Need inspiration? Go outside.

If I told you there was an app for your phone that would help you be more creative, would you buy it? What if I told you that giving up your phone for a while might enhance your creativity? Is that as appealing?

A new study published this week shows that people performed 50% better on a test of creativity after spending four days in nature with no electronic devices. The researchers aren’t sure what exactly caused the gains in creativity — being in nature or giving up the devices, but there’s support for the idea that it’s both of those things.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s something called “attentional restoration theory” that apparently relates to multi-tasking. Basically, multitasking requires a lot of executive functioning in the brain, which is kind of exhausting, and the theory is that being in a natural setting can replenish that functioning ability. Other studies have demonstrated that hiking can improve certain mental abilities.

The sad reality is that most of us don’t spend nearly as much time in nature as did previous generations. It’s true that we are not an agrarian society anymore, but it’s also a fact that recreation in nature has declined as time spent with electronics has increased. Yet there’s a lot of evidence that we crave what nature offers us.

Look at our holidays, both religious and secular. Many revolve around symbols of nature. Yes, those holidays originated during agrarian times, but the important thing is that we still celebrate them. So at Christmas, people bring trees into their homes; at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, people build structures outside, decorated with leaves and branches, in which meals are eaten; at Thanksgiving, a cornucopia is often symbolic; and summer holidays are an occasion for picnicking.

Why are homes and apartments with views of woods and water more valuable? Why do we have houseplants? Why are landscape paintings so popular? Why do we take dozens of photos of sunsets? We are striving to bring the outside in and make that connection with nature.

At the same time, taking a break from 24/7 connection with devices is important too. I read yesterday that silent retreats have become hugely popular in recent years: places that offer solitude and a chance to look inward have waiting lists of people who crave some time in silence. The time spent alone in stillness can be an opportunity to find mental space, to discover things about themselves, to replenish the spirit.

That kind of mental space also nourishes creativity. Why is creativity important? Not only can it help you enhance your ability to reach your highest potential, it is also critically important to managing stress. People who are creative thinkers perceive potential stressors differently, and come up with more ways to cope with them. Creative people are more open to new experiences, so fear doesn’t get in the way of solving problems or achieving dreams. And people who are more creative are also more flexible, enabling them to adapt to new circumstances.

Did you ever get stuck on a problem at work or school, and decide to take a break and go for a walk? Did you find that during your walk you came up with an idea that might move you forward? Fresh air, sun light, and views of nature are food for the mind, body and spirit. As John Muir once wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

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3 thoughts on “Need inspiration? Go outside.

    • Thanks, Laura. I’ve been following the progress of your book and it looks like you are getting some good press. I would love to have you talk to my students. I’ll look at my syllabus and get back to you with some possible dates.

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