How Does Nature Make Us Healthier?
When we think about changing our behaviors to “get healthy,” we often imagine taking drastic actions like waking up at 5am to run 6 miles before work, cutting starchy breads and pastas from our diet, and trying out various juice cleanses. However, while all these activities could be helpful in moderation (if not entirely realistic), improving our health and well-being can actually be much simpler.
Are you interested in a fairly effortless way to increase your productivity and creativity, reduce stress, make you less moody, and increase your life satisfaction? Simply spend more time in nature!
1. Nature increases productivity.
Research suggests that simply looking at nature increases cognitive functioning, decreasing omission errors and resulting in more consistent task-responses. So when you’re feeling stuck or distracted, give yourself a microbreak (about 40 seconds) to stare at nature in any form.
Try setting up office near a window or introducing potted plants to your space. Are you in a windowless room and worried you can’t keep a plant alive? Not a problem! Believe it or not, just looking at pictures of nature on your computer screen can make a difference… Hm…maybe those nature stock photos on your screensaver aren’t so bad after all.
2. Nature decreases stress.
Forest bathing, a fancy term for short, leisurely trips to the forest, improves mood, lowers blood pressure, lowers our stress hormone (cortisol), and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. According to a field experiment, seeking solace in the outdoors is a healthy, preventative medicine technique in improving one’s well-being and decreasing stress. Anyone who’s sought solace from a stressful work environment by taking a walk outside can attest to this.
3. Nature increases creativity.
Considering the abundance of landscape paintings in any given art museum, this probably does not surprise you! That said, how does nature actually make someone more creative? The Attentional Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that we have a different way of directing our attention in nature versus in an urban environment. This hinges on the differences between top-down and bottom-up processing.
Top-down processing involves using your background knowledge to influence your perceptions (e.g. I know streets have lots of cars on them, so I’ll walk on the sidewalk). In contrast, during bottom-up processing, we actively observe what is happening in the environment, our stimuli, and form our perceptions around what those stimuli tell us (“The path to the left is wet, so I’ll take the path to the right”). In the former, we’re informed by old data, and in the latter, we’re informed by new data.
In the urban environment, we are constantly using our top-down directed processing (like avoiding walking into traffic, protecting personal belongings, not being late, etc.). In nature, we are able to use our bottom-up processing. Thus, nature allows us to open our senses and be inspired by what is around us, which widens our creative faculties.
4. Nature increases overall life satisfaction.
Negative mental health is an increasing epidemic. Many researchers have connected the rise in mental health concerns to increasing urbanization. Studies seem to confirm that as more people move to cities and away from locations rich in nature, depressive symptoms and mental health problems increase. Naturally, spending time outdoors is the perfect way to combat this.
5. Nature makes you happier and less… moody.
Our bodies crave sunshine because it chemically elevates our mood. According to The US Library of National Medicine and National Health Institute, serotonin production is lowest during the winter and highest in late summer and early fall. This occurs because the levels of serotonin in our bodies are directly related to how much sunlight we’re exposed to—in summer, we have longer (and brighter) days, so our serotonin production skyrockets. In the winter…well, have you ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Indeed, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and completed suicides are highest during the months lacking in sunshine. Serotonin is a chemical in the body that helps with our emotional well-being. When we have an imbalance of this chemical, or a season lacking in sunshine which causes the feel-good chemical in the brain, we are more susceptible to depression and emotional problems. Yet another reason why it’s important to get outdoors as much as possible.
Explanation for our connection with Nature
Overall, our love of nature is explained by the Biophilia Hypothesis. In The New York Times, the Biophilia Hypothesis is presented as a way to help mental illness. The article serves to answer the question of why we are all suffering from an “epidemic of dislocation from the outdoors”.
The Biophilia Hypothesis is our innate love for nature. There are many ways nature has been proven to help with our health. Its sounds, smells, abundance of clean air, and vivid colors all contribute to our instinctive longing for it. For instance, simply listening to the sounds of birds and running water have been proven to have a calming effect on our body. The smell of evergreen trees actually acts as a natural remedy by having the chemical aerosol in it which helps us relax. Interestingly, nature’s patterns are arranged as an attractive pattern to our retina.
“Nature’s benefits might be due to something as simple as the fact that natural landscapes are, literally, easy on the eyes. Many of nature’s patterns — raindrops hitting a pool of water or the arrangement of leaves — are organized as fractals, and the human retina moves in a fractal pattern while taking in a view. Such congruence creates alpha waves in the brains — the neural resonance of relaxation.” (Florence Williams, The Nature Fix). To put it simply—nature makes our brains happy.
Finally, some tips to integrate nature into your everyday life!
The weather is getting warmer and it is making us want to get outside. If you need ideas for getting outdoors, research events going on in your area. There are always outside community gatherings like yoga sessions, outdoor theater, and farmer’s markets!
You can even work with others in your community to organize fun outdoor events. Maybe offer to host a barbecue or potluck once the weather is nice! Another less time-consuming option is to take a walk in your neighborhood or the closest park. If you are constantly working, go for a ten-minute stroll outside as part of your lunch break and eat outside. If it is cold where you are, sit by a window and embrace the sunshine when it comes out of the clouds.
Looking for a simpler solution? Buy a few succulent plants to put on your desk or a small bouquet of flowers to remind you of the beauty in nature. Easy ways to improve your relationship with Mother Nature are all around you. The key is to pay attention to all the wonderful remedies it brings.