Have you been feeling down or stressed lately? I’m guessing yes. Well we’ve got some good news! Science says that one of the best ways to perk up is to be in nature. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why but spending time in nature has been shown to improve physical and mental health.
A number of researchers compared study respondents’ stress levels after walking down urban streets vs. nature paths. Overwhelmingly, individuals in nature were less stressed and anxious, had lower heart rates and cortisol levels, and faster recovery from stressors.
In one study in Mind, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced. Other studies show that time in nature or scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood, and psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness, and vitality. Because humans find nature inherently interesting, we can naturally focus on what we are experiencing out in nature, providing respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks.
Even healthcare is getting in on these discoveries. One organization, Park RX America, declares its mission “to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship, by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of healthcare by a diverse group of health care professionals.” It will literally prescribe going out into nature.
According to a series of field studies conducted by Kuo and Coley at the Human-Environment Research Lab, time spent in nature connects us to each other and the larger world. Another study at the University of Illinois suggests that residents in Chicago public housing who had trees and green space around their building reported knowing more people, having stronger feelings of unity with neighbors, being more concerned with helping and supporting each other, and having stronger feelings of belonging than tenants in buildings without trees. This led to a reduced risk of street crime and lower levels of domestic violence. This makes sense when you look at the brain – when participants in a study viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.
Indigenous People knew this first.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist and Potawatomi member, Robin Wall Kimmerer, contends that Native People believe that living things are connected so intricately to humans that caring for them also means caring for ourselves.
She writes specifically that living things, such as plants, offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. She notes that, in many Native languages, such as Potowatomi (which she didn’t speak until she was an adult because of colonization and genocide practices in the US) they call trees, rocks, birds, and animals, “someone” and refer to these beings as a friend. Baked in their very language is the notion that these beings need care, and that we are connected to them, not apart from them. The English language, on the other hand, has caused us to disconnect from nature because we call things like trees and animals “it” instead of “someone.”
But to fix this, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks us to think of nature as a part of us. So the next time you’re tromping around in the woods or even your neighborhood, start by saying of a tree, “someone [the tree] is providing shade for us. Thank you, friend.”
In doing this practice, we operate under a gift economy, instead of capitalism. The earth gifts us what we need, we are thankful for it, and we care for it. This connection is better for our physical health and mental health in ways that scientists are just now learning.
So next time you’re feeling depressed or uninspired, take a walk in your neighborhood – notice the trees, birds, squirrels, and bugs. Say “thank you” or “hello” to each living being you pass by. You will begin to feel connected to the earth and comforted by its support.