By Rishika Sharma, on November 4, 2022

Need a holiday after your holiday? This neuroscientist has the secret to ACTUALLY resting on your vacation.

We all love the idea of a ‘long vacation’ but what does that mean? Think back to the last time you took a trip. How long did you go away for? A long weekend? A week? Maybe two?

Though paid vacation days vary from person to person, the average American can be entitled up to 20 days off a year. That’s a whole month if you include weekends, and yet Expedia’s annual Vacation Deprivation Study shows that, on average, Americans only took 11 days off throughout the entire year of 2022. Comparatively, Europeans averaged between 20 to 30 working days off.

Neuroscientist David Strayer

Our Vacation Deprivation study, which has been running now for over two decades, looks at the work-life balance for people all around the globe, and year after year, the data shows that Americans take fewer vacation days than any other country in the world. Even when we do take time off, more than 40% of respondents admitted to taking at least one conference call while they were out. And let’s face it, most of us have been at least tempted to look over our emails to keep an eye on things while we’re out of the office.

The fact is, we are struggling to switch off and neuroscientist David Strayer thinks he knows the reason why. David is a professor at the University of Utah who has spent 15 years studying the impact of technology on our brains compared to what we gain when we get back to nature. In this week’s episode of Out Travel The System, we chat with him about how our holiday habits could be affecting our mental health and how we can recharge through travel.

According to David, when we go on a real vacation (minus the calls and emails), we break away from the rat race and technological inundation of our daily lives. Studies show that by creating that distance, it is possible to reboot your stress system. This can positively affect your heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and even your immune system. A mental reset can also promote creativity and clearer thinking because we’re resting the overtaxed portions of our brains that are important for problem-solving.

While there’s proof that vacations are inherently good for us, it’s true that not everything about travel is relaxing. Some travelers can find uncertainties at the airport, navigating unfamiliar customs and surroundings, or attempting to communicate in a foreign language absolutely sweat-inducing (not to mention the anxiety that can come from trying to fit in all the must-dos on a jam-packed itinerary). So here are David’s tips and watchouts to help us maximize the goodness that comes with vacations without the stress.

Shake up your routine

“That’s not to say that there’s no mental health gain from taking city breaks. If going away means watching Broadway plays, and New York City frees you from your everyday, then that too can be beneficial. The main point is to separate from your regular rhythm and technology addiction through escapes which can also be found in urban centers.

And going back to biophilia, when you do go to New York, there’s Central Park, which is an oasis of green space right in the heart of the city. This isn’t uncommon in other cities too. You’ll often find green sanctuaries in a metropolis because they are so restorative, so try to make space on your agenda for a quick visit.”

Go green

“In partnership with the Sierra Club, the University of Utah found that taking veterans on wilderness therapy adventures can be effective in treating PTSD. And in our research, we also found that people have a lot more positivity when they’re in a natural environment. We see this embedded in a lot of Asian cultures. For example, in Japan there is a concept called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. It’s a conscious practice of meditating or wandering around a forest because when you’re more connected to the natural world, you think differently. You’ll notice things that you didn’t notice before. You’ll notice birds you didn’t hear before and it’s because being in these types of environments helps to recalibrate the senses.”

Your parents were right! Get off your phone

“In our studies, we had people walking through an arboretum and we took cameras and phones away from half of the group. At the end, we surprised them with a quick memory test of what they’d noticed on the walk, and we found that the people who had their phones only noticed about half of the things that those who didn’t have their phones. Other research looks at the memories that people form when visiting museums, and how these are influenced with and without having a mobile phone in-hand. The results show that if you’re taking photos of all the exhibits, you don’t have as rich of a memory as you would if you were fully engaged in the experience. So, immerse yourselves more in the experiences you’re having on holiday rather than trying to relive them afterward through the photos.”

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing

Beyond good and evil

“It’s not so much about technology being inherently good or bad but more about being conscious of how we use it. If you use it in an unfettered way – so you pick up the phone the moment you wake up or are using it even when you’re having lunch with a friend – you’re constantly shifting your attention, which puts stress on the brain. If you are going to use your cell phone during downtime, it’s good idea to plan how to use it. I’d suggest blocking out time to restrict a specific part of the day to look at emails, call friends, or go on social media and then set aside part of the day when your phone will be stashed away. This way, you’re committing yourself to go to a cafe, bar, theater, museum – wherever – and be 100% in that experience.

Also, whenever I get off the grid and come back to 300 emails, I realize how much is just white noise. They’re things that I really don’t need to pay attention to, but I usually would do in my day to day. A break in routine helps you to picture a 30,000-foot view of your life to assess what’s important and declutter all the things that aren’t.”

