Vacation time! Exciting, right?

You’re jazzed about hanging out on the (overcrowded) beaches and eating at the (overpriced) restaurants.

Then you think of the endless list of things you have to do to get ready – a year of loose ends to tie up in the next week.

And worst of all, you remember coming home from the last trip bloated from overindulging in food and alcohol and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, muttering to yourself, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”

Consider the word itself – vacation. Vacating your life. Is that really what you want to do, abandon yourself and your life in your quest for renewal?

I prefer the term “holiday,” or “holy days.” In India, many families spend the “holidays” visiting temples and engaging in devotional activities and spiritual renewal. They use the break from their daily routine to restore their body, mind, and spirit.

Stop to imagine how you would like to feel after vacation. Do you hope to feel more rested and more energized after your time away? Do you want to return to your daily life and work with inspiration and renewed creativity?

Cognitive neuroscientists David Strayer and Ruth Ann Atchley have discovered that spending time in wild places can have profound effects on creativity. Compared to students who stayed on campus, a group of 28 backpackers on an Outward Bound trip had a staggering 47% improvement in a word-test game that measures creative thinking and insight problem-solving.

Strayer and Atchley suggest those scores likely improved so much because spending time in wilderness allows the overused frontal cortex of the brain, our “attention network,” to finally take a break, freeing up parts of the brain associated with sensory perception, empathy, and productive daydreaming.

Psychologist Terry Hartig explored the difference between backpackers and people taking sightseeing trips and found that only the backpackers experienced deep restoration and cognitive renewal.

Spending time in natural environments clearly increases positive emotions and improves cognitive function. The researchers, though, were uncertain whether the students’ leap in creativity was due to spending three days immersed in nature or decreased exposure to technology, e.g., cell phones and computers.

Regardless of the reasons for the changes, Strayer recognized the profound impact of what he calls “the 3-Day Effect” – spending three or more days in a natural environment.

According to researcher Ken Sanders, the mind and body are “washing away” civilization during the first two days. “The new reality begins on the third day.”

Theta waves predominate in the frontal cortex of the brain during periods of intense concentration and mental work. Spending time in nature reduces this theta wave activity – but only if you leave phones and other electronic devices behind.

Strayer’s advice? “Go outside for three days, and turn the phone off.”

For the last 15 years I have made an annual retreat, backpacking and fasting in the Haleakala Crater in Hawaii. When people hear I went to Hawaii, they assume I spent a week on the beach sipping Mai Tai cocktails with little paper umbrellas perched in the glass. I shake my head and think about the cold, hungry nights spent camping on the rocky floor of the crater.

Even earlier in my life, I spent four days each year fasting and in silence in a wild, remote place. I have emerged from these periods of silence and reflection with expanded perspective, deep inspiration, and a profound sense of renewal.

After a shoulder injury, though, backpacking is no longer a possibility for me. You also may have physical limitations that prevent you from backpacking, cross-country skiing, canoeing, rafting, or kayaking in wilderness areas.

So how can you incorporate this cutting-edge research into planning your next holiday?

  • Decide whether you want to spend time alone or with friends. If you are planning a group or family trip, make sure everyone has the same expectations regarding alcohol, drugs, and electronic devices. If you are traveling solo, be sure to notify people who will know your itinerary.
  • Explore local camping areas. You don’t necessarily have to travel cross-country to find wild, beautiful places.
  • Consider whether you want to cover a large territory or stay in place during your wilderness adventure. Backpacking and canoeing, for example, require mapping your journey and finding multiple camping sites. You may choose instead to camp in one place and make day trips from base camp.
  • If tent-camping is too challenging, consider renting a cabin or yurt. Many state and national parks now offer these rental sites, and many are even wheelchair accessible.
  • For cabins, yurts, or camping sites, be sure to reserve your space far in advance. Some camping areas are booked months ahead.
  • Another option is renting a place near a beach or other wild area. I recently spent a magical week in a small house just a block from Heceta Beach in Oregon. I’ve also rented a space in central Oregon’s high desert so I could spend my days walking the trails along the Deshutes River. Be creative in finding your spot.
  • Ditch all your electronic devices during your holiday. They will be patiently awaiting your return! Be sure to set up the autoresponder feature on your email before you leave so you and your digital fans can relax knowing you will respond at a later date.

Most of all, prepare yourself for the unexpected. Slowing down and clearing the “mental clutter” leaves your mind, body, and spirit free to explore new ways of living and being. Spending time in wild places may plant a seed that develops into a completely new way of living and being in the world.

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Atchley, R.A, Strayer, D.L., Atchley, P. (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12): e51474.

Williams, F. (2018). The 3-Day Effect: How Nature Calms Your Brain. Audible Books.

Hartig, T., Mang, M., Evans, G. (1991). Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences. Environment and Behavior, 23 (1), 3-26.