Nature and Mental Health

Hiking_in_the_Talkeetna_Mountains_of_Alaska

Do you enjoy being out in nature? Have birdsongs or the changing colors of fall ever brought a smile to your face? Do you sometimes dream about leaving your phone behind and going camping in the wilderness? If you are like most people, the answer to one or more of these question is “yes.”

Humans have an inclination towards enjoying nature, whether it’s hiking deep in a national park, or just appreciating the view of trees through a window. Recently, psychologists have been studying the benefits of spending time in nature, and now understand much more about the harm that results from a lack of contact with the natural world.

In his book Biophilia (1984), the biologist Edward O. Wilson developed an idea called the biophilia hypothesis. He believes that human beings have a natural love of life in all its forms, an innate tendency to appreciate and connect with people, animals, and plants. Wilson described biophilia as the “connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” Before the invention of modern technologies, we humans spent most of our lives in direct contact with the natural world, relying on plants and animals to meet our needs for food, shelter, and clothing.

Psychologists have conducted a number of studies that support the biophilia hypothesis. In general, the more time people spend doing activities in nature (including walking, running, hiking, and gardening), the more likely they are to have more energy, a longer attention span, feel less angry or sad, and have lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.

Even though being in nature helps us feel refreshed and energized, people around the world are spending less and less time in nature. One reason for this trend is urbanization. Currently, just over half the world’s population lives in cities. In 1950, this figure was 30%, while the United Nations projects that in 2050 around 70% of the Earth’s people will live in cities.

Another reason is the computer screen. The fact that people spend a good portion of each day looking at electronic displays of various sizes shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. When we have access to the entirety of human knowledge on a screen in our hand, or can binge-watch an entire season of a TV show online, it’s quite easy to forget to take a walk.

Rates of clinical depression and anxiety have steadily increased over the last few decades. This trend can be partly explained by better awareness and screening, but it’s also likely that people these days are simply more anxious and sad than before. There are some good reasons why people feel this way – the average worker today has less job security than a generation ago, and traditional communities and ways of life are disappearing, replaced in large part by consumerism and interactions with other people that happen mainly through digital screens. Still, examining our relationship to nature can give us some valuable insight to understanding how we feel much of the time.

The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined by Richard Louv, a psychologist who wrote the popular books The Nature Principle and last Child in the Woods: saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Nature deficit disorder (NDD) isn’t meant to be a medical diagnosis. Instead, Louv hoped that this term would be an accurate description of how it feels when we don’t have regular access to our natural environment. NDD includes issues such as stress, depression, short attention span and poor health, and is also related to clinical disorders such as ADHD in children.

The harmful effects of a lack of access to nature are good reasons to re-consider how we spend our time. Have you stopped to think about the balance of inside time and outside time in your life? The next time you find yourself stressed out, consider your options for being out in nature.

You can experience the benefits of nature without leaving your home. Starting a small garden on your balcony or rooftop is a convenient option for many people. Research shows that having indoor plants or pictures of nature provides a restorative feeling. Even thinking back to a time you were in the great outdoors can have a similar effect.

Perhaps you can also explore your neighborhood. Large parks are not always easy to find in Taipei, but nearly every neighborhood has a green space of some sort. Taipei has a fantastic system of riverside parks and trails which are great for walking, running, and biking. Taipei is also surrounded by many beautiful mountains, which are crisscrossed by mountain roads and hiking trails. A surprising number of places are accessible by public transportation. Richard Saunders’ books (Yangmingshan: the guide and Taipei escapes volumes 1 and 2; all published by the Center) give maps and descriptions of many beautiful hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, all within easy reach of Taipei city.

 

Michael Mullahy resides in Taipei and has recently completed a a Master’s degree in Counseling.
He enjoys hiking, running and traveling in his free time.

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