Want to be happier and healthier? Reconnect with nature

If you believed the movies, you’d think all Australians live either in a desert or on the beach, and that we’re a country populated by rugged outdoorsy types who spend their days surfing, going walkabout, or wrangling native fauna. In reality, Australians spend 90% of their time indoors, 40% of their waking hours engaged in screen time, and 71% of us reside in a major city (not to mention that two-thirds of us are overweight or obese). In fact, many of us have become disconnected from the natural environment, spending little to no time in Australia’s natural scenery, or even in our own local park, bushland, or community garden.

How we benefit from time spent in nature

The biophilia hypothesis argues that humans have evolved with the natural environment, and that modern lifestyles are detrimental to our physical, social, and psychological health. In fact, there’s a tonne of high-quality evidence across a range of disciplines supporting the idea that time spent in nature is good for us. For instance, contact with nature has been shown to benefit:

  • Physical health, with improvements to hypertension, postoperative recovery, birth outcomes, heart disease, pain control, obesity, diabetes, immune function, asthma/allergies, mortality rates, and general health.
  • Psychological health, by improving sleep, stress, depression and anxiety, ADHD, and aggression
  • Social health, by increasing prosocial behaviour and social connectedness.

It also has positive effects on many other elements of wellbeing, including happiness, subjective wellbeing, social interaction, engagement, sense of meaning and purpose, cognitive function, and imagination and creativity.

Why is nature so good for us?

The reasons nature is good for us are multiple and hard to pin down. Nature aids our immune function, fosters social connectedness, and promotes physical activity. It also regulates temperature, improves our air quality, filters our water, and reduces exposure to noise. The biophilia hypothesis mentioned earlier has prompted several theories that explain why our health is so entwined with nature: 1) prospect–refuge theory suggests that natural features and landscapes are linked to human survival through provision of essential resources such as food, water, shelter, and refuge, 2) attention-restoration theory proposes that natural settings promote effortless attention that reduces mental fatigue, replenishes attentional capacity, and improves concentration, resilience and negative emotion brought on by fatigue, and 3) stress-reduction theory posits that exposure to nature triggers parasympathetic nervous system responses that aid wellbeing and relaxation.

Main image: pen_ash from Pixabay; Top right: Nathan Cowley from Pexels; Bottom right: PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

How much nature time is enough?

A recent UK study suggests that two hours per week may be the minimum amount of time we need to spend in nature for good health and wellbeing. Drawing on a large, nationally representative sample of almost 20,000 participants (yes, that’s a lot), researchers found that less than two hours per week in nature had no positive effect on wellbeing, while more than this offered marginally higher returns until the benefits flattened out or even dropped at around 5 hours. The study didn’t look at the quality of nature exposure, or which natural settings and activities offer more benefits, but in reality the ways we can get time in nature are endless, and extend from tending our own garden, to engaging in outdoor activities like bushwalking, wilderness experiences, green exercise, horticultural therapy, or simply walking by a creek or sitting in the park reading a book.

In the TEDx talk below, cognitive psychologist Erica Wohldmann talks about the relationship between human wellbeing and nature, and shares a neat account of her six-month sabbatical travelling through America’s wilderness. During her journey, she lived only on foraged foods, and found flow through reconnection with the natural environment.

A simple exercise to reconnect with nature and improve wellbeing

Click here for The savouring walk exercise

Unlike Erica, not everyone can move to the bush and live on mushrooms. For something a little closer to home, try the ‘savouring walk’ exercise to get more in touch with your local environment and appreciate what the natural world has to offer. The savouring walk exercise combines the benefits of spending time in nature with the positive psychology activity of savouring. If you’re unfamiliar with savouring, the Positive Psychlopedia gives a simple but comprehensive overview of the topic.

One note, though. The instructions for the savouring walk assume you may be walking in built-up urban areas. For the purposes of this exercise, try to walk in a natural setting like a park, beach, botanical or community garden, or along a local creek or river. Also, engage with natural elements rather than buildings or people.

In addition to the savouring walk, below are just a few ways you can boost the benefits of this exercise to make the most of its positive outcomes.

1.Share your walk with a friend or loved one. Take someone with you and point out the amazing things you see along the way. Note their enjoyment and the nice moments you have during your time together. If you can’t walk with someone else, remember the details of what you saw and felt, and recount your experience to someone later on.

2.Collect found objects like leaves, flowers, stones, or bark on your walk, and savour them individually when you get home. If you have kids, take them with you and spend time when you get home making a ‘nature collage’ of items you found on your walk together.

3.When you get home, spend 20 minutes writing about the smells, sights, sounds, sensations, people and creatures you saw on your walk. Focus on the positive emotions you remember feeling, and the specific objects or events that made you feel good on the walk. Savouring involves conscious attendance to past, present, and future positive experiences. If you get into flow with your writing, spend extra writing time reminiscing about past moments in which you’ve spent time in nature, opportunities available in the present to get more nature time, and future activities you might undertake to feel happier and more connected to nature.

Featured image at top by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels

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