Why A Bit Of Nature Can Make You Happier
Mr Bob Dylan outside his Byrdcliff home in Woodstock, NY, 1968. Photograph by Mr Elliott Landy/Magnum Photos
In our hyper-connected digital age, here’s why it’s more important than ever for us to get outside and experience the great outdoors.
If an alien arrived on Earth right now and attempted to form an opinion of humanity based solely on social media, it would probably assume we all spend a huge amount of our time climbing up mountains, jumping in waterfalls and watching the sun slowly set over glittering seas. It would be wrong. The reality is that, since 2008, a majority of the global population have lived and worked in cities, which means that contemporary humanity spends an awful lot of its time in offices and subways, or at home, basking in the blue-light glow of our laptops and mobile phones. This, according to author and journalist Ms Florence Williams, whose book The Nature Fix is released this month, is not doing us much good.
The Nature Fix, subtitled “Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative” was a project inspired by Ms Williams’ personal experience of urbanization, after she and her family moved from the Rocky Mountains to the “hyper-urb” of Washington, DC. “It got me thinking,” she says. “My migration parallels that of people globally from rural to urban areas. I wanted to know the implications for me, and also for society at large.” In pursuit of this knowledge, Ms Williams spent several years travelling the world to talk to scientists and researchers involved in measuring the effects of nature on the human psyche, visiting places as diverse as the University of Pennsylvania’s sound lab (to investigate noise pollution) and Japan’s Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, to experience shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
In the course of the book, she marshalls all the available (and sometimes, admittedly, contradictory) evidence to explain why the human psyche has an irreversible connection to nature, and how via brief immersions in (or “doses” of) the natural world, we can improve our physical and mental wellbeing. “In some ways, it’s like a longterm marriage,” she says. “Is it time to institute a regular date night?” Intrigued by this proposition (and looking for a good excuse to book a wild country getaway), MR PORTER caught up with Ms Williams to ask her delve further into some of her discoveries.
**So, ultimately, is nature just good for us? **
I think there is certainly a strong preponderance of evidence that being in nature, especially benign, attractive nature, is good for our physical health and wellbeing. What’s still uncertain are the granular details – which elements of nature are most helpful, and for which kinds of diseases and conditions? How much nature do we need? Is there a daily minimum dose? I’m happy to report that many scientists are actively pursuing these questions.
Isn’t it mostly just good to get away from technology?
That’s another area where there is some disagreement. If we embrace the Japanese perspective that the best shortcut to feeling psychologically restored is to engage all of our senses, then we are best served by turning off the devices and looking around. However, I am not opposed to technology as a tool to get us outside, or get kids outside, or to help us map and find good hikes, take snapshots, etc. How well they can coexist depends on what our needs are, emotionally and socially, while we’re out in nature. If we want full relaxation, best to turn the devices off for a bit.
Which of your research trips did you enjoy the most?
I enjoyed every place, but I probably got the biggest kick out of Finland, where people really enjoy their woods and use them in these fun, almost childlike ways, picking berries, chasing butterflies, running back and forth to their saunas at their country shacks. I just regret that I didn’t get to try a classic Finnish sauna. Fortunately, I got to try one out at the embassy in Washington, DC!
Which did you find the most challenging?
The language barrier was challenging in both Korea and Japan. Navigating the subway system in Japan really made my blood pressure skyrocket, but then I visited a lab where I smelled some essential forest oils, and that made my blood pressure go right back down.
Your book talks about “dosing” with nature. How do we do it?
I think it can be a very personal, intuitive thing. Do what feels the best and works within constraints, But do be sure to occasionally get out into the remote wilds, where the really interesting and profound stuff can happen in your thoughts and self conception and world view. Enjoy!