By: Jen Corley

Wellness tourism is now a $639 billion industry growing at a rate of 6.5% annually, and retreat travel, in particular, has exploded in popularity, in recent years.

When most people imagine going on a retreat, they think of escaping their everyday lives in order to fully immerse themselves in “healthy” practices. These practices often address physical well-being (modifications to diet, exercise regimen) as well as emotional balance (journaling, group discussions), or spiritual growth (meditation, ritual). But what evidence is there that a few days away from a busy and stressful life can successfully promote lasting change?

Taking aside the physical, emotional, and spiritual practices around which most retreats are structured, retreats also promote the social, professional, and environmental dimensions of well-being. By fostering community, digital detox, and appreciation of nature, they effectively combat some of today’s most pressing issues: social isolation, burnout, and disconnect with the spaces and rhythms of the natural world.

Relief from Social Isolation

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the average household size in the United States has declined over the past 10 years, resulting in a 10% increase in the members of the population who live alone. More than a quarter of the population now lives in single-member households. Two out of five Americans report that they “sometimes or always” feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one out of five say they feel “lonely or socially isolated.” Further, poor social relationships are associated with significant increases in risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

Retreat programs often build self-directed, introspective time, but this is just as often well-balanced by opening and/or closing circles, daily discussion sessions, free time for optional group activities, communal meals or accommodation, and/or shared transportation to and from retreat venues.

Aside from programming that actively builds community, the act of travel itself can alchemize social connection. Retreat goers participate in a shared experience of new surroundings and routine, and perhaps confront new social and cultural norms together. Whether or not these bonds endure beyond the duration of the retreat, the shared experience creates a sense of connection and camaraderie even among those who might identify as introverts.

Alleviation of Burnout

A recent Forbes article  noted that Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” in 1974, but for decades it was a workplace buzzword without much recognition as a legitimate disorder or disease. In 2019, the World Health Organization opted to include the condition in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a handbook that guides medical practitioners in making diagnoses. The ICD describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” A 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 full time labor force participants found that 23% reported experiencing symptoms of burnout “very often” or “always.” An additional 44% felt these symptoms some of the time.

None of this is surprising given that we live in an “always online” culture; whether that’s in pursuit of workplace productivity, personal entertainment, social media engagement, or otherwise. The lines between “work” and “play” have been permanently blurred; clear boundaries between the times and spaces we designate for productivity and leisure no longer exist.

Mindful “digital detox” can be instrumental reclaiming these boundaries. Retreat travel is an ideal setting for unplugging, recognizing habits that do not serve us, and beginning a new way forward. Once we separate from the need to constantly be online or in touch, we afford ourselves the time to connect with ourselves. This gives us a chance to gain perspective: to remember what truly matters to us, and to re-prioritize our busy lives accordingly. Daily, we can be more mindful about what we chose to commit to, both on a personal and a professional level.

Reconnection with Nature

A recent study measuring the instance of nature-related words in works of fiction, music, and film suggests that human connection to the natural world has fallen dramatically in the decades since the 1950’s. While urbanization may be one factor, researchers believe technological change is the major culprit. The 1950’s saw the rise of television, the 1970’s, the emergence of video games, the 1990’s the widespread use of the Internet, and the 2010’s the popularization of the smartphone. While we once both worked and played outdoors, the exploration of the great indoors now accounts for nearly all of our time.

Being inside all of the time is problematic, in that it doesn’t afford us direct experience of the natural world. However, it also disrupts the synchronization of our biological processes with natural cycles. This can show up in a myriad of ways, including but not limited to disrupted sleep, disordered eating, hormonal issues, and seasonal depression.

In the tradition of Ayurveda (India’s ancient science of healing, often translated as “science of life”), many retreat programs are designed with the underlying assumption that time spent in nature is an essential component to replenishing our ojas, or “vigor.” Western medicine has also come to recognize the power of time outdoors in healing certain conditions, preventing others, and generally helping our bodies function optimally. For this reason, it’s not surprising that relatively remote seaside, mountain, dessert, and forest locations are among the most popular choices for retreat venues worldwide. Retreat-goers may gain a renewed appreciation of nature’s beauty along with practical experience attuning their sleep-wake cycles, mealtimes, and seasonal routines to natural forces.

While retreat travel is certainly not a panacea relative to our social isolation, burnout, and disconnect from nature, it has the potential to effect lasting change. Retreats have long focused on the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of well-being. However, given current realities around social, professional, and environmental stressors, it may well be that the reset retreats provide relative to these factors are just as meaningful.

Jen heads the Wellness Travel segment of WeTravel, a payment and registration platform for the travel industry. She is responsible for strategic development, including oversight of sales, marketing, branding, PR, and communications. She leads a team that creates and distributes educational content, manages strategic partnerships and community relationships, and organizes online and live events.