There’s no doubt that spending time in nature has restorative benefits. From forest bathing to simply looking at the ocean, nature’s healing powers are well documented. In recent years, however, research is also showing us that travel, too, can be curative.
In fact, according to a collaborative study from the Global Coalition on Aging, the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies and the U.S. Travel Association, as little as two vacations a year can cut a person’s risk of heart attack by 50 percent. Even after vacationing for only a day or two, 89 percent of people are able to relax and leave work stressors behind.
Not surprisingly, group travel in particular was found to build social ties, which nurture health and interest in lifelong learning. And small groups are especially able to deliver the healthful advantages that come from personal interactions and building new friendships.
But my two favorite healing benefits that result from traveling are the somewhat more surprising ones: travel makes you more creative, and it staves off the aging process.
Inspired by anecdotal evidence about artists who produced their best-known works during or following stints abroad (such as author Ernest Hemingway when writing The Sun Also Rises), professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School in New York City set out to explore this correlation. In research published by the American Psychological Association in 2009, Galinsky showed a strong link between travelers’ immersions into cultures different from their own and creativity. He also discovered that the more countries in which a person has lived, the higher the degree of his or her creativity.
Further proof was found in the fashion world; Galinsky studied creative directors from 270 of the world’s top fashion houses and found that those who had spent significant time abroad produced more innovative and consistently creative fashion lines.
What’s even more astounding is that the mere suggestion of distance can open you up to more creative thinking. In an Indiana University study published a few years ago, participants were asked to solve a series of puzzles. The group that was told that the brainteasers came from California showed more creative thinking in coming up with solutions and was more likely to solve the problems than the group that thought the puzzles were homegrown.
Why does travel have such a dramatic impact? Travel exposes us not only to new places but also to new cultures, languages and people. Both Galinsky’s research and the Indiana University study indicate that travels broaden a person’s perspective, which is related to increased positivity. When we’re happy and relaxed, new ideas flow more readily.
It could also be true that highly creative, well-traveled people have more open and accepting personalities. They are more motivated to explore other cultures and are less judgmental of other ways of life. The road, in other words, goes two ways: travel can make a person more open and creative, and an open person may be more motivated to travel and do creative work.
Vacation time may even fend off old age. At the ends of our chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide and hold some secrets as to how we get cancer and how we age. These telomeres are often compared to the plastic ends of shoelaces. As you get older, these ends fall off, the shoelaces unravel and the chromosomes shorten. If you are chronically stressed, the rate at which this happens speeds up; so people can have chromosomes that are 10 to 17 years shorter than their biological age. To the extent that the kinds of things you do when traveling have been shown to reverse the negative effects of stress, we can conclude that travels can only help slow down the aging process.
Northwestern University’s SuperAging study—a research project analyzing the brains of people who seem to be resistant to the detrimental memory changes often associated with aging—is another example of how travels can keep us healthier as the years march on. What researchers have found is that over the course of 18 months, “normal” agers lost volume in the cortex (the brain area linked to critical thinking) twice as fast as SuperAgers. Anecdotally, researchers have pieced together another common thread: initial hints suggest that SuperAgers tend to be socially active—including playing cards, participating in church groups, reading to young children, leading exercise groups and volunteering at homeless shelters—and they are avid travelers.
That sociability that SuperAgers possess goes hand in hand with travel. When people travel, they typically go with friends, a partner, a spouse or in some kind of organized group. Not only do strong social connections help fend off depression, known to steal years from a life, but talking is taxing: conversations make your brain work. Neurogenesis—the formation of new neurons—is driven, in part, by new and novel experiences.
My favorite story is that of 80-year-old Julia Albu, who recently drove through Africa, slipping across borders and through military blockades by saying she was going to London to have tea with the queen. Her tale exemplifies how travel benefits and, perhaps, even makes a SuperAger. As she says, excitement and adventure are not just the prerogatives of the young.
The sum of nature plus travel
Clearly nature has its health benefits. Now, it’s becoming more and more obvious that travel does, as well. So what can we expect when we combine the two?
Nature shows you slices of Earth’s beauty that often stop you in your tracks. Travel affords you new experiences that whisk you—physically and mentally—out of your comfort zone. Combine incredible natural beauty with the thrill of newness, and something quite extraordinary happens.
What that is, I’m certain, could be called creativity and youthfulness.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,