Nature is a Happy Pill
Let’s face it – stress and unhealthy habits are ubiquitous in modern society. Equally ubiquitous (in affluent cultures) are self-help books, diet plans, personal trainers, and by-the-hour therapists to help people achieve and maintain their best selves. But what if one of the most potent fixes for our woes is as basic as spending more time outdoors, in nature?
That is the idea that Florence Williams explores in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017, NY: W.W. Norton). As a journalist (and contributing editor to Outside magazine), Williams delves into the topic by taking a participatory journalism approach in which her experiences are part of the story. She becomes an insider in the scientific research she seeks to summarize about nature’s effects on the human mind, body, and spirit, both by becoming a research subject herself and by probing the thinking of leading scientists in the field.
She explains the impetus for writing the book succinctly: “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think, to remember things, to plan, to create, to daydream and to focus—as well as on our social skills.” This work has such important implications for all of us that Williams makes an impressive effort to summarize the many avenues of this research being done around the world.
Williams reports on her experiences traveling to research sites in seven countries where scientists and practitioners are doing cutting-edge work on nature’s effects on people’s well-being. She participates in “forest bathing” in Japan and Korea; attends a hiking retreat with neuroscientists in Utah; wears a portable EEG device on her head to explore the physiological effects of noise pollution in the U.S.; participates in a nature virtual reality lab experiment in Canada; walks along “health nature trails” in Finland; participates in outdoor adventure therapy and meditative walking in urban parks in Scotland; observes horticultural therapy in a garden in Sweden; becomes a research subject for a Canadian scientist studying the mental health effects of sustained (30 minutes a day for 30 days) outdoor walking; goes on a camping trip with psychology graduate students in Utah and on a rafting trip in Idaho with female veterans suffering from PTSD to explore the effects of longer-term immersion in nature within social groups; visits a summer camp in North Carolina for kids with ADD and learning disabilities; and explores green spaces in densely populated Singapore. She is ambitious and energetic, and those qualities permeate the book.
Although the scientists Williams visits are focusing on different aspects of nature’s effects on humans, and are using a wide range of clever measurement tools to do so, an underlying theoretical tenet of all the research is evolution. Since we, Homo sapiens, evolved in nature, we still have deep, automatic, physiological reactions to environmental stimuli. The idea is to recognize, understand, and then use those reactions for beneficial outcomes in our modern lives.
Some Fascinating Research Findings
Japanese and Korean scientists have documented positive changes in physiological responses such as pulse rate, variable heart rate, and salivary cortisol after people have taken sensory walks in forested National Parks. In one study in Korea, spending two days in nature lowered the cortisol levels of 11-12 year old “technology addicts,” and those effects lasted two weeks after the kids had nature immersion experiences.
Another avenue of this “forest bathing” (i.e., walking in the woods) research found that “nice tree smells”—specifically the aromatic substances that cedar and pine trees emit—boost natural killer (NK) white blood cells that strengthen our immune systems. Even a month after people walked in piney woods a few hours a day for three days, their NK cells were 15% higher than those of people who walked the same amount of time on urban streets.
In addition to affecting us through our sense of smell, nature also triggers profound effects through our visual system. One of the reasons that spending time in peaceful natural settings can improve our ability to think effectively and creatively is that we don’t have to use up as much precious cognitive fuel (specifically oxygenated glucose) filtering out distractions. Our inherent “soft fascination” with natural scenes gives our brains a rest so we have the potential to become better at higher order thinking.
Even brief views of nature, such as seeing green trees out a window, can have positive effects on our bodies and minds. One hypothesis is that visually processing nature scenes triggers natural opiates in the brain and “happy molecules” flow. Indeed, studies have shown that nature views outside hospital windows reduce patient stress and lead to better clinical outcomes. In schools, office buildings, and housing projects touches of nature visible from windows have been shown to support increased worker productivity, less job stress, higher academic grades and test scores, and less aggressive behaviors. Scientists propose that this is due in part to congruence in how nature scenes (“natural fractal patterns”) are fluently processed by our neurons, setting off a cascade of positive physiological effects.
In short, Frederick Law Olmstead (the father of landscape architecture and designer of urban parks such as New York’s Central Park) seems to have had it right back in 1865 when he wrote that viewing nature “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
Our sense of hearing also has deep evolutionary roots, so ambient nature sounds trigger very different automatic responses in our bodies than industrial noise. Our sympathetic nervous system (the coordinator of our “fight or flight” responses) reacts dramatically to threatening sounds by elevating heart rates, blood pressure, and respiration. Those are stress responses, and when we’re constantly subjected to annoying noises, everything from airplanes and jack hammers to cell phone ringers and lawn mowers, those frequent stress responses can accumulate to the level of chronic stress within our bodies.
Given that there are fewer than a dozen sites in the continental U.S. where you can’t hear human-made noise for a span of at least 15 minutes (according to research conducted by an acoustic ecologist), this lack of respite from industrial noise can become a major health issue. For instance, every 10-decibel increase in nighttime noise is linked to a 14 % rise in hypertension. In primary schools located near major airports, every 5-decibel increase in aircraft background noise is linked to a drop in reading scores equivalent to a two-month delay in progress.
There are individual differences in people’s noise sensitivity, and Williams found that she is among the most sensitive. She wore EEG headgear to measure her brain wavelengths in different settings to see which places put her brainwaves in the desirable, meditative-like state of “calm alert.” In places where human-made sound is constantly in the background, our brains have to work hard to ignore the irrelevant soundscapes, stealing physiological resources and constantly creating undesirable small side effects. So it is hard for someone with noise sensitivity (like Williams) to unwind in an urban park. After numerous forays outside, Williams finally attained Zen-like brain wavelength tranquility one early morning while kayaking alone on a lake in Maine. The take-home message is that when you’re feeling stressed, go to a quiet place to reset your mind and body to a calmer mode.
