Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
I never get to travel as often I’d like, but I have had the opportunity to travel a little this summer. It reminds me how beneficial travel is to creative ventures and to life in general.
Examples of creative travelers are well known. Van Gogh did some of his finest work when he moved to the south of France. Hemingway’s work was influenced by his time in Spain, Africa, Cuba, and other regions. Mark Twain’s best-selling book during his lifetime was his travel experience documented in The Innocents Abroad. I’m about to start reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life On the Road; Steinem has said that she has “hope and energy after all these years” because of her travels.
Travel has been an influence in my personal life. I appreciate jazz because I “traveled” to the San Francisco Bay Area (by moving there!) in the 1990s and saw world-class jazz artists like Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner in concert. A live performance of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in Vienna turned me on to classical music. I’ve done some of my best photography work during vacations, especially in cities, where new sights around every corner excite my vision.
Travel invigorates the mind by changing our routine. It’s easy to go through life on autopilot. Travel disrupts the daily ho hum – what we see, what we do, and when we do it, can all by disrupted and allow us to see the world with fresh eyes and minds. This change in setting actually changes neural activity in the brain and may reduce the likelihood of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.
That change can also relax our minds and our bodies. Free of pressure to endure the workday, stand in line at the grocery, or make it to various appointments on time, instead we can relax and enjoy greater freedom in our daily schedule. This correlates with better health – research indicates travel may reduce heart attack risk, lower blood pressure, and minimize stress levels. Better health is its own benefit, but being free of aches and pains gives us more physical and mental energy to devote to creative work.
Creatively, new places equal new ideas. Spending time among people, language, food, landscape, and customs that are new to us forces us to see the world in different ways. Fiction writers can apply that to more complete scenery descriptions and better character development. Photographers and painters can see new landscapes and new light. Business entrepreneurs can learn about new products or new markets. Finally, the more places we go, the more networking opportunities we encounter.
Beyond strictly creative efforts, we can apply travel experiences to our daily lives. Expand your cooking skills by mastering your favorite meals from other countries. I started evaluating my relationship with material possessions after travels in Latin America.
The real benefit of travel comes from immersing yourself in a new culture and actively engaging with a different environment. A quick hop from a cruise ship that only takes you to a commercial tourist trap isn’t what we’re talking about. And, as always, correlation does not prove causation. It’s possible that some of these health benefits don’t derive from travel, but that travel is an outcome of better health. How important is that distinction when you’re hiking a rain forest or exploring the Louvre?
Of course, travel can be prohibitively expensive. If you’re a student, see if your school offers study abroad programs. Hostels are an excellent travel resource. Some nonprofits offer volunteer abroad opportunities.
If you’re unable to travel in body, the next best thing is traveling with your mind. Reading, television or movies, and local cultural events are all potential consciousness-expanding activities. Having grown up in a very conservative area, I’m convinced that watching Star Trek reruns as a kid contributed a lot to my progressive nature.
Perhaps travel’s greatest benefit is that it can give us empathy for “the other.” It’s easy to forget how much we have in common with others, regardless of their language, skin color, gender orientation, or any other trait. In an interview about his 2005 film Munich, Steven Spielberg talked about the importance of approaching both history and the arts with empathy (“…you can’t understand the human motivation without empathy“). We may be entitled to our opinions, but an opinion is meaningless when it’s not based on real-world knowledge and experience. Travel and its related benefits don’t just make us better people, it makes us better creative artists. And in doing that, we make the world a better place.