Why is it the solution to a problem comes in the shower? Or when I am walking my dogs? And why do the words to an essay start flowing as soon as I slip behind the wheel of my car? Like they did last night when I headed out under a threatening sky for dinner at Oasis on the Beach in Kapaa?
Apparently, according to psychologist Lile Jia at the Indiana University at Bloomington, for the same reason I can see a much greater expanse of the ocean from “windy point” on Kauai’s Kalalau Trail than from Kee beach a half-mile below.
In a word: Distance.
It’s the same reason we travel: To get away.
Even though the word “travel” only entered our lexicon in the late 14th century (from “travailen,” which means "to make a journey”), we have been traveling since the beginning of time. Odysseus went to Troy. Jesus went to the desert. Australian Aborigines went on walkabouts into the wilderness.
I spent last week writing in a cabin in the woods. How cliche, right. Every writer says she pines to retreat to a cabin in the woods to write, a la Henry David Thoreau. But isn’t that yearning just another word for procrastination? As in, “I’ll write my Great American Novel when I can retreat to a mountain top or a deserted island.” Maybe. And maybe not.
We all know the benefits of vacation, right? There are scientific studies that say vacations:
-Stave off burnout;
-Improve sleep; and
But vacation can provide something else, according to some journalists who have put their spin on Jia research--as I am about to do, as well.
I’ll summarize Jia’s work right off: Distance gives us perspective. The English poet John Donne put it this way, back in 1635, “To live in one land, is captivitie.” We know this, right? I mean it’s not rocket science, and yet we forget to apply it to our every day lives. What Jia’s research gives us is a new way to free our minds from the shackles of living in one land.
Do you want to boost your creativity? Travel.
In “Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition,” Jia writes, “In two studies, we demonstrate that when the creative task is portrayed as originating from a far rather than close location, participants provide more creative responses (Study 1) and perform better on a problem solving task that requires creative insight (Study 2).”
Jia’s two studies weren’t that elaborate. He simply asked two different randomly gathered groups of undergrads to make a list of all the different types of transportation that came to mind. One group was told the task was developed by Indiana University students. The other was told the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece. In the second study, Jia gave his subjects something called "insight puzzles" by experimental psychologists. Again, one group was told the puzzle was developed by peeps "down the hall," and the other group told the puzzle was designed by some folks in California. In both studies, the "distance" groups surpassed the "local" groups in quality and quantity of answers.
What Jia concluded is that making a problem feel far away frees the mind to think more creatively. That’s why it’s so much easier to see our spouse’s or friend’s or parent’s or sibling’s shortcomings than it is to see our own. And that's why vacations can make you more creative.
Jia’s research posits that we do not need to leave our desks to be more creative; we must simply trick our minds into thinking so. But take it from me, the mind is stubborn beast. Indeed. It is much easier to get on a plane and fly half-way across the globe than it is to convince myself that I am sitting on a beach in a far-away land, like, say, Waipio Valley on Hawaii (Big) Island.
Most of us go on vacation to get away from the stress of every day life--at work and at home. But the irony is that snorkeling Hanauma Bay, hiking Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala and sipping a mai tai on Waikiki Beach may give our minds the space it needs to come up with the answer of what to do with the rest of our life. And travel may give us the break we need to come up with the next brilliant idea at work. (I can just hear it now. The boss says, "We need a big idea for our winter promotion." And your response is, "Let me go to Hawaii and think about it.") And, now, if you’ll excuse me. I am going to take a walk, so I can shake loose the ending to my Great American Novel. If that doesn't work, I'm heading to Maui. (I hope it's not raining there.)