How much nature do we need?
Nature is all around us in varying degrees. The amount or value of the nature around us is largely subjective. But with near certainty we can understand what valuable nature is or isn’t. Universally, more natural surroundings is preferable to less.
Also nearly universal is the idea that having “nature” around us is better for us. Cleaner air, cleaner water, flowers, trees, birds, etc. are all desirable.
Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative reveals extensive research on the subtitled topics: happiness, health, creativity. Williams travels all over the globe, including Finland, Japan, and Utah’s canyon country, to find answers beyond subjectivity; reasons why we need more nature.
The amount of improvement to the three main topics varies from person to person as does the “dosage” of nature needed. Even the quality of the nature is highly variable.
Take walking. I relate fully to the topic of walking for creativity; numerous times I’ve felt more clear-headed and creative after a brisk walk, even on my seldom-traveled country road. How much more creative is hard to determine, and perhaps it is more the process of removing distractions over anything else. Walking brings more focus and more focus makes for better thinking and creativity.
Walking on a rural road is one thing, but to really experience true creative explosiveness the backcountry beckons.
Professor David Strayer takes his advanced psych class “Cognition in the Wild” camping in a remote area in Utah each April. The class sounds amazing and I am disappointed that my university never offered such a course.
A great deal of the camping trip is to disconnect from the electronics but equally important is the simple fact of being in the wilderness and being more “primitive”. Sitting around a campfire has the uncanny ability to ignite our cognition, possibly because of the connection it has to our prehistoric ancestors.
For millennia, humans alone or in small groups have at times sought out a sparer, more elemental connection to the forces of nature. They come because they are needing something, and they keep coming because they are finding it. Their pursuits may be spiritual, interpersonal or emotional, deeply human and complex and unlikely to be explained in a bar graph. ‘At the end of the day,’ said Strayer, his eyes gazing the horizon, ‘we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but because of how it makes us feel.’
Nature has the power to heal, at least for some. Williams covers a group of women veterans, all with PTSD, who headed to the Idaho wilderness on a rafting expedition. The raw power of the water, the sense of accomplishment from battling the rapids, and the pureness of the wild land all helped some of these women.
While it can’t cure PTSD, the fact that wilderness can assist veterans, of which 18-27% have PTSD, is great. And much like children diagnosed with ADHD, nature can reduce the need for medication.
Around 8% of the general population in the US will experience PTSD.
Beyond the health and creative benefits from nature is the idea that we are losing a sense of who we are, in fact losing our very senses by not being in nature.
Noise and light pollution are becoming so rampant that the National Park Service has a program to try and protect places where you can have quiet and see the night skies. Increased screen time is impacting our vision, our hearing is declining from noise, and our sense of smell has diminished. We lose what we don’t use.
Perhaps the only sense that will go unharmed is taste.
In many ways it is sad that this type of book is necessary, why we need a nature “fix” at all. More and more people are moving into cities and farther away from natural landscapes. Beyond that, even where there are parks and preserves nearby, too many distractions have removed a great number of people from enjoying nature.
The usual culprits fear and screen time are prevalent again. But a larger problem is education. Finland, ranked high for education, mixes outdoor time throughout the school day. Their other methodologies of teaching are touted in this country but largely ignored when trying to implement them in ways to improve education in the US.
It is no wonder that kids grow up to be disconnected from nature. Parents and teachers, their biggest influences besides other students, are failing at connecting nature.
In the U.K., two-thirds of schoolchildren do not know acorns come from trees.
In a way, The Nature Fix might be considered The Last Child in the Woods for adults. But I feel it is much more than that. By showing some of the real economic value of nature: reduced health costs, more creativity, more happiness, less crime, and much more, we can move beyond environmental “jargon”.
As wonderful it is to look at beautiful natural settings, it is difficult to combat larger economic “interests”. This book, and the ongoing research covered in it, hopefully can help to show how valuable nature is to everyone.
The answer to how much nature we need? 5 hours a month.
I know I need a lot more than that.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
W.W. Norton & Company | 2017