Take it easy

“One of the stresses that come with vacations is time-pressured situations. It’s easily avoided if you give yourself additional time when it comes to the airport so you can get through TSA screening and to the gate with ease. And then when you’re on vacation, take it slowly. Don’t build such a crowded itinerary that you’re just going from one venue to the next because you won’t remember much of it. You’re better off having fewer items on your schedule and spending more time immersed in a new environment.”

The more, the merrier

“The benefits can start filtering in from taking yourself away from your daily grind for even just 30 minutes. And while you can start feeling better with regular visits to the park or the beach, it’s important to keep in mind that the full benefits from taking a break start kicking in and grow after three days. So, plan more frequent getaways of three days or more to build in a routine of consistent mental recharge within your schedule.”

So, there you have it, straight from the neuroscientist’s mouth: vacation days are important to reward our bodies and brains with the rest we all deserve. So go ahead and make the most of your annual leave! If we’ve convinced you to switch your OOO on, tweet us and let us know where you’re planning to go to recharge. Forest bathing in Japan sounds like a winner!

Want to learn more?

Listen to the podcast now, check out the complete transcript below, or catch the full conversation on Spotify or Apple.

Nisreene Atassi, Expedia Global Head of Social Media, and host: I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System. This week, we’re talking about how your phone is actually ruining your vacation. 

We’ll talk trends…

Christie Hudson, head of Expedia PR for North America (sound bite): It’s called the Vacation Deprivation Study. And it’s been looking at work-life balance for people all around the world for over two decades now. And what they found is Americans, on average, only take 11 days off annually, and that’s the least amount of time of any working adult in the world. 

Nisreene: ..hear from neurologist David Strayer.

Professor David Strayer, neuroscientist and researcher (sound bite): We’re wandering around with smartphones and driving around in a car and flying to Miami and so forth. And so we can adapt to that, but it still leads to high levels of stress.

Nisreene: ..and really get down to business.

David: When we’ve done brain scans of people, we find really different patterns depending on whether they had their phone with them or not.

Nisreene: So here we go.
[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: I think we probably all know that vacations are great for helping us get a bit of a break from our day-to-day life. But what we probably don’t think about is just how much our phones kind of drag our day-to-day life with us, right? So sometimes we actually need a break from social media and our phones in order to truly step away and have an amazing vacation. Now, of course, I’m like all of you. I want to post that super cute selfie of me in the Italian Riviera on Instagram, but I’m starting to think that maybe it should actually wait until after the vacation. So today we’re going to talk about why it’s important to put the phone down. Because if you really want to maximize your trip with your loved ones and come back feeling refreshed, you need to make sure that you’re prioritizing your mental health even while you’re traveling.

All right, Christie, keeping ourselves healthy and sane while on vacation – something that you and I chat about all the time, especially because we both have kids. What is the research saying this week? 

Christie: The interesting thing here, and it’s not hard to believe, is that vacations are generally agreed upon to benefit your mental and physical wellness. The reality is that Americans actually struggle to use all of the time off that they get from work. And when we do take vacations, we don’t always fully check out, which is definitely not going to give us those benefits.

Nisreene: I am absolutely guilty of that. 

Christie: Yes, it’s very true. It’s hard to unplug, isn’t it? 

Nisreene: Absolutely. I am addicated to my phone, whether I’m at home or on vacation. It’s my toxic trait. 

Christie: Expedia actually does an annual study. It’s called the Vacation Deprivation Study. And it’s been looking at work-life balance for people all around the world for over two decades now. And what they found is Americans, on average, only take 11 days off annually, and that’s the least amount of time of any working adult in the world. 

Nisreene: Every time I hear this stat – and I’ve heard it for the last five years in a row, at least – it still blows my mind. And sometimes I feel like I’m actually a victim of that as well. I’m so curious to know if you know, Christie, off the top of your head how many people actually participate in the Vacation Deprivation Study? I think you said it’s, like, people worldwide, is that right?

Christie: Yeah, I think we have done up to 28 countries in the past, with 20,000 to 30,000 people polled. So, really, a pretty comprehensive representation of what working adults are doing. 

Nisreene: Right, well, that is a truly global study then. Wow. So Americans are taking the least amount of time in the entire world. That is very, very sad. What else are we doing wrong? 

Christie: Well, unsurprisingly, we’re taking the least amount of time and we feel very vacation-deprived. And I think the hardest thing about that is when we do take time off, we’re not fully unplugging. So, 40% of the time respondents admit to taking at least one Zoom call while they’re out of the office. And, then, the rest of them are sitting around feeling guilty for taking time off in the first place. So we’re spending our vacations either working or feeling guilty about not working and, basically, not getting the rest and rejuvenation that we need and deserve to have from that time off. 

