Florence Williams has traveled the world to find out why spending time outdoors helps us feel better, be healthier and treat others more kindly. Her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative explores the science from the past few decades, testing theories and challenging assumptions. Her conclusion is that yes indeed, nature is our friend. Here’s why.
1. Nature Lowers Our Stress
The Japanese have a word for death from overwork, karoshi. A drug-free antidote is needed, which could very well be another Japanese term, forest bathing, shinrin yoku. The country has 48 official trails for this special type of therapeutic practice that hundreds of thousands partake in each year. Korea is following Japan’s lead by designating dozens of healing forests and training hundreds of park rangers to become forest healing instructors.
A multisensory outdoors experience that could be compared to meditation, forest bathing is like taking a super dose of Vitamin N, as in Nature (a term coined by the author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv). It’s an essential part of our biological and psychological makeup, but we’ve become deficient in it. Even though nature itself is not always easy on us, humans have evolved with the wilderness and all its stresses. We have also been wired to find peace in restorative scenery in order for our nervous systems to recover from stress. Scientists that Williams interviewed have found the best way to de-stress is with sunsets or rainy days, scenes that stimulate our senses without making us think too much.
2. Nature Helps Us Think
Neuroscientists who study attention in the age of distraction designed experiments to learn whether outdoor adventures boost creativity, information processing and memory. Again, nature is not always a comfortable place to be, but it does activate our brains in healthy ways. In urban and indoors settings, we tend to tune out external noises such as office chatter, traffic and mechanical sounds. In wilder places, we have to tune in for survival, noticing a change in the wind, for example, or birds switching from songs to alerts, or where we place our feet to keep from falling or stepping on a snake. It also appears that these mental jobs are easier on our brains. Our minds do well assessing and responding to natural stimuli at a walking pace, rather than straining to filter out unnecessary thoughts and noises while demands come at us at inhuman speeds. Nature can relax and invigorate our brains at the same time.
3. Nature Improves Our Health & Mood
We need look only at the human eyeball to learn that our bodies need natural, full-spectrum light. Our retinas respond to sunlight by releasing dopamine, which affects the shape of the developing eye. Less light leads to more myopia (short-sightedness). Nature plays many more tricks on our eyes, through the color spectrum, viewing fractals and pleasing scenery that triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain. Even the act of being out in the wilder world calms our anxiety. Much research points to the fact that the more acutely stressed someone is, the greater the effect of a dose of Vitamin N on lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels. As Williams writes in The Nature Fix, “It would appear that when we have a positive nature experience, it engages what’s good in the default network without allowing us to wallow too much in what’s problematic.”
4. You Can Bring Nature to the Homestead
Farming can resemble a factory, with mind-numbing patterns and sounds as well as repetitive, mundane chores. Alternatively, any production landscape can be designed more like a natural, wild ecosystem. Zones in permaculture design, for example, include wild spaces as an important element of the overall system. Integrating permaculture principles is good for the soil and good for our minds. Even when we can’t escape on a backcountry camping adventure, we can challenge our brains and bodies in a variety of interesting ways through intentional homesteading and gardening.
Whether it’s in a 100-acre wood or a backyard garden, small doses of Vitamin N make subtle but profound impacts and remind us that we’re part of nature, too.