Is being out in Nature healing? An increasing body of evidence says yes according to Florence Williams, the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes US Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
What makes us happy? For a long time, research has pointed to having good relationships, being engaged with one’s community, meeting one’s basic needs of food, housing, and income, getting exercise, and being involved in some cause more significant than one’s self; spending time helping others. But what about the environment we live in, does that matter, and if so, does it matter in some significant way?
To discover the answer to that question, in 2010 George MacKerron, a behavioral economist at the University of Sussex, came up with the app Mappiness as a means of measuring what people were doing and where they were when they were happiest. Within a year 20,000 people downloaded his app agreeing to be a part of his study, and within a few years, he had over 3.5 million data points from more than 65,000 people across the globe.
Not surprising, he learned that people are least happy when they are sick in bed, and most happy when having good relationships. What did surprise him was not how vital relationships, having a satisfying job or giving of yourself to help others was, but rather how important where you are. He learned that people are happiest in nature, be that in New York’s Central Park, floating on a pond, fly fishing, lying on one’s back looking up at the stars, or just strolling through the woods. Being out in nature mattered most.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmstead was struck by how often urban people visited cemeteries. He didn’t think it was only to honor the dead, as he noticed that people spent much of their time strolling about the pathways or sitting under trees. He felt that they were seeking a relaxing experience in nature and what they truly desired was a large natural setting without the gravestones.
At the time, setting aside urban land for public enjoyment was a radical idea. Men of business thought that such spaces could be better used as sites for business and industry. Olmsted fought back demonstrating his theories through the design of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Central Park in New York, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and Montreal’s Mount Royal. What woke Olmsted to shifting from complaining about the urban environment to creating such parks was a visit to Birkenhead Park in 1850, a small public space in a suburb of Liverpool.
A light went off in Olmstead’s head; he connected his experiences as a youth being out in nature with his dad to a potential solution. For him, it was to create a park so large that once inside, the sounds and hustle of urban life were removed and the smell of grass, the rustle of leaves, and the chirp of a bird took over. Later, in 1865 he wrote, “The occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect.”
Research into the benefits of being in nature began with pioneers like Dr. Livingston Trudeau who, after experiencing his recovery from Tuberculosis during an extended visit to the Adirondacks in 1873, decided to test his theory that breathing cold, clean air could do the same for others. His experience coupled with articles by Dr. Hermann Bremer’s describing his success in using a rest cure to heal his patients led to Trudeau’s founding the Adirondack Cure Cottage in 1882. While his work and success spawned a huge following, it wasn’t until research conducted by Dr. Roger Ulrich, Professor of Health Facilities Design at Texas A&M University, that the medical benefits of just viewing nature took hold.
“I began to wonder about practical applications and asked myself, ‘Which groups of people experience a lot of emotional duress and might benefit from a view of nature?’ said Ulrich. “The answer was hospital patients and prisoners.”
Ulrich started his research in 1972 by studying the recovery records of cholecystectomy patients in Pennsylvania hospital. He wanted to know, all treatment and other factors being the same, did those who had a view of nature have a shorter postoperative stay than those who did not. The answer was a resounding yes by ten percent or more along with an equal reduction in required medicine. His research sent a shock wave through the health industry and revolutionized hospital design, as such reductions when applied to thousands of patients would result in significant financial savings.
But what of being out in nature itself, beliefs held by such pioneers as Frederick Law Olmstead, Dr. Livingston Trudeau and proponents like President Teddy Roosevelt, known for extended his stays in nature.
In Japan, which since the 1960’s has had the longest working hours in the world, stressed out workers is considered a national health crisis. They have a name for it, karoshi,” death described to overwork. Nearly a quarter of Japanese workers put in an average of ten hours of overtime a week. Outcomes of job-related stress has been high levels of heart attacks, strokes, and suicide, and damaged relationships. As a counter, the Japanese government has passed laws to restrict overtime hours and since 2003, invested over $4 million in Shinrin-yoku, what has come to be known as forest bathing, using experiences in natures as a means of treating stress.
“Forest bathing essentially involves being on a trail, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting, sometimes just lying on a boulder and letting nature pour into all your senses,” said Florence Williams. “You’re sitting there hearing the birds and crickets, smelling the rich loamy earth and maybe the scent of fresh pine and cedar trees, and you can feel the breeze on your cheek and the moss under your feet; how do you think this makes you feel?”
Studies led by the physical anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki and his colleague Juyoung Lee, both of the Chiba University, found that walks in nature resulted in a 12 to 16 percent decrease in cortisol levels, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 2 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 6 percent decrease in the heart rate. Further, the calming impact of being out in nature lasted. Since the release of their studies, the Japanese government has established 48 nature healing trails, and one-quarter of Japan’s population has participated in some form of forest bathing.