Nisreene: Why are we like this? Christie, were there any other nations, at least, that felt the same way as Americans and felt really vacation-deprived? 

Christie: Vacation-deprivation is an interesting phenomenon because even countries where people take all of their time off – so, places like France or Germany, where they get 20 to 30 days off annually and they take it all because they’re legally mandated to take that time off – they can still report kind of high levels of vacation deprivation. But the most important thing is – and the thing that everyone agrees on globally – is that regular vacations are really important for general health, for well-being. People report having their relationships improve – both personal relationships and workplace relationships. They also feel like their productivity is better. So just generally, all-around-speaking, vacations are going to really, really be a good thing. 

Nisreene: You know, what this tells me is that there are probably never enough vacation days for us to take and not feel vacation-deprived, but good to know that it does have those amazing benefits. And, frankly, it really is just so nice to have something to look forward to, that next vacation. But, like, who are you if you’re letting your PTO go to waste? Like, I want to know who you are and why you let that happen? Really, I do. Like, let me talk you out of letting your PTO go to waste. Honestly. I refuse to allow that to happen.

Christie: Absolutely. I think I get a little depressed if I don’t have a vacation on the calendar somewhere, even if it’s months and months away. So, my hope for all of us overworked, vacation-deprived Americans is that next time you have a vacation, make sure you leave your laptop at home. And if you’re thinking about letting some of your PTO go to waste, don’t do it. Americans are the most likely to have unlimited PTO out of all other workers in the world. Yet we still take less days. 

Nisreene: I refuse to allow that to happen on my watch. Not with my listeners, not on this show. All right, Christie. Well, thank you so much for that insightful info. I feel like we’re all a little bit sad about it, but hopefully we can turn it around.

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: Today we’re joined by David Strayer, a professor and scientist at the University of Utah, focusing on cognition and neural science. David studies the impact of technology on our brains and how nature has a positive impact on our minds. 

David is basically here to tell us how we can really get the most out of our vacations and just feel a little bit better. 

Hi, David. It’s so great to meet you. Thank you so much for joining us on Out Travel The System today.

David: Hey! Thanks for inviting me.

Nisreene:I’m really excited to tackle today’s topic of overall mindfulness and well-being while traveling, because I think it’s super, super important for people to really just recognize the powerful impact that travel can have on on their psyche. So before we really dig into it, can you just tell me a little bit about your background and sort of what you’ve been researching and what sort of brought you to where you’re at today?

David: Well, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by training, so I’m interested in the brain and how we think. And I came across the idea some time ago that when you’re out in nature and you’re kind of unplugged from all the technology, you start to think differently. You become a little bit more connected to the natural world. You kind of notice things that you didn’t notice before. And so it’s just, what we kind of learned and have been doing in my lab is trying to understand what is happening to the brain when we’re kind of in more of a mindful, natural environment than the kind of artificial environment that we now surround ourselves in. And, so, that’s kind of what I’ve been studying in my lab, have been studying for the last ten, 15 years.

Nisreene: Where are you based? Where is your lab?

David: My lab is in Salt Lake City, Utah, at in the Applied Cognition Lab.

Nisreene: Well, this episode is so, so timely, because I actually just, like, a couple days ago, I just got back from a family vacation, and leading up to the vacation, David, I was stressed to my absolute max. Work was absolutely insane. I was really, really struggling. I had just bought a house. I had moved and I was trying to sell a house to pay for the new one that I had just bought. So, it was like the absolute sort of peak of stress and almost so much to the point where I was like, “I think I might cancel this vacation because I just don’t think I can mentally get my head in the right place to actually properly enjoy it.”It seemed so overwhelming. But I went and – honestly, I’m not even kidding you, David – by, like, day two, I felt like I was a completely different person than who I was three days prior. I was so much more present. It was like everything that had been really bothering me was just gone. And that was only after, like, 72 hours. So, like, what happened in my brain over those 72 hours, do you think?

David: Well, your insights were really right, spot on. What you described in terms of your life-stressors, you know, just were off the chart. We know that buying and selling a house is one of the bigger things that just amps up the all the stress levels. It’s one of the, you know, the big five kinds of things that really lead to high levels of stress and, basically, negative health outcomes. So you can’t do that on a long-term basis or it won’t turn out well. But, pretty much our 24-7 life cycle is on the phone, in social media, driving a car, all the technology that’s, kind of, we’re surrounding ourselves with – that’s the modern, civilized world, but it comes at a cost. We, ultimately, have hunter-gatherer brains. Our brains haven’t changed fundamentally over the last several thousand years, yet we’re wandering around with smartphones and driving around in a car and flying to Miami and so forth. And, so, we can adapt to that, but it still leads to high levels of stress. When you kind of go on a little bit of a vacation, you break away from that rat race, you you see a couple of things. One is that you see lower levels of stress. And, so, some of the biological markers, the biomarkers of stress show that your heart rate – you see changes in heart rate, you see changes in blood pressure, you see changes in cortisol levels, you see changes in the immune system. So there’s kind of a reboot of the stress system when you step aside from the technological kind of inundation that we have. And then there’s the mental reset as well. So you also see improvements in creativity, clearer thinking. When we look at the brain, we can see changes in the neural signals that are suggesting that we’re resting portions of the brain that are important for problem solving and thinking that have been just overtaxed. And, so, when you do like what you described on your little two or three-day trip, you’ve given yourself both a mental reboot and a reboot in terms of stress.

