Think back to the last time you were immersed in nature. Maybe you can feel your toes wiggling in the sand, or the fresh mountain air against your skin. Perhaps you can sense the warmth of the sun’s rays, smell the fragrant foliage in the morning dew, or hear the pleasant crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot.
As you conjure this image, try to tap back into your emotional state too. Chances are good that you were feeling more happy than fearful, more peaceful than anxious, and more connected than withdrawn.
But why? What is it about spending time in nature that seems to set us right again? And perhaps a bigger question, why do we still get such little outdoor time in our modern life?
Spending More Time in Nature
It’s been estimated by the EPA that the average American spends 93% of their time indoors. Between the hours clocked at home, at the office, and in the car, collectively we spend less than one half day out of every week, outside. With our modern obsession with work and productivity, these numbers may not be surprising, but now scientists are trying to shore up the link between this dismal 7% of our lives spent outside, and our state of overall discontent.
Neuroscientists in the U.S. and the U.K. are using portable EEG units to measure how our brains respond to different environments, and so far they’re noticing a sizable difference between brain activity when walking in nature vs. walking through a crowded street.
Frontal lobe activity decreases when we stroll through a park, and our brain’s alpha waves (associated with a calm, but alert state) increase. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, has demonstrated that just three days of nature immersion is enough to “clean the mental windshield,” rebooting our overstimulated brains to reclaim our cognitive abilities and emotional equilibrium.
Experiencing Happiness in Nature
Humans have long intuitively known that being outside is a boon to health—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Poets of yesteryear sung praises to the towering trees, the rushing rivers, and the majestic mountains. However, today’s human seems to be suffering from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,” as dubbed by Florence Williams, author of the book The Nature Fix.
We’re spending an increasing amount of time inside, often in a sedentary position in front of some kind of screen, and it’s disastrous for our personal health and our sense of community.
Researchers have noted that, after just an hour in the wilderness, our brains respond in kind, pumping out happy hormones, and neurochemicals that work to reduce blood pressure, tamp down pain levels, and promote what we call “prosocial” behavior.
These cooperative, compassionate behaviors are pertinent to our survival, helping us bond with others through increased empathy and a reduced separation between the concepts of “self” and “other.” So, if you’re in a fight with a loved one, or stuck in a miscommunication with a coworker, a walk through the forest may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Japanese Practice of Forest Bathing
In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” is thought to be an antidote to the overstressed but under-engaged brain. In a modern work/life environment, we typically only use two or three of our senses at a time.
Forest bathing, in contrast, is a full sensory experience, allowing us to expand our use of our neural networks in a sort of technicolor meditation. And the results are compelling: nature immersion reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, while boosting levels of immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells, important in fighting cancer. The Japanese believe so strongly in the medicinal powers of nature, that they’ve already created nearly 50 forest bathing trails.
More and more countries are catching on to the link between nature time and the health of their citizens. In Finland, in a fight against depression and anxiety, public health officials have recommended that people get a minimum of 5 hours of nature time.
Other cities, like Singapore and Stockholm, are investing in more greenspace, smattering more trees, parks, and greenbelts among the concrete and brick. Proximity to nature, even in an urban environment, has been shown to reduce crime rates, as well as risk factors for nearly 15 different diseases!
The Benefits of Time in Nature
While there is still much that we don’t know about our intimate link to the natural world, the positive effects are undeniable. And unlike many drugs, the dose curve for outdoor time doesn’t follow a bell-curve; a little bit of nature is a good thing, and even more nature is an even better thing.
The best part of this is, we don’t need to alter our lives dramatically, in order to see beneficial changes. Just being around living greenery, like houseplants, can help, and a short 15 minute stroll through a natural area is enough to show measurable biochemical changes. But if you want to go for the gold, chose an activity that includes the magical trifecta of wellbeing: outdoor time, spontaneous play, and social engagement.
People underestimate the healing powers of nature, especially when it comes to happiness and life satisfaction. But our culture is slowly changing. We’re realizing that things like shopping and watching television don’t give us lasting joy, and perhaps a regular dose of sun and sand is more beneficial over the long term.
After all, humans evolved in nature. Now is our chance to reclaim our connection to the wilderness, and finally find true nourishment for mind, body, and soul.