By Nina L.
Finding ways to increase our well-being during the pandemic has taken on greater significance than ever. Spending time outdoors, one of the few pastimes still available to us, may actually have greater benefits than we realize, according to The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Author Florence Wiliams, a contributing editor to Outside magazine and transplant to Washington, DC from Boulder, CO, felt depressed, irritable, and unable to focus after the move. Realizing that she missed the mountains and easy access to nature, Williams began asking, “…how much nature do we need to fix ourselves?” and, “What is it about nature that people seem to need?” Williams embarked on a two-year research project to learn the answers from scientists around the world.
Williams buoys up the factual and data-heavy text with sprinkles of humor evident in chapters titled, “How Many Neuro-Specialists Does It Take to Find the Stinking Milk Vetch?” and, “Squat Down and Touch the Plant.” She subjected herself to wearing an EEG device strapped around her head while viewing the San Juan River, went on a kayaking trip with veterans suffering from PTSD, and visited countries including Japan, South Korea, Scotland, and Finland to understand what we can learn from other nations.
Many countries make access to and immersion in nature a national priority. In Japan, the practice of forest-bathing, or shinrin yoku, has been found to have quantifiable effects on health. The practice involves slowing down in order to open up to the sights, scents, textures, sounds, and even tastes of nature. Williams’ initiation into forest-bathing started with a warm cup of “mountain-grown, wasabi-root and bark flavored tea.” Later in the day she inhaled the scent of sugi pines, stretched out on a mossy boulder, and listened to the quacking of ducks. Afterwards, not surprisingly, her blood pressure measured several points lower.
Subsequent chapters fully explore the individual senses of smell, hearing, and sight. The hinoki cypress forests found in South Korea are full of beneficial phytoncides, a chemical released by plants. Beyond just smelling good, phytoncides boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol, and improve concentration. The Korean Forest Agency offers guided trips through the forests to help cancer patients, children with allergies, and prenatal women, among others.
Similarly, just listening to a trickling stream can have a positive impact on our brain. Even as we tune them out, industrial sounds affect us negatively — traffic, planes, electric saws, and leaf blowers can all raise stress levels and deter alpha waves, while the opposite holds true of the sounds of nature. Enjoying beautiful scenery also activates “happy molecules.” Visual artist and physicist, Richard Taylor, studies fractal patterns found in nature such as in clouds, coastlines, and plant leaves. Exposure to fractal patterns activates brain regions that regulate emotions and reduces stress up to 60 percent by increasing alpha waves.
The Finns have found that a mere five hours a month spent in nature improves physical and emotional health. Recommendations for time outdoors can be compared to the food pyramid: short walks during the week, a weekend away once a month, and every year or two aspiring to spend a few weeks in a natural setting. Beyond benefits on an individual level, the increasing scientific evidence of how nature improves health can shape public policy decisions, such as how educators approach school recess, city planners provide urban green space, and architects design hospitals.
The wealth of evidence in The Nature Fix supports what many of us already know, that nature is good for us. Yet taking a deep dive into understanding the scientific research helped me override the temptation to stay on the couch and choose instead to find time in my day, even if just a little, to enjoy the rich and renewing effects of nature.
Nina L. is a Customer Service Specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS. She loves art, yoga, dogs, cats, and reading horizontally.