How Travel Improves Creativity


October 25, 2022

I can still remember my first big travel adventure as a kid. It was the summer between first and second grade. My dad took a week off of work, which is a big deal for a farmer in the summer. Mom packed suitcases and stuffed sandwiches into fold-over baggies. My sister, one of my brothers, and I packed minuscule bags, and pitched them in the back of the family Ford Galaxie. Gramma came to stay with my two other brothers – our car was only big enough for five people.  

Just like that we were down the lane with hands waving out the window and a cloud of dust in our rearview mirror.

Black Hills, South Dakota, here we come!

I’d been to Sioux City plenty of times and even Omaha, sure. But this was a true grand adventure. This was the land of gold, of cowboys and Indians. Of Badlands and presidential monuments The stuff that history books were made of.

I can still, to this day, remember every detail of that trip. The worn logs of the motel we stayed in. How ‘the girls’ got one room, and the ‘boys’ had another. How I yearned to see the Flintstones Bedrock City but instead had the bejeezus scared out of me when the park ranger turned off the lights deep inside Wind Cave National Park.

I remember watching a crocodile wrangler hypnotize a big croc and leave him on his back. Then he picked a young woman out of the crowd and convinced her to walk up and tickle the prehistoric animal on the stomach. Of course that’s all the croc needed to wake up, flip on his belly, and assume full attack mode. In an instant the woman covered the distance to and over the fence in nearly a single leap. The rest of us cheered with laughter.

There’s a lot about travel that we remember because of the way it emotionally arouses us. It takes us out of our day-to-day norm. The one that we work through on autopilot because so much of it’s exactly the same as the day before. Same work. Same actions. Same thoughts.

It turns out, the heightened emotions and awareness that travel triggers is just what the doctor ordered to jump-start your creativity.

How travel sparks creativity

Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky found that travel increases how flexibly you think. It also helps you connect the dots between concepts at a much deeper level. But, he points out, to get the best out of it you need to experience several cultures, immerse yourself, and adapt to different situations. This, Adam points out, is how you develop better problem-solving skills and up the ante on your creative output.

Part of the reason adventures boost your creative juices is because travel makes people happy. In 2017, researchers found that when you spend money on experiences rather than material possessions, you’re just happier. In fact, even thinking about a future trip makes you feel happier and better overall.

But how, exactly, does this happen? There are different factors at play. When you combine them in the right manner, you can’t help but boost your creativity.

Travel reduces stress

When you get out of your day-to-day routine, you don’t have all the triggers that send into that nail-biting coping mechanism. It’s easier to manage your stress and negative emotions, but in much healthier ways. The U.S. Travel Association found that 89% of travelers said they felt less stressed after just one day of travel. Getting away from the daily grind gives you a frame of reference and makes you feel better about who you are. People feel they have a better sense of perspective and that boosts self-confidence. Then, when you get back home, you’re better at solving problems.

One of the most damaging things about stress is that it can shrink your brain and reduce gray matter. Not only is this a buzzkill for creativity but also hugely detrimental to your long-term health and well-being. Stress is a natural, genetic reaction to life intended to keep us safe. The spikes in cortisol and adrenaline help speed up your responses when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. But sometimes these hormones don’t go back to their original levels like they should, and that can harm your brain.

Travel opens your mind

Having an open mind toward new experiences is a big part of creativity. Openness shows up as curiosity, imagination, and perception. Studies show that open-minded people tend to process information differently and may actually look at the world differently than people who are less tolerant.

Traveling makes you more open-minded because you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. You’re willing to experience something new through all of your five senses. Researchers have linked openness to working memory, which increases dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Travel builds confidence

Sam Huang is a law professor at Edith Cowan University Business School in Australia. He asked 500 backpackers how travel affected their confidence levels. Eighty percent said they now performed better when the going got tough, 88% thought they were better at problem-solving, and 89% believed that they had better communication skills. Even with their increase in confidence, travelers also tend to be humbler. This is an excellent combination for doing creative work.

Travel builds empathy and compassion

Travel broadens your horizons and opens your heart to new experiences and perspectives in how you look at the world. When we’re babies and small children, we’re naturally empathetic. But through the all the tough challenges and disappointments life throws our way, sometimes empathy and compassion aren’t our first responses. Travel helps you build better relationships first because you get to know yourself at a deeper level. It helps you get to know yourself at a level that’s hard to do in other situations. Once you have mastered that, it’s easier to understand other people and their motivation and helps sparks collaboration for creativity and better problem solving.

Travel makes you a better problem solver

Stepping out of your comfort zone helps you see the world from new perspectives both literally and psychologically. Stepping away from your problems and letting them float in the background can help you find new and unexpected ways to connect the dots. 

For example, researchers gave people a creative task and said it came from far away rather than locally. They found that this distinction inspired the participants to share more creative responses. People ended up performing better on problem-solving tasks that required creative insight. 

This means if you have a creative block, travel can help open your mind to finding more options to solve your problem.

Travel provides lifelong learning

Travel is the best form of teacher life could ever provide. It inspires creativity through curiosity, failure, openness, play, problem-solving, and other ways you can’t predict. Simply because you’re learning about new cultures, values, traditions, perspectives, and other things, you’re also learning about yourself and your place in the world.

Travel builds new neural pathways

Neuroplasticity is the idea that you can change the makeup of your brain no matter what age you are. As the brain changes, your cognitive abilities do too. Sure, some people might be naturally more creative. But you can make yourself into a more creative person when you actively look at how you mentally stimulate yourself.

There are things you can do to strengthen your neural pathways and the size of your grey matter. When you travel, you have to overcome new challenges, adapt to new cultures, and figure out how to communicate in a new language. It is this strain on problem-solving areas of the brain that strengthens a person’s creativity skills. Compare that to sitting on the couch binge-watching movies or playing video games. It’s no wonder your brain comes alive when you travel!

10 Tips for inspiring creativity while you travel

Are you ready to make travel and creativity your superpowers? Here’s how you can get started…

1. Say yes to new experiences by trying things you’ve never thought of trying before. Don’t be a wallflower, jump in and actively participate.

2. Join creative cultural activities, whether that’s a food tour, art, birdwatching, music tourism, there are a slew of opportunities.

3. Creatively express your experiences in a way you can bring home. Journal, draw, take pictures, keep a scrapbook. Create something tangible that keeps your emotional connection to your destination alive.

4. Pack light, travel slow, and wander off the beaten path whenever you get the chance.

5. Be open to things that aren’t familiar to you and let go of judgments.

6. Ask more questions that are more thoughtful. 

7. Catch assumptions and negative thoughts and challenge them with openness and compassion.

8. Follow your curiosity.

9. Learn how other cultures approach problems and find solutions.

10. Use travel to improve how you communicate and socialize.

Photo credit: Laura_O on Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.