“Another more qualitative study in Japan found that after a Forest Bathing walk, participants consistently reported less anxiety, lowered symptoms of depression, and a greater sense of connection, purpose and mental clarity,” said Helene Gibbins, Founder of Adirondack Riverwalking and a certified forest therapy guide. “Our modern lifestyle is leading to directed attention fatigue. Our ability to self-regulate our emotions is diminished. Aggressiveness and intolerance are rising. Screen time, be it computers, TVs or cell phones, sedentary office jobs and the continuous barrage of information we face every day are the main contributors. Nature has been found to restore our directed attention. It acts a bit like rebooting our computer when it isn’t functioning well.”
Building on the Japanese work, researchers in South Korea focused on the impact the forest smells, particularly given off by cedar, pine, and other evergreens. Their research demonstrated that subjects that smelled the stem oils from these trees experienced a 20 percent increase in NK cells, which protect us from disease agents. In other words, our forests not only absorb carbon out of the atmosphere, but our taking in the scents of the cedars, hemlocks and other trees can strengthen our immune system. The Koreans have set a goal of creating 47 national healing forests, mini Adirondack Parks spread across the country, and have hired 500 trained healing rangers who lead programs for everyone from digital fanatics to school bullies, firefighters, police and the military, to prenatal women.
Additional research has gone into the impact of our hearing birds trilling in the morning over those who do not, as well as just seeing the stars at night. Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, has been studying the benefits of being out in nature on creativity. Stayer describes what he calls as the “three-day effect,” that people who spend at least three days in nature will perform 50 percent better in creative problem-solving. His research has shown that it takes three days in nature for the prefrontal cortex to release the tensions of life, reset so to speak, and that after that time, people’s ability to think creatively is radically enhanced.
Many leading scientists, Nobel prize winners, and other innovators have often expressed the importance of being in nature to their work. Several like President Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein had deep connections to the Adirondacks as did inventor Thomas Edison and industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, who camped out together in our region. One study inspires another, and here we live in one of the healthiest environments on earth, an environment that Adirondack guide and troubadour Wayne Failing credits for his being alive and able to walk, ski and play music again.
At 11:30 pm, February 5, 2013, Wayne Failing nearly died in a head-on car crash in the Bahamas. “I was dying in a ditch in a foreign country,” said Failing. “I flatlined twice that night. I was flown in an air ambulance to the Albany Medical Center where I spent a month in a level one trauma center as they tried to put everything back together. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctors said I would never walk again. The damage was so extensive in the elbow of right arm they considered amputation.”
Following surgery, Failing spent a week in a rehab center where he said they taught him how to live in a wheelchair. Not liking that program, he asked to be sent back to the Adirondacks where he spent a lot of time in the woods coupled with fifty-seven visits to the Adirondack Health Center’s physical therapy department. His goal was to be able to walk, fly fish with his right arm, and strum his guitar. When not in rehab he spent a lot of time in a wheelchair on his deck taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature.
“I had a crushed right lung, all my limbs were broken, my pelvis split in half, the tissue around my heart was separated, and my spinal column was fused to my Dural Tube,” said Failing. “That I’m alive and walking is a miracle. We have a very powerful place here in the Adirondacks. We have a place where people can come, heal, and rejuvenate. The healing power of nature is huge. At the same time, I give a lot of credit to the Adirondack Medical Center’s physical therapy department.”
That Failing turned to the Adirondacks as a place for healing is not surprising as he loves the region and has long seen how being in nature has benefited his clients. A challenge is that people throughout the world, particularly those living industrialized nations like the United States, are becoming more disconnected from nature. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population lives in urban environments and is projected to rise to seventy-eight percent by 2050. In the United States, already eighty percent of Americans live in urban environments which are projected to increase to ninety percent by 2045.
William’s book The Nature Fix is chock full of examples of evidenced-based research on how nature was a vital component of Failing’s return to health and can help our increasingly urbanized population gain emotional balance in their lives. The book also lays out a method for tapping into nature to sustain our emotional, physical, and mental well-being.
The lessons author Florence Williams gained from her exploration of the research conducted on the healing benefits of nature begins with the importance of daily doses of nature, which can be hearing bird calls in the morning, access to daylight, especially morning light, seeing trees outside, having plants in our house, and experiencing our pets. Added to that should be weekly outings into nature be it a walk in a park, a stroll around or a swim in Mirror Lake, places that take us away from work and ideally the sight and sounds of daily life. At least once a month, spend a full day out in nature, ski the length of the Jack Rabbit trail, climb a mountain, paddle out to Weller Pond. And finally, at least twice a year, spend an extended period in nature. Canoe from Long Lake to Tupper Lake, walk the Northville Placid Trail. Have an adventure in nature.
Our opportunity is to conduct research that replicates and builds on research done by others, train people on how to connect those stressed by the challenges of life to the healing benefits of nature, and market our region as a healing destination.
As John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and known as the “father of our national parks,” wrote, “between every two pine trees is a door leading to a new way of life.” We are fortunate to live in nature’s own best wellness center. All of our hamlets and villages have healing assets; the doors Muir described. Let’s start taking full advantage of this gift we have, make every effort to preserve it for the benefit of future generations, and promote these assets to encourage others to take advantage of this remarkable resource for wellness.
Photos, from above: woman skiing, kids sledding, and Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, provided.