A Natural Boost: The Wellbeing Benefits of the Environment
Nature surrounds and sustains us. Every blade of grass, a bird fluttering its’ wings, the air we breathe - it’s all nature, and it’s as fundamental to us as, well, breathing! Without the natural world, the lives we have created for ourselves just aren’t possible. We are in and of nature.
Yet fewer and fewer people get to see and feel the natural world. We have built ourselves cocoons of concrete and steel, separated ourselves from the elemental, and we don’t even realise we’ve done it. You only need look at the concept of city farms - tourist attractions that aim to provide inner city children with a glimpse of the countryside. Anything is better than nothing, and if that’s as close as some children get, then it’s a positive thing. But the reality is that we’ve detached ourselves so entirely from the natural environment that we have come to view it as an exhibit, a display that we pay money to see. It is ‘other’, something outside of the human experience. It is partly due to this outlook that we’re facing a climate crisis.
But it’s also one of the reasons we’re contending with a mental health crisis - our constant desire to build and consume material objects means we’ve lost our connection to our evolutionary roots. We’re depriving ourselves of the opportunity to be quiet and still, and it’s damaging our mental wellbeing.
But why? What does nature have to do with how we feel and how we cope with life?
Just like other animals, we’re designed to be amidst nature, attuned to the changing seasons and the sights, sounds and smells around us. Biologists and psychologists call this the biophilia hypothesis – the idea that we have an innate urge to connect with nature and the animals and plants we share the planet with, just as we are driven to bond with other people in social groups.
Spending time in nature has been found to provide some of the following benefits:
A sense of peace and calm
By removing ourselves from the busyness of urban life, we can take time to be quiet and breathe deeply. This is the type of mindfulness that the Japanese call ‘forest bathing’, which gives us the opportunity to focus on our senses and surroundings instead of our stresses and worries.
Purpose and perspective
Nature can help us place ourselves in context with the wider environment, reminding us that we’re part of something much bigger. This can help give us perspective on the things that make us anxious and help them feel more manageable.
Enjoyment and relaxation
Being active outdoors can help us relax, whether that’s going for a walk, a run or even wild swimming. Studies have shown that exercising outside can provide a greater boost than doing the same exercise indoors. It’s also an opportunity to be active with others, which gives us a sense of belonging with like-minded people and boosts our self-esteem.
Increased satisfaction and improved mood
Nature is restorative and has been shown to improve our mood by calming our minds and distancing us from the pressures that have a negative impact on our wellbeing. Doing something like growing things in the garden gives us a sense of purpose and satisfaction once we see our efforts begin to bloom.
How can we make nature part of our lives?
If you’re lucky enough to live in the countryside, then nature is all around you. All you need to do is go for a walk! Find a wood, go to the beach, walk by the river - anywhere that takes you away from the stresses of life and gives you time to reflect and really focus on your surroundings.
It can be harder to find nature in cities, but there are pockets of it if you take time to look, including canal paths, parks, courtyards, gardens - even window boxes and house plants. If you have space, set up a bird feeder near a window so that you can watch your local feathered friends – observing animals can really help us feel like part of their world.
Gardening can also be a good way to engage with nature, and it doesn’t need to take up much space. Planting seeds and waiting for them to grow slows us down to nature’s timescale and teaches us to appreciate the wait.
Nature can also boost creativity, which itself reduces stress and provides a sense of accomplishment. The shapes and textures that nature creates are prime inspiration for drawing, photography, writing, whatever you enjoy to do.
It doesn’t matter what you do, or how long you do it for – even 5-10 minutes outside is enough to give your mental wellbeing a boost – it is worth making the time for nature in whatever way works best for you. What better way to be kinder to yourself than investing your time and self in the environment.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash