Yesterday, after a long day at the computer, I stepped out my back door and plunked into one of the metal patio chairs.
I tipped my head back, closed my eyes, and listened to the melodious chatter of two goldfinches perched in the river birch above my head. I breathed in the sweet scent of magnolia blooms and felt the cement pavers rough and warm beneath my bare feet. When I opened my eyes, I caught a glimpse of a hummingbird zip past the lilac shrub, its tiny body a flash of jewel tones in the afternoon light.
I sat outdoors just ten short minutes, but by the time I stepped back into the house to prepare dinner, I felt like a new person.
The positive impact of nature on our minds, bodies and souls is not news to Florence Williams. She wrote a whole book about why being in nature, even for just a short while, makes us happier, healthier and more creative.
“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,” Williams explains in her book, The Nature Fix.
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to remembering things, I can use all the help I can get. Skimming, scrolling, texting and sound bites comprise the bulk of my communications and entertainment these days, often leaving my brain feeling like a flashing, clanging pinball machine.
Luckily, my dog’s need for her daily constitutional requires that I get outside and away from technology for at least 20 minutes every day. When I walk Josie I leave my phone at home (or at least in my back pocket), and simply let my mind wander.
I try to be present during those 20 minutes by observing subtle seasonal changes – how the Ginkgo leaves carpet the grass in gold during autumn; how the oak tree’s limbs creak like an old farmhouse’s floorboards in the winter wind.
It never fails.
Even when I dread stepping outside (I mean, let’s be real: who really wants to walk the dog when the wind is howling and the thermometer registers a balmy 8 degrees?), I’m always more relaxed and less anxious by the time I return.
Still not convinced that you should get yourself outside?
Here are three reasons why nature is good for your body, mind and soul:
Nature helps us think more deeply and creatively.
In a typical day, we are constantly receiving a barrage of information: emails, social media notifications, conversations, advertisements, our to-do lists, the kids’ sports schedules.
Yet our brain can only keep track of about four things as once, so most of what it does is filter and sort, filter and sort, all day long.
This process taxes our pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of our brain, making it harder to think deeply.
Out in nature, on the other hand, we are offered fewer choices (especially if we leave our phones behind), and, as cognitive science researcher Paul Atchley explains, “By having fewer choices, [our] attentional system functions better for higher-order things.”
Scientific studies have found that even a short dose of nature enables our brain to restore attention, which results in better cognitive performance and deeper-level thinking.
Nature reduces our stress levels.
The practice of shinrin yoku, which translates as “forest bathing” – in other words, spending time in forests – is prescribed as standard preventative medicine in Japan, particularly for stress reduction.
Physical anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki has studied the physiological effects of nature on people since 2004 and has found that leisurely nature walks (compared to urban jaunts), deliver a 12 percent decrease in cortisol levels and a 6 percent decrease in heart rate, as well as general mood improvement and lowered anxiety.
Don’t worry if, like me, you live in an unforested area like the Great Plains – studies show that time spent in any kind of nature is better than no nature at all.
Nature makes us nicer.
Research indicates that even a view of nature through a window can markedly decrease aggression.
In her book, Williams cites one such study, which found that Chicago apartment buildings with the highest number of “green” views saw 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with the least greenery.
This kind of research could have a profound impact on urban planning, but it also has ramifications that hit closer to home. The next time a conflict with my teenager makes my blood pressure spike, I might want to step into the backyard for a minute…or at least do some deep-breathing next to a window.
The benefits of spending time in nature aren’t exactly new.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who co-designed New York City’s Central Park in the late 1850s, wrote that viewing nature, “employs the mind without fatigue, yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
Turns out, science is simply catching up to what our minds, bodies and souls have known all along.