There have recently been more and more articles discussing how we have all been “heading back to nature” in the pandemic ; but for me – that call was always there – we’ve not necessarily been listening.
Humans have always been biophilic – we have an innate affinity with imagery and sensations that remind us of what we see in nature – wood, slate, curves. This also explains the popularity of “Nature sounds” on mindfulness apps eg: rain, running water, birds. Yet, how many of us have seen – much less utilised – our local parks or nature trails as something beyond the remit of “retired people”, joggers and dog-walkers?
London became the world’s first “National Park City” on July 22, 2019 – with a view to getting people to enjoy the “great outdoors”; urban planners are already reimagining a green reclamation of Fleet Street (eg. WATG Green Block: WATG Unveils Innovative ‘Green Block’ to Help Make London the World’s First National Park City | WATG ) Universities have green concepts inbuilt for example the green roof adorns new blocks at The University of Essex; and Northampton Uni has its own biomass boiler. Singapore since 2018 offers a “Green Mark for Healthier workplaces” recognising that sustainable design, energy and response management, and the office environment all contribute to wellbeing and the promotion of mental health. Hotels are already embedding biophilia into their designs including hemp & green tea pillows in New York!
The outdoors has always been there – perhaps, like many things this year – we are finally starting to appreciate it a lot more.
The physiological effects of being outside
Getting outside also has huge benefits for our mental health – the fresh air helps clear our lungs, but also the sunlight naturally stimulates the production of vitamin D which also assists our immune system – and the sun as well as exercise in it can help produce endorphins (our body’s natural pain relievers) as well as serotonin (which helps regulates our sleep and appetite) and dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter). Not only that but if you’re going out there with friends, you’re likely to also be producing oxytocin – the bonding hormone giving you the feeling of the warm and fuzzies.
Research has long espoused the benefits of nature – In Sweden, patients in a hospital bed facing an outdoor window (with a tree) showed better recovery rates compared with those who did not; in Japan “Forest Bathing” – especially capitalising on the healing and regenerating properties of pine – is GP recommended, and Stamford University (amongst others) has found that getting outside regularly reduces symptoms of stress and depression.
Outside the clinical realm too, being out in nature can boost our attention span, and participants who rate highly on environmental concern have been found to reflect in interpersonal concern within their relationships. This latter finding is often reflected in the modern day parables of how tending to a garden teaches patience and respect – traits which can be transferred to the self. People also often report feeling more “grounded” when in nature – which can give us the strength we need to face the day’s challenges; and because nature stimulates all five senses, we also benefit from the sensation of feeling more “alive.”
Our external environment can reflect our internal one
John Goldwyn (2019), Vice President of London’s luxury architectural firm, WATG writes “Landscape Architecture is clearly not just about how spaces look; it’s about how we think and feel when we inhabit that space.” And environmental psychologists will agree that behaviour can be predicted by the setting.
This emerges from a darker area of research suggesting certain contexts are conducive to crime e.g. Wilson & Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theory where if we see discord around us, we care less about our behaviour within that space; or that population density leads to aggression as dramatized in Ballard’s 2012 “High Rise” based on Calhoun’s 1960s “Rat utopia”. Space can shape interactions. If we cultivate what’s around us, we reap rewards.
So even if nature is not “on your doorstep”, perhaps a window box is a way of not only bringing it closer, but what you plant is both a form of self-expression and creativity giving you a sense of ownership and even pride.
Tips to make the most of the outdoors
Stop, savour and enjoy: Being outdoors triggers a release of endorphins, but if you are having a giggle with friends, you'll elicit the bonding hormone (Oxytocin) too. It is also worth noting that where architects have defined three key “spaces” – the 1st Space (our home) the 2nd Space (our work) and the 3rd Space (our community eg. Coffee shops) – the outdoors has the potential to provide a 4th Space, a space to simply “be”. A place where you can unplug, a place where you can get away, at least mentally, for a moment.
Stroke a pet: It's not only human hugs and affection that generates oxytocin, but our pets can stimulate it's production in us...and even benefit themselves!!
Meditation/Deep breathing: This produces GABA (an inhibitory molecule which generates a sense of calm), and if you combine that with nature and sunlight, you'll get the extra boost of serotonin as well!
Take a photo and brighten your laptop, phone or room with a sunny screensaver
Pictures of a beautiful place or sunny climate, offer us a quick reminder of happy times and memories. This can generate a sense of warmth and relaxation even with wind beating at the door. Humans are often quickly moved by imagery, and having photos of places you love (with the ensuing memories of people we love attached), can reinforce those feelings of affection as well.
Bring the outdoors in: Keep evergreens, fresh fruit, flowers or greenery
Pine smells great, and researchers at Kyoto university in Japan found that healthy volunteers who strolled through a pine forest for 15 minutes a day reported more positive ratings on a mood scale compared with those who did not. Keeping fresh flowers, plants, and colourful fruits around will also brighten your environment – and the latter will keep your holiday snacking healthy.
Try something new
The brain responds well to novelty. On a bright day, go for a walk taking a new path. Enjoy the new experiences such as the sensation of the sun, the breeze, the new smells or sounds, and see who you meet on your adventure. Whilst walking take a moment to breathe deeply – in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Or, join a class or try a new hobby. You might discover new skills, find an outlet for your inner-diva, or perhaps some interesting people to bounce ideas with. The best part of all of course, is as an adult – remember you can choose to leave if you don’t like it!!
No longer the pursuit of the retired, gardening can be a great way to teach both dexterity AND patience as you create and nurture your choice of greenery.
The Kuala Lumpur KLCC park has a species of every tree found in Malaysia planted there along with a QR code to learn about them. The practice of including QR codes on nature walks is a great way to learn and chat – especially with loved ones. Local parks may also offer courses such as foraging or birdwatching and identification which again is a great way to engage the whole family.
Mental Health and Wellbeing is not just about the removal of stress and suffering (although the outdoors helps with that both psychologically and physiologically) – but about the presence of wellness. Connecting with nature can produce fundamental changes in our brain chemistry which can help us better withstand 21st century living, and also boost our happiness.
And the best part of all (specific workshops aside) – nature is all free!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author of new book The Leader’s Guide to Resilience, Pearson, £14.99