How getting into nature can lead to a happier life
Natural environments can lift us emotionally in rich and profound ways. This is because they impact positively on our limbic system (the centre of emotions in the brain, which, if stimulated in the right way is our ‘home of happy.’)
Surely you’ve experienced it. That view from the mountain peak. Gazing out over the vast ocean as the sun sets. The sound of running water from a mountain stream. The crisp smell of an Alpine forest in the early morning or a field laden with wildflowers in spring.
Our limbic system comes alive in these natural places because of how it’s wired to our senses of sight, sound and smell.
Thousands of years ago, Aristotle proposed the idea that we’re designed to inhabit such places and that doing so is good for our happiness—it provides us with a ‘love of life’ more often referred to as biophilia.
More than 30 studies have examined the influence of exposure to natural environments on how people feel, and the consensus is that they do indeed make people feel more positive and less negative.
Alarmingly, many people today live in artificial environments such as the concrete jungles of the city—‘grey spaces’—and are starved of the natural world—‘blue and green spaces’—that makes our limbic system come alive.
Our urbanised world works against us
100 years ago, Sir John Thompson warned that increasing modernisation would disconnect us from natural environments and we would suffer for it. He couldn’t have been more correct.
As our work, socialisation and recreation has become increasingly screen-based, we have become more disconnected from nature. Not surprisingly, a large study conducted in the United States found a significant relationship between depression and media use.
Time to go au naturel
It’s time to reverse this trend and go au naturel—by which I mean return to natural environments, clothed of course.
Studies show that modern living makes high demands of our information processing skills. On the other hand, natural stimuli, such as landscapes and animals, effortlessly engage our attention and leads to less mental fatigue.
The great outdoors can do us good emotionally and there’s strong evidence for this:
- Hospital patients who have merely a view of natural landscape tend to consume less painkilling medication and have shorter hospital stays.
- Exposure to ‘green’ areas has been associated with less aggression.
- Even just a window view of nature is significantly correlated to lower levels of domestic violence.
And studies consistently show that people who are more connected to nature suffer less anxiety and anger, and enjoy more vitality and happiness.
2 things to do:
1. Go and play outside
Make an effort to get outside while the sun is shining for at least 30 minutes each day. While there, perform some moderate-intensity physical activity at the same time. This will give you a double happiness hit.
Besides, a study in the United Kingdom found that people who are physically active in natural environments, such as woods and forests, have about half the risk of suffering from poor mental health than those who don’t.
2. See a sunrise
Find a natural environment in which to see a sunrise. Don’t stare at it directly, but be there when it happens. Enjoy it. Test and see if the morning light gives you a lift and starts your day right.
Doing these kinds of things really do make your limbic system a ‘home of happy.’ And that can help you be happy too!
Darren Morton is a Fellow of the Australian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. This post is adapted from his latest book Live More Happy—available at www.drdarrenmorton.com