Let’s begin today’s topic by exercising our imaginations. Take a moment and picture yourself in the most peaceful environment you can think of.
I bet no one envisioned sitting in traffic or their cubicle at work. Maybe a few thought of a quiet, private place in their house or thought of themselves on a day off with Netflix.
But when most of us think of a peaceful place, the outside -- perhaps with singing birds, waves on the shore, or a breathtaking mountain vista -- is one of the first places to come to mind. When most of us talk about getting away, we think of some place warm in the sun where we can disconnect from our wired concrete lives.
The soothing powers of nature are well-acknowledged, but scientists are only just beginning to understand exactly how it affects humans. As we would all expect, they have found that just 15 minutes of time in the woods can reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels by 16 percent (Yoshifumi Miyazaki, Chiba University). But other benefits, like lower blood pressure and heart rate, have started to come forward as well.
Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah found that after three days in the wilds subjects solved problems 50 percent better, and he believes this is because the unplugged and unhurried time allows the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain where we control ourselves and do our abstract thinking) to rest.
Some have even discovered that just living near and seeing a “green space” can help stave off disease, with those having lower income receiving the most benefit (Richard Mitchell, University of Glasgow).
Aside from the mental benefits, some scientists have found that spending time outside is just as important to our emotional health as our relationships and hobbies (Zelenski and Nisbet, Environment and Behavior). Others have found that this becomes even more important as we get older (Jessica Finlay, Health and Place).
Just why nature has this effect is also in the exploration stage, but in “How the Mind Works” Dr. Steven Pinker explains that our preferences for natural landscapes and certain kinds over others are based on our ancestry. The savannahs, which support big game and allow you to see without being seen, are the natural favorite of humans everywhere with temperate forests coming in at a close second.
Well, all that's swell, but how do we go about putting more green in our lives? If you live in a suburb and work in a city this might be more difficult, but it’s not impossible. You can put a potted plant in your office at work or plant a small garden at home. And if you don’t like all the dirt, you could always make a terrarium (it’s like an aquarium for plants that needs minimal care), hang pictures of nature scenes, or open the shades and windows to let in more natural light and fresh air.
But the No. 1 thing you can do is get to your local park as often as possible. Public parks were created to provide everyone with a little green of their own, and if you buy a park pass you’re bound to break even. In 2014, 2.9 million Americans took advantage of the national park system, a number that has been steadily increasing since 1905.
You don’t have to be Crocodile Dundee to get out and enjoy nature. More often the biggest hurdle is just to notice it. When most of us weren’t so far removed from the farm this was easier, but our modern lifestyles can make it hard to see the whole other world that lives among us, even in the big cities where certain plants and animals have adapted to live the urban life.
We have to see spending time on the front porch or on a trail as an investment that requires little capital and assures big profits.