Once upon a time, human beings lived in perfect harmony with the natural world, and everyone was happy all of the time. Okay not exactly–– maybe just some of the time–– when they weren’t searching for food and shelter, or being stalked by predators. Living in Nature, no one ever said “Let’s go outside.” When humans began to settle in larger communities over 6000 years ago, the challenges of daily survival began to diminish, and they had the luxury of time for cultural development and “civilization”.
Today, more and more, we live inside. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social affairs. But, at what cost to our relationship with the natural world, our health and our mood?
Factors of modern life like overcrowding, vehicle traffic, and fast-paced schedules, coupled with an industrialized food system have created a reality where few urban dwellers have any direct contact with animals or plants on a daily basis–– except for when they’re eating food.
And “country living” is no guarantee of more actual interaction with nature, either. People tend to be just as busy in small towns and rural areas as their city counterparts.
It’s interesting that many ancient Roman cities were designed with gardens, pools, fountains and “green spaces.” Even back then, they recognized the connection between access to nature and their moods and well-being.
So, why does exposure to nature improve our mood, and how can we maintain that relationship in these modern times?
Why Nature Improves Our Mood
One theory as to why nature improves our mood is that when we encounter the sounds, smells, and textures of, say, a walk through a wooded area–– our brain activity in the prefrontal cortex is dialed down. (Our prefrontal cortex is the thinking, analyzing part of the brain that is usually in overdrive when we are engaged in our daily routines of work and cognitive activity).
When we are out in nature, our prefrontal cortex gets a rest, which allows the default mode network— “the imagination network”— to kick in, according to Dr. David Strayer. Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Utah. “It supports creativity, positive well-being, and reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”
Another reason why exposure to nature improves our mood has to do with the feeling of connectedness. One of the most basic human needs is to feel that we “belong”–– that we are part of a tribe, or something bigger, something beyond ourselves. Time spent in nature allows for that sense of belonging to a wider world, which is essential for mental health and a positive mood.
A third possible reason why we are attracted to natural environments is that the “attraction” is actually our biological hardwiring to seek environments that will most likely sustain life. For our ancestors on the savanna–– rich, verdant landscapes and calm beaches equaled plentiful food sources. Plentiful food sources meant relative happiness. Though interesting and even beautiful, man-made skylines and buildings just don’t hold the same primal allure.
So, we know that interaction with nature is good for us. But how do we make that happen if we live in an urban or suburban environment, or anywhere else for that matter?
3 Easy Ways to Improve Mood through Nature
1. Start Walking
Walking or hiking in forests, grassy parks, quiet beaches, or even the desert, is one of the most accessible ways to get a good dose of Mother Nature. As stated earlier by Dr. Strayer, the important thing is to immerse yourself in a natural environment where the sights, sounds, and smells override the thinking part of the brain, and engage the imaginative part.
For this reason, using your phone or listening to podcasts and audiobooks while walking outdoors won’t induce the “unplugging” effect that allows the imagination network to engage. So, if you’re in the habit of bringing your phone with you when you go for a walk, try keeping it on airplane mode, and limit its use to taking a quick photo or two of beautiful scenery along the way.
Further, many cultures around the world have long recognized the benefits of immersion in, and connection to, natural environments. Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest-bathing”, which is basically intentional walking in the woods, is recognized and prescribed as an antidote to the stresses of modern life in Japan.
Not an avid hiker or walker yet? Twenty to thirty minutes, three times a week, should be enough to produce noticeable improvement in your mood and wellbeing. If walking is a challenge, even sitting in parks and gardens for the same period of time can be measurably beneficial.
2. Care for Animals
Many people don’t know this, but positive interaction with animals—dogs and cats, chickens, fish in an aquarium—can be a wonderful way to maintain regular contact with the natural world.
This may be obvious to those who live in rural areas because of the prevalence of wildlife and animals involved in agriculture. But, bonds with animals as pets in urban and suburban areas can be especially important because of the lack of exposure to wildlife and agriculture.
The added component of caring for a living creature also satisfies the human need for connection to something outside of oneself, which enhances one’s mood and sense of belonging.
If it’s not possible or desirable to take on the responsibility of caring for an animal full-time, consider volunteering at an animal shelter, “pet sitting” for others–– or just hang a bird feeder by your window. You’ll be amazed at the positive influence these ambassadors of the natural world can have on your mood.
3. Bring the Outdoors In
If you’re like most busy, modern people–– making time for walks in the woods, or caring for animals might seem impossible to fit into your schedule. One way to assure daily contact with nature without much commitment is to surround your home or office with live plants.
Virginia Lohr, Professor Emeritus at Washington State University, has documented the positive effects on mood with the introduction of indoor plants into homes and offices around the world. Her studies found that not only does the natural beauty of the plants create positive feelings for people in these environments, but they improve air quality and physical health as well.
Concerned that you don’t have a “green thumb,” or that your travel schedule won’t let you maintain an indoor garden? No worries—a family of plants called “succulents” are a great place to begin, as they can survive for 3 to 4 weeks between waterings. Tall Sansevieria, medium height Aloe or Jade, or low-profile Echeveria are beautiful varieties of succulent plants that can bring a touch of nature into any home.
Small Investments, Big Returns
At the beginning of this article, we touched on the subject of food and the fact that most people are not involved in the process of growing or cultivating the food that we consume every day. Becoming more aware of our food systems—where and how the animals and plants are grown, harvested, and delivered, is another vital and daily way to reconnect to nature. This daily awareness can inspire a sense of gratitude with the source of our sustenance–– which also has an impact on our mood.
Even in the most industrialized urban settings, Mother Nature supports our lives in ways we might not think about— the water we drink, the air we breathe, our building materials, paper products, fabrics, medicines, and so much more. Cultivating awareness of this relationship is a good first step toward restoring and enjoying the benefits of nature, and particularly the feeling of connectedness.
So, whether you’re up for a hike in the woods, down to adopt an animal, considering an Areca Palm tree for your living room, or just being more mindful about where your food is coming from, reaching out to nature in any small way can have profound and positive effects on your mood and well being as a whole.
Interested in learning more cutting-edge health tips? Stay informed with the TelMD Upstream Blog!
Let’s Make Wellness Contagious!™
June 05, 2019
Health-boosting connections with ourselves and our environment are limitless
May 30, 2019
We spend so much time indoors at a desk or watching television that we’re forgetting that nature and healing go hand in hand. We don’t need another vitamin or supplement, we need sunshine and fresh air.
March 29, 2019
The power of silence is one of our most significant untapped resources. Researchers suggest that an average of 50,000 thoughts inhabit our minds each day. Some even say that number may be closer to 70,000.