Nisreene: Is it something that happens, like, instantly? How long does it take to actually get to that reset point

David: It’s a great question. So, we know that, you know, you can start to see benefits within about 30 minutes. Now, that’s not the full benefit. It grows if you’re away for longer periods of time. But some of the research studies we do in Salt Lake City, we’re actually able to document those changes in terms of both the stress biomarkers and also the cognitive and neuro biomarkers. But we also know that it seems to accumulate… There’s a notion of kind of a three-day syndrome that if you kind of get away for two or three days, you really kind of get in that sweet spot. It’s as if you kind of slowly unwrapped all the technology that had been surrounding you and you kind of are in a new space, and that takes a little bit of time. It’s not like you can’t get benefits with short doses if you go to the park or you go to the beach. But the benefits seem to really kind of grow over a two to three-day period.

Nisreene: Tell me a little bit more about some of these benefits. I know you mentioned nature being a really, really big piece of it. What are the impacts that nature can have on our well-being?

David: You see lower levels of stress. I mean, high levels of stress, higher blood pressure, higher cortisol levels, compromised or a stressed immune system – those are going to have long-term chronic negative outcomes. And, so, by traveling, by getting away, by getting into more natural settings, which is often what we do when we travel – we go to a place that has kind of beautiful scenery. You’re, kind of, more connecting and so you’re just kind of de-stressing the body – that’s kind of stress recovery. You’re also thinking more clearly, and that’s a cognitive restoration. And so there we can show that working memory improves, we can see that creativity improves, higher levels of problem solving. You just start to think more clearly. People oftentimes – I’m curious if you notice this, but after a day or two, you start to notice things that you didn’t notice before. You notice birds that you didn’t hear before. It’s not like the birds have magically appeared, it’s just that all of a sudden you’ve recalibrated your senses. Did you notice something like that

Nisreene: I definitely did, especially with my daughter. I was just much more present with her and I noticed, almost all of a sudden, like, she was this grown-up child that was talking and using different words and different vocabulary, you know, and things like that. I just, I felt like I was much more aware of her behaviors and the changes that she had gone through. But it made me really glad that I that took that vacation. So I definitely noticed something like that, for sure. 

David: Yeah. A complete recalibration, a sensory reboot, so that you’re just more attuned to the physical environment you’re in. We kind of think about that… our modern urban environment, you’re being bombarded by all these sounds. Think of a city, and it’s got the horns and all the other atmospheric noise and you’ve got all the other lights and things like that just constantly competing for clarity of thought. Most of the time, if not always – because people can go to busy cities too – but most of the time, when you’re on vacation, there’s a natural feature that removes you from that overstimulation and lets the brain recalibrate.

Nisreene: Is there something that you’ve seen in your research that just shows getting out of the place that you’re in and a new change of scenery is beneficial, or is that nature element and that reduction in sound and ambient noise and that kind of stuff, is that really a critical part? Or is just literally getting into a different place equally beneficial?

David: So one of the researchers who’s been very instrumental in this area, Kaplan, talks about being away. And so if being away means going to Broadway plays and New York City and you kind of get away from the rat race of every day, that can be beneficial. We know that one of the best ways to get away is when you’re completely separated from all the technology that’s our modern world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get parts of it by going to other urban centers.

Nisreene: Sometimes with traveling, there can be sort of additional stressors, whether it’s a delayed flight or long lines at the airport or something along those lines. It sounds like what I’m sort of hearing is even if you just take a minute and, like, put your phone down and try and center yourself for a little bit – maybe it’s, like, go and look out a window or take a walk and get some fresh air. Are you, do you think that even something like that can sort of help to alleviate some of the stressors while you’re traveling?

David: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the issues is that you put yourself under time pressure. If you’re trying to get to an airport and get through TSA screening and make sure you get on the flight, that stuff is stressful. And I’m not sure that anyone’s going to say, “Hey, that flight really restored me” in any way. That’s just not the way it works. I think that wristwatch and that time pressure, that’s another one of the stressors. And, oftentimes, when you go on vacation, you forget what day of the week it is. 15 minutes late when you’re on vacation is not usually a real big deal. One key to trying to de-stress is to try and avoid some of the time pressure that you get where you’re trying to, like, cut it to the last second to get to the airport. You’re better off giving yourself some additional time so you don’t have that additional stress.

