There is a secret power in Nature, in her forests and wild places, that can make us happy and healthy. All we have to do is spend time there on a regular basis. Above: A wild patch of “nearby Nature” in Ottawa (Riverview). Photo Lynn Jones
Many people have experienced that stepping into a forest feels like going home to a beautiful place that is comforting and familiar but also fresh and exciting. Our senses are treated to dappled sunlight on green leaves and fresh scents of the earth under our feet while birdsong and wind in the treetops provide soothing sounds. In winter we are treated to bracing fresh air, beautiful snow laden tree branches and sparkling ice crystals. As we take in these sights and sounds, a feeling of happiness creeps over us and maybe a sense of awe and wonder at Nature’s beauty. We are energized, refreshed and rejuvenated.
Poets and philosophers have known about this secret power of Nature for millennia, but science has only recently begun to try to unravel its mysteries.
Researchers have observed that within minutes of stepping into the woods or a wild natural area, stress levels in human subjects go down, as indicated by reduced muscle tension, blood pressure and brain activity. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced and endorphins, the happiness hormones, are increased. Studies have shown that people exposed regularly to Nature suffer less anxiety and depression.
When looking more closely at what causes these beneficial effects, scientists have found a number of interesting things.
It seems that sounds of Nature such as running water, the wind in the trees and birdsong enhance mental clarity and positive emotions. In winter, the deep silence in a snowy wood is profound and restorative.
Exposure to the colour green reduces stress, increases creativity and evokes calmness and relaxation. Scents of nature are powerful too. Chemicals called phytoncides emitted by evergreen trees enhance the immune response in humans, reduce stress, enhance sleep and lower blood glucose levels. Feelings of awe at the beauty of Nature lead to feelings of gratitude, compassion and generosity, according to researchers.
The many evidence-based benefits of time in Nature have led health authorities in countries such as Japan, Finland and South Korea to make recommendations to the general public for spending time in Nature to achieve optimum mental and physical health.
Recommendations for the amount of time to spend in Nature vary, but it seems that half an hour a day in “nearby Nature” is a good goal to aim for, with a two hour session in a larger park on weekends and even longer sessions, further afield in wilderness, monthly and annually.
For more information check out The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, by Florence Williams. You can also subscribe for free to the Ottawa River Institute’s quarterly “Nature Fix” newsletter by sending a request to email@example.com.
Time in Nature is a wonderful free gift we can give ourselves every day of the year. It’s enjoyable, easy to do and provides huge mental, physical and psychological benefits. It would be hard to find a better resolution for 2024 than spending more time in Nature.
About the author: Lynn Jones is a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. ORI’s mission is to foster sustainable communities and ecological integrity in the Ottawa River watershed.