Insights : Green, 'it's impact is real'. A book review of 'The Nature Fix' by Florence Williams
We are all too familiar with the abundance of self-help literature that has had a tendency in recent years to focus on the importance of expressing gratitude daily, cultivating mindfulness, consume a predominantly whole food diet, practising yoga and exercising regularly. Yet, something serious has been absent from the wellbeing conversation.
Florence Williams, in her latest book ‘The Nature Fix’ (TNF) shines a light upon the power of nature to remedy and ease the stress of modern, urban life. The argument advanced, and supported in an exploration of compelling research carried out by neuroscientists around the world, is that nature is restorative and has a significant impact on our levels of happiness.
Data has revealed that it is not who you are with or what you are doing that has the greatest effect on happiness (although exercise and the cultivation of deep and meaningful relationships with others helps) but where you are. ‘Place matters’, and people are significantly happier in green or natural environments.
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Biophilia, as outlined in TNF, was a term coined in the eighties by Edward O. Wilson who hypothesised that humans possess an innate love of nature and have tendencies to seek connections to it.
Yet in 2008, and for the first time in history, it was reported that more than 50% of the human race lived in urban areas resulting in us now being deemed an urban species: the ‘metro sapiens’. What’s more, access to nature and time spent within it, is now considered to be a luxury when in fact, now more than ever before due to the often-frenetic urban world in which we reside, it’s a necessity.
Having left my life in the city just last year, I can completely resonate with John Muir’s depiction of ‘tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people’. Just six months ago, my physiological stress responses raged through by body at the sound of a siren speeding by and I was consumed by exhaustion, my red-eyes heavy yet supported by copious caffeine shots that fuelled me throughout my day. I’m still working on the ‘over-civilised’ part which I interpret as my unhealthy reliance on social media and the unnerving fixation I have on responding to countless emails, texts and calls in our ceaselessly ‘connected’ world. Whilst you may not resonate with this depiction personally, you will (as an urbanist) know at least one of these depleted souls and if you aren’t a city-dweller, odds are that even you, the complacent naturist, sat smug with a view of the English rolling hills outside of your window, spend far too much time indoors!
The mood-boosting health benefits of green
Williams travelled the world interviewing and participating in research conducted by renowned neurologists in search of how nature increases our happiness and wellbeing. She outlines how nature can…
- lower our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and our levels of anxiety resulting in increased feelings of relaxation and consequently mood elevation. ‘Dirt can heal!’ and what’s more, spending time in nature is said to ‘trigger a neural bath of happy hormones’ stronger than any anti-depressant. By increasing our levels of optimism we cultivate healthier habits and build out mental resilience.
- improve our cognitive performance. Think (literally) less: ‘nerve-shaken’, indecisive, frazzled mind and more clarity of thought and creativity. Many people, Nietzsche included, report having their best ideas when immersed in nature.
- increase our generosity towards others enabling us to foster deeper and more meaningful social connections. Williams highlights research findings that suggest that when nature is perceived to be beautiful, possessing a mind-blowing ‘vastness of extent’, this feeling of ‘awe’ invokes feelings of humility. I was reminded of the Pha Pachak quote ‘The forest makes your heart gentle. You become one with it. No place for greed or anger there’.
- increase our immune system. After just two weeks of ‘forest bathing’ (read: walking in woodland), women with breast cancer participating in a Korean study demonstrated an increase in their immune-boosting T-cells. Forest bathing, a multi-sensory experience, is actually considered a preventative medicine in Japan.
- help us to achieve higher fitness levels than those who exercise in cities. Those who work out in the great outdoors typically demonstrate an increased commitment to exercise plans and the achievement of fitness goals.
- ‘give man the resonance he needs’. We are all ultimately searching for connection and nature often provides that sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. As Edmund Burke wrote ‘feelings of spirituality don’t just spring from religion: they spring from transcendent experiences in nature’. On a personal level, I have often found that within nature exists multiple metaphors for issues and events at play in my life and within them the answer and hope that I am often seeking.
- ground us in otherwise distracting environments. The presence and cultivation of nature in urban spaces is seen to be increasingly valued for its ability to calm and still our overworked minds.
But are not exercise and the open air within the reach of us all?
Whilst escaping the city for long breaks to the country are often dreamed of, fitting in such restorative wilderness therapy into busy schedules can be extremely difficult. Fortunately, the Fins advocate that a mere five hours of ‘nature time’ a month is required in order to reap the benefits listed above.
Williams also explains that the positive effects of nature are available to all, including city dwellers, encouraging us all to ‘go outside, often, sometimes in wild places’.
Why not invite more green into your life this spring by venturing outdoors, even if it’s just for a short walk in a city park or perhaps do as the Aussies do (or Melbourne’s inhabitants to be more specific) and write a devotional email to an urban tree?
Is ‘going green’ merely the next fad?
Whilst I was excited about Williams shining a light on the often overlooked importance of nature for humans health and happiness, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disheartened by the emphasis placed upon the ‘because science now says so’ role in the discussion. It is a shame that the idea of nature being restorative and ‘good’ for our physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing is only now beginning to gain traction in light of emerging scientific exploration, when our intuition and common sense has been providing signs for years if only we’d listen. The point made by Williams is, by her own admission, nothing new or ground-breaking, our ancestors (regardless of race or religion) have been honouring the natural world for years.
On the other hand, I completely resonate with her enthusiasm at exploring how our environment can actually have a positive effect upon on health, advancing us towards the WHO’s definition of health, as opposed to focusing upon fear-mongering and negative ‘news’ detailing how ‘the environment hurts our health’.
I think ‘The Nature Fix’ provides an interesting insight into our call to nature. ‘The ultimate paradox is that humans need both wilderness and civilization’ and the metaphorical scales are drastically imbalanced in favour of the latter, giving rise to the current ‘epidemic dislocation from the outdoors’ and the resultant case ‘of indoor-itis’. Needless to say that this concept is not merely the next fad! In sharing the extensive benefits of spending time in nature, Williams will undoubtedly inspire others, especially the urbanist, to incorporate more ‘green’ into their everyday lives.