There’s a notion of biophilia, which basically says humans have an innate attraction to living organisms – that’s animals and plants. And, so, when you go to a park, even if you go to, say, New York City and you go to Central Park, there’s these huge kind of oases of of green space and living even in the cities. And they’re there because they are restorative. So it is just… if you try and just do, do, do too much on a trip and you’re just basically, you know, running and pacing from one place to the next, that typically isn’t the kind of a restorative vacation that kind of leads you to go, “Wow. I really kind of got into a different space.”

Nisreene: Yeah, you definitely hear a lot of people who come back and say, “I need a vacation from my vacation” because they were just sort of go, go, go, go, go. And I absolutely have had trips like that. So it sounds like one of your tips might be to just, like, find time to just carve out a little bit where you can just sort of slow down and maybe sort of get some space and things like that. How much time would be beneficial? So, let’s say someone’s doing, like, a big trip in Europe. It’s their first time to London. They’ve got five days, they’re trying to cram everything in. How much time would you suggest they take to just try and reset so that they can, you know, recalibrate just a little bit?

David: I think the answer probably depends on each individual, but don’t put such a crowded itinerary that you’re just going to be going from one venue to the next venue to the next venue, because you won’t remember much of it. You’re better off having fewer items on your travel schedule and spending a little bit of time there and getting some downtime and actually being immersed in that environment. Spend a little bit of time in London not running from museum to museum, but just actually trying to experience the city as well. 

Nisreene: Yeah, there you go. I want to talk a little bit about social media. I know you’ve done a lot of research studies about the impacts of using our phones. But, you know, since the launch of, like, Instagram and this huge desire for people to share all the amazing places that they’ve been, they sort of almost wear it like a badge of honor, right? Taking these selfies and these big pictures. What impact do you think that’s had on people’s brains? Or what are the consequences, I guess, of using social media while you’re on while you’re on vacation? 

David: I guess the biggest thing is you’re really not completely in the moment and in the natural environment when you’re constantly having to check your phone and post to some social media account. When we’ve done brain scans of people as they walk through an arboretum, we find really different patterns depending on whether or not they’ve had their phone with them or not. And these persist for long after the walk. So just because you carry your phone with you doesn’t mean you need to use it all the time. If you just stash it in your backpack or purse. You need it, you can take a few photos. But that technology you carry with you changes your memory of the experience, it changes your actual experience. And so it’s probably worth trying to be in the moment and experience the full immersive benefits of a trip, rather than just live in the photos that you take while you’re there.

Nisreene: I obviously have my work email on my phone and I work in social media. When I was on vacation, I intentionally just didn’t pull out my phone because I didn’t want to be tempted to look at my work email. And so I also… because I was being really conscious of that, I also wasn’t going on social media. So I feel like maybe that had a big part of me being more present. It just really occurred to me that maybe those two were actually, probably pretty closely closely connected. 

David: Yeah. I mean, when when I have the opportunity every so often to be able to kind of just get off the grid – not look at any anything on the Internet or email. And when I come back, I usually have 300 or 400 or 500 emails that have all just accumulated. Those would have been kind of everyday stressors when I go through them. More often than not, they’re just noise. They’re things that I really didn’t need to pay attention to, but I would have. It’s not that technology is necessarily inherently good or bad. It’s not that social media is inherently good or bad. It’s just how we use it. And there was never a user’s manual for how we actually use a phone and how we use social media. It’s just there and we just oftentimes get sucked into the defaults and start to do things all the time. And it’s good to basically be mindful that it is a stressor and it will kind of dim our senses and stress us out. And so, like what you found, if you just kind of get away from the work email and kind of just, you know, experience life for a moment, there are benefits to that. 

Nisreene: Yeah. What tips would you give to our listeners who want to try and limit their use of technology for the better, either overall or while they’re on vacation at least?

David: If you can avoid looking at your work email – you should not look at your work email while you’re on vacation, because the second you look at it, there will be something you have to do and it takes you right back to the office. You might as well still be there. A good way to do things is to block your time. If I have to look at email or if I have to interact with technology or call friends or whatever, do it part of the day. But then set aside part of the day when that phone’s kind of stashed for a little bit. And so you can actually, like, go to a cafe, go to a bar, go to a theater, go to a museum, and have the full, 100% experience without multitasking, because that half a foot in the tech and half a foot at wherever your destination is leaves you with not the full, rich experience you could have. 

