Naturally Happy

Family walking on the beach

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Spending time in nature is important for our mood—and our health

It’s what makes us exhale with delight while driving a scenic route. It’s why we find peace as we walk a mountain trail, relax as we sit in the sun on the beach. It’s biophilia, and it’s the emotional connection that we, as humans, have with nature.

“Being outside makes you more mindful,” says Dr. John Ratey, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the new book, Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization. “If you take a walk on a treadmill, you’re going to read a magazine or watch TV or listen to music, and it takes you away from that experience of walking. But if you take a walk on a trail, you immediately have to be in the moment. You have to pay attention to the changes of the ground, watch what is going on around you.”

Happy trails

Even if you’ve walked that same trail dozens—or hundreds—of times, it is different every time and requires attention and awareness. John teamed up with journalist Richard Manning for his ninth book on brain function, this time taking a science-based look at how modern civilization is doing serious damage to both our minds and bodies. What emerges is a clear argument for shaking loose from modern life to restore our health and happiness.

Ranking high on that list is the need for us to get back in touch with nature. “We have to get back to our evolutionary roots,” John says. “Because of our digital connections, we are losing our people connections. We wrap ourselves in all the tremendous stimuli we can connect to—Facebook, Twitter, the latest Kardashian story—but we don’t even see what’s happening in the world around us….[Being in nature] improves our mood, lessens our anxiety and enhances our cognitive ability.

Down to earth

Getting back in touch with nature provides more than just an emotional lift, experts say. Studies tracking alpha wave activity show that simply looking at nature scenes reduces anxiety, depression, anger and aggression. In one, residents of an adult care center in Texas showed reduced levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” simply by moving to a garden environment. And in another, subjects showed less stress when plants were placed in the room. 

In Japan, the belief in the benefits of connecting with the earth is so strong that a national movement was launched, “shinrin-yoku,” supporting the use of nature to improve health and wellbeing. The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine has conducted numerous studies showing measurable medical and mental health benefits to connecting with nature. Not only has the Japanese government invested more than $4 million in research to prove the tangible benefits of nature, but it has also built 100 “forest therapy bases” and has inspired the rest of Asia to follow suit.

In fact, South Korea’s forest service is working with a German medical resort company to build the National Baekdu-daegan Forest Healing Complex. The $140 million forest therapy center will include therapeutic programs and forest education as well as continue research on the benefits of a forest environment on happiness and better health.

Try this at home

Fortunately, we don’t need a multimillion-dollar forest center or even a national park to reconnect with nature. Many experts tout the benefits of reconnecting with Mother Earth simply by walking into our own backyards barefoot, also called “earthing” or “grounding.” Research has shown that this simple action helps offset some of the harmful effects of the electromagnetic fields surrounding us in this world of digital devices and that it transfers the negatively charged free electrons in our bodies into the earth.

In a study published in European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics, researchers found that connecting the human body to the earth during sleep helps alleviate sleep dysfunction, pain and stress and lower cortisol levels. Researchers concluded that earthing provides “reductions in overall stress levels and tensions.”

“Getting quiet in nature awakens us to the most serene place in our hearts, a place of deep stillness,” says Eoin Finn, Blissology.com founder and creator of the Earth.Body.Yoga. series.

“There is a vibration to nature that is slow and peaceful, and similar to two guitar strings getting in tune, we harmonize with this vibration.” That gives us a feeling of awe, gratitude and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. “Everything out there is interconnected, and that is miraculous,” he says. “I want us to really blur the line where we begin and nature ends. We should never lose sight of this interdependent relationship.”

Regardless of what it’s called—“earthing,” “grounding” or “connecting with nature”—the effects are noticeable and well-documented, John says. Getting back in touch with the earth affects not only our mental wellbeing, but can have measurable effects on our physical health as well. From the sun nourishing us with vitamin D to building stronger, healthier bodies as we move around, John says there is no downside to returning to a more nature-centric lifestyle:

“That connection is so, so important for us. It leads to so many good things, changes our brains, changes our emotions. You’ll be happier, you’ll want to live longer so you can enjoy this life. And when you want to live, you take better care of yourself.”


From the August 2014 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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