Get Out! How Nature Helps Unlock Creativity


At the beginning of the school year, I often find myself reminding students and staff to find joy in their work, and to find opportunity to introduce creativity to their every-day studies and routines. And then, I tell them to “get out.”


Why? In order to harness our creativity—and to approach our work with joy—we need to take time to surround ourselves with the beauty of the natural world.


I believe that nature is something everyone should embrace, and I insist on being near water and other living things as a way of embracing beauty. The natural landscape provides a contrast to harsh city streets. Even when I lived in cities—Boston, New York, and Chicago—I chose residences near parks or environments that concentrate on the interplay of architecture, art, and the outdoors. Nature brings me a certain peace of mind and allows me to “flow” in a different way than when I’m dodging people on the streets at 5 p.m. I’m often at my most expansive and creative when I’m looking at water or walking along a tree-lined path.


Many studies support this idea of nature as a pathway to unleashing good health and creativity. Emma Seppala, Ph.D., author of the Happiness Track, wrote in a recent post:


[E]mulate creative geniuses like Charles Dickens and J. R. R. Tolkien and make a long walk—without your phone—a part of your daily routine. A 2014 study (pdf), published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who went on daily walks scored higher on a test that measures creative thinking than people who did not, and that people who went on outdoor walks came up with more novel, imaginative analogies than people who walked on treadmills.


Seppala notes that researchers believe that walks in nature promote “mind wandering,” the very action that helps people make different connections and leaps of imaginations. I know that when I looked out my window in Chicago at Lake Michigan I could transition into a different mindset, blocking out the city streets and envisioning myself on the water, floating in time and space. The answer to a question or a great idea would often come in that reverie, or it would come to mind later, on the beach itself, as I watched the wavelets up close. 


While being out in nature—walking, hiking, swimming, or climbing—helps your individual creativity and focus, it can also boost teamwork and collaboration. Professionals are beginning to recognize that being with colleagues outside the office—literally—can build partnerships and improve connections.


Gone are the days when companies did obstacle courses just to build team cohesion. Now professional staff often take long walks to hash out ideas. Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post,  describes her regular hikes with colleagues and how they invigorated her and brought them closer. The University Chaplain at Yale conducts meetings on foot; you often see her walking with someone around the many green spaces of campus. It seems that “let’s take a walk” is becoming the new “let’s get coffee.” And the world may be more creative because of it.


Whether you are an individual working solo, or part of a larger team, being out in nature can be of extreme benefit to you and your creativity. So as I say to my students, “Get out”!