Nisreene: So you mentioned you guys did brain scans of, sort of, people taking walks. Did you notice that people who had their technology, did it change the memory of the experience that they had?

David: Yeah, you’d be surprised. So, in our studies, we had people walking through an arboretum – Red Butte Arboretum in Salt Lake City. It’s a beautiful place to go on a walk. Half of the people went on the walk and we took their cameras and phones away from them when they went on the walk. And the other half, we had them talking to a friend, their mom, their friend, or somebody on the walk. And not only did we see really distinct changes in the neural signals, but later on we gave people a quick kind of test, a surprise test at the end. “Did you actually see this fountain that you walked by? Did you actually notice it?” And people who were on their phones noticed only about half of the things that that the people who weren’t on their phones were. So you don’t notice it. There’s some other really cool research where people looked at the memories that people form when they go to a museum with or without a phone, and if they’re taking photos of all the exhibits, they don’t have as rich a memory of the museum as if they were fully engaged in the experience. So technology kind of changes our memory in a way that isn’t always necessarily desirable.

Nisreene: And this is just so crazy because we think, “Oh, I got to take a picture, I got to take this video because I want to record the memory.” But what you’re actually doing, it sounds like, is not letting the real memory of the experience, like, fully sink in. That’s just… it’s very illuminating. 

We’ve talked a lot about the physiological impacts that stress can have on on your body. But what role does technology play in that overall concept? 

David: It’s not so much the technology, it’s how we use it. But if we use it in an unfettered way, which is basically you pick up the phone the moment you wake up and you’re using it every time – even when you’re having lunch with a friend, you pick up the phone and are using it. And every time, throughout the whole day, you’re constantly on the device. Every time you do that, you’re shifting attention. So you’re putting stressors on the brain. We know that the prefrontal cortex, which is our creative, problem-solving, thinking part of the brain is also the part that’s switching from this task to this task to this task. And it just depletes the mental resources and kind of makes us less creative. But it also leads to higher levels of stress. And those stress levels, over a long period of time, are going to compromise our health in ways that aren’t good. So, you know, it’s good to think about “If I’m going to use a cell phone, I’m going to plan how to use it. If I’m going to use an email and check my email, I’m going to decide.” And there are ways to change the settings so that you can become in control of the technology. Like, right now, when we’re having this discussion, I set my phone on focus, turned it so that it wouldn’t be bothering us and interrupting us while we’re talking. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s other people you’ve spoken with who haven’t done that. And then, right in the middle of the conversation, they have to stop and juggle things.

Nisreene: Let’s talk about the creativity bit, because I feel like people probably think that by constantly absorbing imagery and videos and news and that kind of stuff, it fuels their creativity. But it sounds like it actually can make us a little bit less creative. Have you done studies that sort of have proven that?

David: Yeah, we’ve done several studies and there’s now actually a number of different labs that have followed that work up. When you’re in an environment where you’re not constantly bombarded with phones and internet and everything like that, you’re now kind of in the moment and you’re not switching back and forth. We know that, again, the part of the brain that’s really responsible for kind of switching from phone to driving to watching to all the kind of things you typically juggle, that’s the frontal part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. It’s, evolutionarily, the most recent portions of the brain that have evolved in primates. When you are multitasking at wit’s end, you’re just constantly using that like a muscle. And now if you have to come up with some new problem, you’ve kind of already taxed that prefrontal cortex. You’ve depleted some of the reserves. And so you’re not as creative. When we’ve studied what happens when you take technology away and have people in a natural environment, we get boosts up to 50% in terms of standardized creativity scores. So, I mean, again, you can basically just dim the senses and dim the level of creativity. If want to kind of get the biggest boost, if you’re working on a problem, put the phone aside, go out and walk for a little bit, go to a park and… but leave the phone in your pocket or in your purse or your backpack so that you’re not multitasking. And you’ll, kind of, all of a sudden, you get this “Aha!” moment. “I’ve come up with a solution that I didn’t know before,” and that’s that creative part. So we see that there are measurable boosts in creativity when you try and do what I just said. 

Nisreene: So we’ve talked a little bit about reducing the amount of technology you’re using or, you know, putting your phone down for a little bit while you’re on vacation, trying to take some time to sort of get out in nature a little bit, give yourself a little bit of time to just sort of be present and focus on you. What are some other things people can do when they’re on vacation to help them really reset? Sounds like time – two to three days is a really good amount of time to take. So it sounds like, you know, even a short break can really be transformative. What are other tips you can give people who are… maybe we’ve got listeners out there who are just feeling really, really burnt out, really stressed or they’ve hit a road block in their creative energy and we’ve convinced them to sort of take this weekend trip. What are some other things that you can encourage them to do while they’re on their vacation to help them reset a little bit? 

