“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
So said famous naturalist John Muir, birthing a thousand inspirational mugs, t-shirts, and Instagram posts. The sentiment, which Muir first expressed back in 1873, resonates just as powerfully in today’s fast-paced, digital, urban world as it did in Victorian times. Whether a dirtbag rock climber or a city slicker, most of us have an innate understanding that being outside in nature is good for us.
But what is it about the great outdoors that keeps us dreaming of high peaks and winding forest trails? And does spending time outside have real benefits for our mental health? Over the past few decades, more and more scientists have started to dig into this question. They’ve uncovered findings that point to some simple, straightforward ways to boost our mental health, wherever we live.
How time in nature benefits our mental health
Although people have long had an intrinsic sense that being connected to nature is good (even crucial) for our mental health, it took a while for scientific studies to catch up. But now, there’s growing evidence of genuine benefits of time in nature for going outside. In fact, some doctors are even beginning to prescribe time in nature to prevent or treat mental illnesses.
Scientists have found that people who are connected to nature tend to be happier, regardless of other aspects of their life (like relationships). Time spent in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety and stress and boosts our general wellbeing, resilience, and cognition. It’s also be found that spending time in nature can reduce symptoms of depression – and prevent depression in the first place.
Nature helps us heal
You could even go as far as to suggest that without nature, it’s difficult for us to maintain good physical and mental health. One study in the 1980s showed that patients recovering from surgery recovered quicker and required fewer painkillers if their hospital window looked out on a tree, rather than a building. It seems that by reducing stress, nature boosts the immune system and promotes healing. We’re even more productive at work if we have a good view of nature outside the window!
Biophilia: Why we can’t help but love nature
But why? What’s less clear is the reason why being outside makes us feel so much better. One theory, first popularised by E.O. Wilson in 1984, takes an evolutionary approach to our love of nature. His “biophilia” theory suggests that we evolved to associate certain aspects of nature with positive experiences. For example, a pretty pink blossom on a cherry tree is a sign that soon, there will be lots of tasty fruit to eat. There’s evidence that even just seeing the colors green and blue makes us feel calmer – could it be because we evolved in a world where blue meant freshwater, and green meant forests full of food and safety?
This view has become increasingly well understood and accepted since the 1980s. It makes intuitive sense too. For millions of years, our brains evolved in the savannah, alongside the countless other species we lived beside. It’s not surprising then that we’re programmed to derive pleasure from some of what experience outside. One study found that humans enjoy viewing wide open spaces from a sheltered, secluded place (think a cove on a beach or a sheltered spot high on a mountain). It’s not hard to imagine the evolutionary benefits of such a viewpoint for our survival, allowing us to see threats coming in all directions while remaining protected.
Bringing nature back in the modern world
It isn’t all bad news for those of us who live a modern, urban lifestyle. Thankfully we don’t literally have to move back to the savannah to feel some of the benefits of this evolutionary love of nature. We can build things into our daily lives that feed our ancient connection to the outdoors. Increasingly, businesses are designing office spaces with nature in mind, including features like green plants, natural wood, and plenty of sunlight. And hospitals are catching up with that study from the 1980s, creating hospital gardens that promote healing and reduce stress.
Outdoor Adventure: The best of both worlds
While heading for a walk in the woods is sure to be good for you, lots of us feel the need to take things one step further. Outdoor sports like skiing, climbing, hiking, and mountain biking have exploded in popularity over the last few years. Fringe adventurous activities that used to be the reserve of free spirits and adrenaline junkies are becoming mainstream ways to spend a weekend. More and more, we’re opting to switch off and head to the hills when we get some free time.
How exercise fights mental illness
We know that any form of exercise is excellent for our mental health. Exercise releases endorphins and increases levels of hormones, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Together, these chemicals help to reduce stress, boost our mood, and help us focus. In fact, exercise is effective at treating symptoms of depression, chronic stress, ADHD, and even PTSD. One reason is that exercise improves the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis). This helps us become more flexible in our thinking and get away from negative, repetitive thinking patterns that characterize a lot of mental illnesses and stop us from making change.
Mindful outdoor activities make a difference
So, it makes sense that combining the mental health benefits of getting outside with the benefits of exercise is going to give us a pretty significant mood boost, and even have a long-term impact on our mental health. It also seems that activities that force us to concentrate can bring greater mental health benefits that those who are more “mindless.” So outdoor sports like trail running, climbing, and surfing, where we are constantly focused on our movements and our environment, could be better for us than pounding away on a treadmill or exercise bike. This is especially true for treating anxiety and PTSD, where paying attention rather than letting your mind wander can be very beneficial.
Five ways to find nature in your everyday life
Unfortunately, not all of us can (or want to) quit our day jobs and go running for the mountains. But even if you aren’t a hardcore backcountry hiker, even if you live in the heart of the city, you can still find ways to experience the mental health benefits of nature. Here are a few simple ways to get your regular nature fix, and reap the benefits:
1. Take a walk
Even in the biggest cities, we humans can’t help but cram nature wherever we can. Make time to head down to your local park, wander along the ocean-front, or hunt down the city’s botanical gardens. Not only will you get the mood-boosting benefits of a brisk walk, but you’ll also experience the anxiety-reducing effects of being around nature. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, taking a walk outside could be the quickest way to feel a lot better and be able to take on challenges.
2. Try forest bathing
Taking the idea of a walk in the woods one step further, the Japanese practice of forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku) combines the healing power of forests with the increasingly popular (and powerful) practice of mindfulness. Don’t worry, there’s no actual bathing involved. By removing distractions and focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest, evidence shows forest bathing can reduce our blood pressure, pulse, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Forest bathing is becoming increasingly popular – see if you can find a local guide, or try this simple practice.
3. Listen to nature sounds
At moments of high stress or low mood, we can’t always practically get outside and experience nature in its full glory. But don’t worry – there’s actually lots of evidence that even virtual experiences of nature can be good for our mental health. Listening to sounds like ocean waves or raindrops, or looking at images of forests, mountains, and the ocean can reduce anxiety, even after a few minutes. Some people are also going so far as to create virtual reality nature experiences (although we still prefer the real thing).
4. Take your workout outside
Outdoorsy types have hit on something exciting – combining nature with exercise can have a huge impact on your mental health. So why not try swapping the gym for a park, or the treadmill for a jog in the woods. You’ll feel even better than you normally do after your workout, thanks to the stress-reducing impact of the outdoors. Even better, find some friends to join you or hit up the local running club, to make you feel even better.
5. Get green-fingered
Getting close to nature doesn’t have to mean throwing yourself down a mountain on skis, or sweating your way up a steep forest hillside. There’s evidence that just being around green plants can have positive benefits for our mental health. So why not take up a new hobby and become a master gardener. If you have a big back yard – great! If not, you can start small with window boxes, herbs, or indoor plants, and you’ll still feel the benefit.
Go Green and Reap the Benefits
It seems like John Muir was onto something when he began fighting to create America’s first national park – Yosemite. There’s now lots of evidence to support his intrinsic understanding of the benefits of nature for everyone. And while it can seem that our modern, urban life is at odds with our deep, ancient love of nature, luckily, there are plenty of ways to bring nature back into our lives and feel happier, less stressed, and more connected. And the best bit – it nearly all comes for free!