Why Nature is Important for Health and Happiness

It may seem obvious that spending time in nature makes us feel good, but the benefits of nature on human health are much more than you may realize. With urbanization, high stress jobs, and advances in technology, both adults and children are starting to lose their connection to nature. Here are a few reasons why we need to re-establish this connection and make nature a priority in our lives. 

Psychological well being

There are many studies that support the idea that nature has a positive impact on our mental health. Through comparison to viewing urban and indoor settings, nature scenes have been shown to improve mental outlook, anxiety levels, self-esteem, and stress recovery. A reduction in the production of the stress hormone cortisol, and an increase in alpha brain wave activity have also been observed with nature exposure. Alpha brain waves are associated with increased levels of the brain chemical serotonin, the same chemical that many antidepressants and anxiety medications aim to increase. Alpha brain wave activity is also increased with meditation and is associated with a feeling of calmness, while decreased activity is associated with feelings of anxiety. Nature can also improve mental and cognitive function. Viewing a scene of nature or being in a greenspace has the ability to decrease mental fatigue and increase a person’s ability to pay attention.

Improved immunity

Nature immersion can have a long lasting impact on immunity.This has been demonstrated by studying the practice of forest bathing or “Shinrinyoku”, a Japanese stress management therapy. Spending 3 days and 2 nights in a forested area, significantly increased the number of immune cells and decreased stress hormones. Because it is known that stress suppresses the immune system and that nature decreases stress, it makes sense that nature improves immune system function. Phytoncides, a volatile chemical released from trees, may also play a role in boosting the immune system. Phytoncides have antimicrobial properties and may have directly increased the number of immune cells when breathed in during forest bathing.

Longevity

Viewing nature scenes and the presence of green plants not only reduces heart rate and blood pressure but is also associated with a lower risk of overall mortality from stroke, cancer, and various other sicknesses. Additionally, those in hospital have been shown to have improved recovery time when provided with green plants and a window with a view of trees and nature.

Ways to re-connect with nature and improve your health:

  • Hang pictures of nature in your office or home.
  • Use wood when designing the anterior of your house. Research shows that for relaxation the perfect amount of wood on the walls and floors is 30-40% of the surface area.
  • Use natural essential oils as aromatherapy.
  • Increase plants, flowers, and greenery in your office and home.
  • Exercise outdoors. The benefit of nature on your mental and physical health has been shown to be independent of the opportunity for increased physical activity, but when done together these benefits can be amplified.
  • Set your screen saver to a nature scene.
  • Get a pet or an aquarium with live fish.
  • When you have the option, pick an office with a large window and a green view.
  • Utilize nature as a stress management technique. Make a point to go for a walk or take 5 deep breaths in the fresh air when your mind is fatigued or you are stressed out.
  • Get outside! Go camping, hiking, walking, or try your own version of forest bathing.

References:

  1. Brown, DK; Barton, JL; Gladwell, VF. Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute-mental stress.  Environ Sci Technol., 2013;47(11):5562-5569.
  2. Hu Z, Liebens J, Rao KR. Linking stroke mortality with air pollution, income and greenness in northwest Florida: an ecological geographical study. Int J Health Geogr. 2008;7:20.
  3. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010;15(1):9-17.
  4. Li Q, Kobayashi M, Zawada T. Relationships between percentage of forest coverage and standardized mortality rates (SMR) of cancers in all prefectures in Japan. Open Public Health Journal. 2008;1:1-7.
  5. Li Q, Otsuka T, Kobayashi M, Wakayma Y, et al. Acute effect of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011;111:2845-2853.
  6. Selhub, EM, MD; Logan AC, ND. Your brain on nature; The science of nature’s influence on your health, happiness, and vitality. Mississauga: John Wiley and Sons Canada, Ltd; 2012.
  7. Sullivan WC, Kaplan R. Nature! Small Steps that can make a big difference. HERD. 2016;9(2):6-10.
  8. Villeneuve PJ, Jerrett M, Su JG, Burnett RT, Chen H et al. A cohort study relating urban green space with mortality in Ontario, Canada. Environ Res. 2012;115:51-8
  9. Walker EH, Wu CD, McNeely E, Mostofsky E, et al. Green space and mortality following ischemic stroke. Environ Res. 2014;133:42-8