David: Relatively regular exercise turns out to be a big boost. So, there’s actually an incredibly large body of literature right now showing the benefits of even modest exercise – going out and walking in a park, going out and walking in a mall, getting some physical exercise, three or four hours over the course of a week is probably the minimum. But when you do that, you actually see that it promotes healthy aging, it promotes neurogenesis, which allows new neurons to grow in our brains. It is also something that tends to reduce our stress levels. And, so, if you can become physically active in a space where it may be stimulating, but at the same time try and focus and be in the moment as opposed to trying to do that and take photos of what you’re experiencing, those kinds of things will lead to a more rewarding and healthier life. 

Nisreene: I love that. I want to ask you – I love asking scientists questions about Chinese medicine and more, like, Eastern philosophies. So, obviously, when people hear about well-being and mindfulness, they automatically might go to things like meditation, for example. What’s your point of view on meditation? Like, do you feel like it’s necessary or do you think a walk around the park is equally beneficial?

David: Oh, I think kind of meditating and creating a focus and trying to push away some of the distractions is really, really good. In Japan, they have this idea of forest bathing, which is putting the phone aside and wandering around in the forest. And that’s where you see some of the evidence for changes in immune function when people go out into natural spaces. And so it’s embedded in a lot of the cultures in Asia. The whole notion behind it is actually that going out – and it’s actually a big part of de-stressing culture is to try and go out and be in natural spaces. And that’s where, for example, some of the research has shown that some of the killer T cells that are important for your immune system get a boost when you’re in the forest.

Nisreene: So our handy producers just looked it up. Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese name.

David: Yep. That sounds right.

Nisreene: Why do you think it’s so difficult for Americans to adopt this type of mentality or behavior? Because I definitely don’t think we prioritize that kind of stuff. And I’ve always realized that, right? So, like, I’ve always worked in, like, a global capacity and I’ve noticed when I go to hang out with colleagues, in the past, in Germany, they’re like, “No, no, no, we’re going to go to lunch and we’re not going to talk about work at lunch. And we’re going to have a glass of wine and we’re going to hang out and then we’re going to come back to work.” Right? They don’t eat lunch at their desks. They don’t try and, like, multitask. But here in America, it’s like, “I cannot lose an absolute second of, like, time during my nine to five.” Like, I must be always working. Why is that such a weird thing for Americans?

David: Mmm. Well, first, one thing you just said was the amazing cultural differences you can experience with travel. I mean, go to Germany, go to Spain, go to France, go to all the different countries that we’ve been chatting about, because they value time differently. They value interpersonal interactions differently. So those things are just amazing. It’s one of the reasons – it is probably one of biggest reasons for travel is that you can experience those different cultural perspectives on life. In our country, we tend to be really heavily focused on a lot of technology. Most of the social media tech companies are from the US. And so it’s kind of part of our culture. And each culture has something different, but it’s worth looking at some of the benefits of trying to say, “Well, what happens if we go and have a meal and we don’t talk about the office and we don’t pick up our phone, we actually just talk one-on-one?”

Nisreene: Yeah. I feel like we’ve talked a lot about going on vacation to de-stress from work and other, sort of, common life stressors. What about heartbreak? You know, I feel like there’s this emotional state that some people can get into, whether they’ve lost a loved one, or just various types of emotional sadness that I think some people can experience, unfortunately. Have you done any research about how getting out, traveling, being in nature can help restore people who might be grieving? 

David: When we do a lot of our research – and it’s not just our lab – we see that one of the biggest and first changes is changes in affect. That people tend to have a lot more positivity and a lot less negativity when they kind of get away from it and be in a natural environment and interact with other people. I know that the Sierra Club has taken veterans who are suffering from PTSD after trips to Afghanistan or Iraq on wilderness therapy adventures. And it tends to have a huge impact. I know some of the classes I teach have had some of the students come back after tour of overseas and they’re kind of really the people who benefit the most from being in a natural space – at least, in the setting that I have my class. They’re not interacting on the phone, they’re talking face-to-face and they go, “Aha! There’s actually somebody who’s really there, who’s listening.” 

Nisreene: So it sounds like there’s a really big connection between, you know, trauma and nature and really helping somebody to heal a little bit, which I think makes a lot of sense. I know me, myself, personally, I feel like every time I have a big, emotional situation in my life, my natural instinct is, “I don’t know how to deal with this, so I’m going to try and get away, try and sort of, you know, focus my time.” And it sounds like that, scientifically, it seems to prove as accurate. 

