“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” (Albert Einstein)
On the whole, we’re spending less time outdoors and more time on our couches and at our desks, glued to screens—big screens, little screens, in-between screens. As with so many trends we’re seeing, this is not healthy. It has resulted in what writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” According to Louv, the term describes the “human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies.”
There’s been abundant research in recent years—more than 100 studies—demonstrating the importance of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing: to our stress and anxiety levels, our happiness, energy, and even our prosocial behaviors, such as kindness and generosity.
While some of the studies tout the value of extended time spent in nature, completely disconnected from technology, other studies show the benefit of just a 20-minute walk in a park, or even watching a nature video or looking at pictures of Mother Nature at her best.
Before you say, “I don’t have time,” or “It’s too damn hot to go outside,” think about some of the benefits nature offers us:
Nature helps us be more creative
According to research by David Strayer at the University of Utah, spending time in nature restores our ability to pay attention, think creatively, and problem-solve—skills which tend to become depleted by constant connection to technology. His research showed this to be true whether study subjects take a four-day backpacking trip or merely a brief walk through an arboretum. With regard to the arboretum, the benefits dissolve if the subject engages with a cell phone during the walk.
According to Strayer, “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover, and that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of wellbeing.”
Nature improves our health and disposition
There have been scads of studies showing that being in nature relaxes us and reduces our stress; it lowers heart rates and improves our mood; it decreases anxiety and alleviates fatigue. Those who spend time in nature are less prone to depression and more resilient.
Fascinating research by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, demonstrated the importance of green spaces in our dense urban environments. Their work dramatically showed that when there were green spaces—parks or areas with trees and grass—in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and public housing projects, people felt a stronger connection to their neighbors, children had fewer ADHD symptoms, and overall there was significantly less violence or crime than in similar Chicago neighborhoods which lacked the green space.
As we seek answers to urban violence and growing social alienation, the answer may include a few trees, a patch of grass, and maybe a park bench.
Nature makes us kinder and more generous
Studies have also shown that another advantage of connecting with nature is an increase in our willingness to trust, to be generous, and to extend kindness. Experiencing the beauty of nature, according to U.C. Berkeley researchers, increases our positive emotions, most likely by inspiring wonder and awe and giving us a sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This, they say, leads to prosocial behaviors such as generosity, kindness, and a desire to help. An experiment by Paul Piff at U.C. Irvine, showed that when participants stare up at a grove of tall trees for as little as one minute, they are more inclined to engage in helpful behaviors and have a more ethical approach to moral dilemmas. Nature is powerful!
With all this evidence that we are physically and mentally more healthy when we interact with nature, why, I wonder, don’t we? I suspect it’s a combination of factors: habit, inertia, addiction (to our devices), and lack of awareness to all the benefits we could be accruing.
I decided to write this post in my backyard, rather than at my usual spot at my desk. I can’t say whether I was more creative or inspired than usual, but it was definitely a more relaxed and enjoyable setting. I was scolded by chickadees for sitting a bit closer to the birdbath than they liked, but it didn’t stop them from bathing. A couple of squirrels seemed surprised to see me so early in the morning, but they, too, continued their business despite my presence. Nature made a space for me, and I felt richly welcomed. I won’t swear to it, but I think my coffee tasted better outdoors, too.
With our environment under fire from certain politicians and policy-makers, perhaps each of us needs to increase our exposure to nature’s wonders and add our voices to the call for preserving both wild and urban natural spaces. And perhaps these politicians need to spend less time in stuffy rooms and more time connecting with our precious mountains, forests, and oceans.
Let’s stand with Mother Nature . . . you go, girl!
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” (John Muir)