Wanna Boost Your Happiness, Health, and Creativity? “Go Outside” says Neuroscience.
Imagine a therapeutic treatment that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Non-academics might call it, ‘outside playtime.’
“Biophilia” is a term that means “love of life” in Greek. Biophilia is based on the belief that humans need a connection to nature to thrive. Humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm coined the term biophilia in 1964, and conservationist Edward O. Wilson popularized it in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, psychologist Judith Heerwagen found that moving Seattle Zoo primates to enclosures with water and plants that mimicked their native habitats helped them relax, get along with others better, and produce more. Turns out, humans aren’t so different.
Relentless environmental destruction has a significant effect on our quality of life, not just materially but psychologically. Nature offers one of the most reliable boosts to our mental and physical wellbeing.
Another study found that people immersed in nature for four days - significantly more time than a lunchtime walk in the park - boosted their performance on a creative problem-solving test by 50 percent.
Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign showed that the attentional effect of nature is so strong it might help kids with ADHD, who have been found to concentrate better after just 20 minutes in a park. ''Doses of nature' might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool ... for managing ADHD symptoms,' researchers wrote.
This dose of green doesn't need to be a major excursion; benefits have been seen in a simple walk down a tree-lined street.
We know the natural environment is 'restorative,' and one thing that a walk outside can restore is your waning attention. In one study, researchers worked to deplete participants' ability to focus. Then some took a walk in nature, some took a walk through the city, and the rest just relaxed. When they returned, the nature group scored the best on a proofreading task.
Research on this connection is still in its earliest phases, but preliminary studies have suggested that spending time in nature - in forests, in particular - may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins.
The boosted levels of these proteins may last up to seven days after a relaxing trip into the woods.
Studies in Japan, where 'shinrin-yoku' or 'forest-bathing' is treated as preventative medicine, have also found that areas with greater forest coverage have lower mortality rates from a wide variety of cancers. While there are too many confounding factors to come to a concrete conclusion about what this might mean, it's a promising area for future research.
Students at the University of Michigan were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
One study found that walks in the forest were specifically associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, and another found that outdoor walks could be "useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments" for major depressive disorder.
One study found that students sent into the forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol (a hormone often used as a marker for stress) than those who spent that time in the city.
In another study, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared to those in the city. "Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy" researchers concluded. A study indicated that outdoor activities, such as horticulture, improves mood state and stress and therefore are an effective component of cardiac rehabilitation.
There are serious consequences for our well-being as society as we become further estranged from the natural world.