In addition to documenting nature’s profound influence on our physiology, Williams also reports on how it can affect our emotional well-being. A researcher in Finland recommends that to elevate mood and stave off depression, people should spend a minimum of five hours per month in nature, and that 10 hours per month yields even more positive results on emotional stability.
While the work in Finland applies primarily to educated middle class people who are mildly stressed by everyday life, Williams also visited scientists in Scotland who looked at data on nature’s effects on the urban poor. One statistical finding was that death rates were lower for everyone in greener neighborhoods after adjusting for income, and that poor people in non-green neighborhoods fared worse than richer people who also live in non-green neighborhoods. While urban parks helped the poorest people the most, access to them is an obstacle. Williams describes some programs in Glasgow that provide brief forays into urban parks for “bushcraft” adventure and “ecotherapy” activities, but those are small efforts to address the large problem of inequitable access to restorative green resources.
Toward the end of the book, Williams considers the effects of more sustained immersion in nature within social groups. She joins a river trip in Idaho with female veterans who were experiencing PTSD, some of whom also had severe physical injuries. They traveled downriver 81 miles in six days. While it was just a small group and the results were anecdotal, some of the participants found the experience to be life-changing, giving them confidence to continue to pursue outdoor activities such as cycling, camping, and rock climbing to boost their physical and mental health.
The take-home message Williams gleans from all of the research she reviews is that “Basically, we need hits from a full spectrum of doses of nature.” Think of the recommended exposure to nature like the food pyramid wherein small, daily glimpses of even a single tree outside a window provide the biggest dosage at the base of the pyramid, to occasional walks in a park and slightly longer excursions for 5-10 hours a month forming the middle of the pyramid, and finally with multi-day getaways into the wild on a yearly or biyearly basis at the tip of the pyramid.
The Author’s Style
One thing that is especially valuable about the book is that it provides subtle insights into the often messy process of doing science, especially of imagining, planning, doing, and refining research projects. For instance, Williams reports the discussions among a group of neuroscientists whom she joined on a hiking retreat in southern Utah as they generated ideas for new studies, and then followed up with one of them to learn about the promising preliminary results of a project whose design he had hatched at the retreat.
She also reports on some of the many challenges involved in devising effective scientific experiments. For instance, while trying out a laboratory test of a virtual reality video in which she was supposed to experience a relaxing tropical island including a dip underwater and viewing a rainbow and a waterfall, she got motion sick. The researcher admitted that the system needed some tweaking. In another university basement laboratory she questioned some of the judgments a prototype phone app was making about the therapeutic potential of different nature scenes, the researcher commented “I’m not saying it’s perfect.” Another scientist admitted that the technology he used for a study of people walking on a treadmill while watching nature videos was so loud and cumbersome that the whole study was “a bit of a bust.” Thus is the trial and error process of doing science.
In addition to relaying first-hand reports of science-in-the-making, Williams also personalizes the book throughout with details of her own background and current life—growing up in an urban apartment building, but taking frequent nature excursions with her father; her father’s later stroke and rehabilitation in a hospital room where a view of trees enhanced his recovery; her move from an outdoor-oriented lifestyle in Boulder, Colorado to a noisy neighborhood near an airport in Washington DC; and how she is acting on the research she summarizes in the book in ways as simple as how and where she takes walks in the city.
Throughout the book Williams accents straight-forward reporting with comments made in a casually trendy linguistic style. For instance, she describes the long, untamed hair of a physicist she interviews by concluding, “Come to think of it, my high school physics teacher had exactly this hairstyle. Must be a thing.” She punctuates the factual statement that in 1858 Frederick Law Olmstead ordered 300,000 trees for planting in Central Park’s 800 acres with the comment that his extravagance was “effectively freaking out his budgetary overlords.” Commenting on the challenges one scientist was having with delivering nature scenes via high-tech videos she says “Perhaps it’s time to admit it people: nature just does the elements better.” After reporting research results showing that walking outdoors can quiet the brain circuitry governing self-wallowing that leads to depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and ill-humor, Williams concludes “The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself.”
Williams’ voice and style make the book enjoyable to read, but not necessarily easy to absorb its contents—it takes concentrated effort to process the well-researched details of current science that she presents on every page, as well as the background facts that contextualize why the research is important. While this book would be a welcome respite from dry textbooks if it was assigned in a college course, it might not be as appealing a choice for leisure reading in an easy chair by the fire.
Yet the book exposes readers to many facts and ideas that, while not really surprising, are good to know that scientists are documenting. As Williams notes, if we value things like access to parks to promote the well-being of urban dwellers across the socioeconomic spectrum, measurements and data about nature’s benefits are crucial ammunition against the daily assaults that are turning living, leafy green spaces into inanimate, concrete gray ones by the minute. There is hope, as Williams says, that with the right “governing vision” in place such losses can be reversed as they have been in Singapore where the population grew by 2 million between 1986 and 2007, yet green space increased during the same period from 36% to 47% coverage.
Taking the Message Home
One of the joys of dealing in rustic antiques is that you, our customers with whom the rustic aesthetic resonates, are people who feel a kinship with the outdoors and want reminders of it in your indoor lives.
You would likely also be an especially receptive audience to the data this book presents on the benefits of nature immersion. While it is good to know the scientific evidence that is amassing across studies with lots of participants, luckily we can also be our own research subjects and perhaps see the results just as clearly—just try it (for free!) and compare how you feel with and without regular doses of nature.
Just maybe the world would abound with healthier, less stressed, and more creative people if we all heeded the advice that Williams quotes from American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892):
“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice—Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning!”