Vacations, no matter where you go, should inspire you with a sense of adventure.  We ran around Buenos Aires feeling alive and activated, and even when we were on the beach in Rio, there was a palpable energy and excitement.  The adventures of vacations allow us to relish and intensify our zest.

Social Intelligence: While we use social intelligence everywhere, when we travel we combine social intelligence with open mindedness to understand how to behave with the new people we meet.  Languages and local customs may be different, and all of this requires us to use a keen sense of social intelligence to get by in a new place.

Artwork in a Rio Favela

     Artwork in a Rio Favela

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence:  In Buenos Aires, we went to a couple of museums.  In Rio, we spent time on the beach and in a favela.  Beauty and excellence can be found wherever you go in all sorts of shapes and forms.  In Buenos Aires, the buildings and the art inspired me.  Flying to Brazil and looking out the window, I was awestruck by the beauty of the landscape.  The best part about a vacation is that the hazy eyeglasses of everyday life are lifted.  I do believe that when a person is out of his or her normal routine, it is easier to stop and smell the roses. We are more likely to see the majesty in the world around us.

Gratitude:  Vacations provide many reasons to feel gratitude.  When we arrived at our second hotel in Buenos Aires only to find out that they only had room for us for one night instead of the three we had thought we had booked, I was not feeling very grateful.  However, Andre was very good in that moment of reminding me of his “go with the flow” philosophy.  The next night we wound up in another hotel that was even more enjoyable than the one we booked for the previous night.  All of the sudden, I found myself grateful for our travel mishap because the unanticipated, unimagined outcome was even better than what we had originally planned.  All sorts of little things appear on vacations that elicit gratitude just for the opportunity to experience them. 

     Hand in hand

Yet, at least for me, there is another aspect of gratitude that also comes from traveling.  When I hear the airplane captain say, “prepare for arrival and cross-check” as the plane is landing in my hometown, I swell with gratitude.  I love having had the adventure, but the adventure also always makes me more appreciative and grateful to be returning to my normal life of home, family, friends, and work.

Love:  When you travel with someone you love, the vacation offers opportunities to foster and grow your love.  Sharing new and novel experiences together builds memories that become part of your unique intimacy.  You grow closer together and seal another bond in the foundation of your relationship, both in the magic of the moment and in the lasting memory it creates.


Filep, S. (2009). Tourists’ happiness through the lens of positive psychology. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

Couper, G. E. (2001). The Psychology of Travel: A Theoretical Analysis of How Study Abroad and Positive Regression Affect Personal Growth and Career Choice. PhD thesis, Northcentral University. Available from Amazon.

VIA Institute on Character

The international lodging and coffeeshop symbols are from AIGA. They are free for all to use, free of charge.
The Leblon Beach and favela artwork images are courtesy of Aren Cohen.
Hand-in-hand courtesy of Thomas Hawk

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Judy Krings 19 June 2012 - 4:07 pm

Great article, Aren!

Love how you connected the dots between positive psychology, strengths and vacation. And how differently you and Andre express your travel style. Fun! How I would love to do another So. America trip. So happy for you.

I was told by some of your wonderful fellow MAPP graduates, I wrote the first book on PP and travel and blessed with their reviews. I am not sure. I associated character strengths spotting, applications, photography and story-telling in Cuba. http://amzn.to/jkcuba.

Thanks again for reminding us all how wonderful travel adds to our well-being. And I am reminded about the research that when we are in our 90’s, when we think back on our life, it is often where we traveled that continues to fire up our positivity neurons the most. And I bet who we traveled with, too.

Ryan M. Niemiec 20 June 2012 - 1:21 pm

This is a nice and timely reminder for me, Aren, as I head out on a vacation of my own. I will keep my character strengths top-of-mind as I travel with my 15-month-old son to several countries!

Sean 21 June 2012 - 11:43 pm

Way to fly by the seat of your pants! In writing about our change from “Traveler to Tourist”, Daniel Boorstin wrote “Not so many years ago there was no simpler or more intelligible notion than that of going on a journey. Travel –movement through space –provided the universal metaphor for change. One of the subtle confusions –perhaps one of the secret terrors –of modern life is that we have lost this refuge. No longer do we move through space as we once did.” Thank you for reminding us of the refuge there is in travel.


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