David: Yeah, we see that getting away, being away, creates a reboot. It’s a reboot mentally. So you think differently. It’s also a reboot in terms of just the physiological stressors of our life. And, so, when you do kind of recalibrate and reboot like this, it is kind of a respite from just constantly slugging away at it. And one thing I would say – you say you can’t take a minute out of your nine to five day. I’ll bet if you could manage to carve off a half-hour and go off on a walk, you probably would find that you actually don’t lose the time. You come back more stimulated and more creative because of that boost. So maybe you can break away once in a while. 

Nisreene: David, I feel like you’re going to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company and run the organization based on these tenets, and I’m going to come and work for you 1,000%. Before we wrap, I want to ask you this question. And don’t worry if you don’t know the answer – give me your best guess. Would you recommend a different type of vacation for somebody who is dealing with a lot of work-related stress versus somebody who’s dealing with more emotional trauma? And what would those vacations be? 

David: If you ask me, what I would recommend would be some aspect of integrating nature into it. This notion of biophilia is something that is restorative, and the idea that we have a connectivity with living things – trees and plants and so forth. Yeah, I think that work-related stress, that’s just stay away from email for a little while when you’re on your vacation. The other kinds of stress where you’re dealing with some traumatic loss of one type or another, that probably is a different kind of reboot – one, probably, where maybe interacting more with people, which we tend not to do. The problem with technology is something is lost in translation. I pick up the phone and I talk to you and you hear me through the phone. You can hear my voice, but you don’t get all the other things about how we communicate. And, so, one-to-one, sitting across from somebody in a… where you’re getting a cup of coffee and listening to what they say, looking at how they react, watching their body and how it changes with those kind of conversations. That’s more of an immersive, full experience, and that’s actually our historical evolutionary background – not through some technology that’s, kind of, I say something and you hear something at the other end. And, so, I think people who are experiencing more emotional trauma or emotional stress, trying to kind of recalibrate from that, probably should try and have more of an immersive experience with other people who are supportive. 

Nisreene:I love that. That’s a great tip. Before we let you go, David – and, to be honest, I really don’t want to let you go because I feel like this is such a great conversation. What is the most important tenet you think of achieving well-being? 

David: I would say that stop for a second. Go back to the 30,000ft view of your life for a moment and say “What’s important?” and make sure that you do the things that are most important and you interact with the people who are the most important, and you try and declutter all the things that aren’t. After I come back from a trip where I haven’t been able to look at my email for, like, a week, most of the stuff I delete, delete, delete, delete, because it didn’t matter. But if I was actually there on the job, I’d be messing with that stuff all the time. So I think that if you kind of try and, at the top level, say “What’s most important?” and then use technology in a way to kind of support the things that are most important, you’ll probably have a better life experience.

Nisreene: What a great way to wrap up. David, thank you for coming on the show. So amazing. I feel…. honestly, I feel like I’m going to make every CEO listen to this episode, because clearly giving people time to take breaks and take a vacation is how you get productive employees. So, thank you for coming on the show today.

David: Yes, I agree. Thanks. It was a pleasure.

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene:If there is absolutely one thing that I am walking away with, this episode with, it’s the fact that I need to start actually being way more present in my vacations and the time that I’m spending with my loved ones and not seeing my vacation through the camera lens. Right? Like, the fact that my memories are going to register so much stronger when I’m actually watching them and experiencing them versus trying to take pictures of them… it just really sort of resonated with me. And, so, I feel like I’m going to try really hard to change my behavior and make those amazing memories versus trying to capture those memories on my phone.

What do you do to stay present while on vacation? Tell us. We’re @Expedia and @PRX.

For more info on episodes, guests, and to find travel inspiration, be sure to visit Out Travel The System’s blog at

Nisreene:I want to thank David Strayer for coming on the show today and really enlightening us on just being more mindful when we travel. It’s such an important thing. And if you have any questions for me or comments or thoughts, of course, be sure to hit me up. You can DM us on at @Expedia, or you can visit Follow, subscribe, and share so that you don’t miss an episode.

Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia with special thanks to PRX and Sonic Union. I’m the Executive Producer and your host, Nisreene Atassi. Special thanks to the following:

Additional writing by Kimu Elolia.
Producer Rishika Sharma.
Associate Producers Syma Mohammed and Nathanael Taylor.
Production assistant is Alex Thiel and Carolina Garrigo. 
Theme music and original composition by Kevin J Simon.
Music edit, sound design, and mix by Rob Ballingall, and music supervision by Justin Morris. 
Executive Producer and Writer Halle Petro.
PRX Executive Producer Jocelyn Gonzalez.

And Out Travel the System is recorded with Sonic Union in New York City.

Next week, we’re going to be talking about the larger impacts of travel with the one and only Elizabeth Becker. Elizabeth is a former New York Times correspondent as well as a best-selling author. So we’re going to really dig into it. 

Till next time… this is your host, Nisreene Atassi, for Out Travel The System. Find us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Happy travels!