The other day I was having a conversation with a new acquaintance about houses we have owned and lived in, when something hit me. Every time I described a house, I began by talking about the physical surroundings. Not only that, the homes that held the strongest emotional connections for me were the ones that had the “best” green spaces. The yards in each of those houses had been thoughtfully designed and planted to recall an experience we had had in our outdoor adventures. My realization caused me to consider the crucial role that nature plays in our emotional lives and how we can harness the power of nature to improve the quality of our lives.
For decades, people have instinctively recognized the benefits of spending time in nature. In his writings, the naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” John Burroughs, another naturalist of the late 1800s, wrote “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” Even Albert Einstein, as a scientist, spoke of the importance of nature to our lives. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” These men wrote from their innate responses to the natural world surrounding them, not from any research data.
Today we seem to need scientific proof to affirm our beliefs. Luckily, we now have the research to verify what was already known — connecting with nature makes us feel good. At least 100 long-range and short term studies conducted over the past 15 years have shown positive physical and mental health benefits resulting from time spent in nature. On the physical side, we know that nature related activities can lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones. They can boost the immune system, the nervous system and the endocrine system.
Research subjects spending time in forests have shown significant psychological benefits as well. After walking in the woods, subjects in a Japanese study showed a 55% increase in the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that controls relaxation. There were also changes in brain activity linked to anxiety and depression, and self-reporting indicated higher energy levels and enhanced feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
Even more intriguing to me though, was research that environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan, PhD and her husband Stephen, have been involved with at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their work, along with the work of others, shows nature to be so restorative that simply gazing at it through a window leads not only to improved health, but also a highly improved attitude. The Kaplans contend that viewing nature gives the brain a chance to step back, rest, and refocus from what it perceives as the “chaos” of the world.
Using what has been termed Distraction Therapy, Johns Hopkins researchers and critical care specialists reached similar conclusions. They discovered that having patients watch the sights and hear the sounds of nature on a video screen can help give significant drops in anxiety and pain levels during procedures such as bone marrow aspirations and bronchoscopies. After their procedures, patients who participated in the nature viewing tended to have a more positive attitude about their experience.
It stands to reason that as our lives become increasingly stressful and pressurized, the need for restful green space to escape to becomes essential to both our physical health and emotional well-being. In order to be at our best, we must take steps to create retreats that evoke a sense of well-being and contentment. Imagine having the opportunity every day to look “deep into nature” in a personal retreat designed especially for you. Think what a difference that could make in your life.