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Nature Rx: Go Outdoors to Get Happier and More Productive!

couple looking at mountainsOne pleasant June evening this summer I was out hik­ing in the Flint Hills of rural Kansas when ominous-looking black clouds appeared on the western horizon and rolled across the prairie with startling speed. I turned around and made haste toward the car, but the storm overtook me before I made it there. Driving rain, lightning, and blustery winds made the last 15 minutes of my hike quite unpleasant. Yet, after I settled down and started driving back to Kansas City I felt alive and exhilarated - euphoric almost.
Florence Williams in her superb new book The Nature Fix says getting out­side in natural surroundings is kind of like taking a combo-pill that’s a short-acting antidepressant and a smart pill; but what is an adequate dose and is there a recommended daily require­ment to get these benefits?
The effective dose will vary from one person to the next, but in general, the more time you spend outdoors the better you will feel. Even so, mini-doses of nature, such as a brief walk around the block, or a moment spent gazing out a window at the sky and trees, will perk up your mood and sharpen your ability to focus. Bigger doses are better if you are looking for a major boost to your vigor and overall sense of well-being.
For me it’s easy to feel awestruck by nature: staring out at the ocean, and being entranced by the pounding surf; or watching birds soar through the sky, or looking into the heavens to take in the moon and the stars. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that volunteers in Berkeley, Calif., who were told to gaze up at tall trees for even just one minute subse­quently were more kind and helpful to the people around them.
My close friend and longtime colleague, Iain McGhie, grew up im­mersed in nature, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. These days Iain goes for a quick five to 10-minute stroll around the sidewalks and small gardens near Saint Luke’s Hospital. Sometimes he does this multiple times in a day. He was raised in the Scottish Highlands on an island with breathtaking scen­ery and landscapes, but he’s found that getting outdoors any time of year here in Kansas City for just a brief “ex­ercise snack” keeps him focused and happy—Iain also gets 10,000 steps per day using this strategy.
Recent studies from Professor Marc Berman and colleagues at the Univer­sity of Chicago show that even when we are out in nature during unpleas­ant conditions, such frigid winds or cold rain (like the weather in Scotland nine months of the year), we benefit from the experience.
In a paper that appeared in the journal Psychological Science, study volunteers were asked to take walks in a large outdoor arboretum in Chicago during various conditions. Not surprisingly, the walkers reported that they enjoyed their strolls when the weather was lovely, whereas they reported feeling uncomfortable while walking in the cold and snowy winter weather. But regardless of the climate conditions and whether or not volun­teers reported enjoying or suffering through their hikes in the park, when they were tested immediately after­ward, they performed better on tests assessing mood, short-term memory, and ability to focus
Our Nature Deficit
The burning question is why we don’t indulge more often in the free, widely available, cure-all for our mood and physical well-being? In an effort to better understand how our day-to-day routines affect our happiness, an economist named George MacKerron developed an iPhone app he named Mappiness. This app has been check­ing in with about 20,000 volunteers multiple times each day to document where they were, what they were up to and how they felt emotion­ally. MacKerron discovered that most people tended to be least happy when they were sick in bed, or when they were at work; and they were most happy when were spending their free time with friends, families or their sig­nificant other. No real shockers there.
Yet some surprises surfaced as they analyzed the data further: perhaps most astonishing was the tremendous effect that the environment had on mood. People tended to be substan­tially happier when they were outside, particularly in a natural environment. Still, the researchers were baffled by the fact the participants seemed to be oblivious to this profound effect, and thus they rarely ventured out-of-doors. In fact, the subjects were inside or cooped up in vehicles for 96 percent of their time.
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Ann Dillard
The Mappiness study graphically depicts how completely we have abandoned our natural outdoor lifestyle. If being outdoors is so es­sential to being happy, why don’t we go outside more often? Certainly, most of us work indoors, and tend to lead demanding overbooked lives. Still, even when we have a little white space on the calendar, most of our free time is spent watching screens, or sitting in cars or on planes. The best things in life really are free, but for the same reason that no one is creating glitzy marketing to convince you to get a good night’s sleep or to eat your vegetables, nobody is trying to sell us outdoor activities like walking or gardening—there’s little money to be made in such ventures.
Psychology professors studied col­lege students at Canadian universities where they had the option to take an underground climate controlled tun­nel connecting buildings on campus or simply walk outside on sidewalks and paths. The researchers asked the students to predict how happy they thought they would feel after their walks.
Turns out that the students con­sistently were in a better mood after walking outside, even when the weather was inclement. Most people avoid getting out in nature even when it’s convenient because they under­estimate how much it can contribute to their sense of well-being. This can be a vicious cycle: we don’t get outside enough to notice how good it makes us feel good, so we spend even less time outdoors. We particularly overlook nearby nature such as small urban parks and tree-lined sidewalks because we think of them as too commonplace and not awe-inspiring. But scientists are discovering that even short excursions to stroll out­side among urban nature can quickly improve mood, and enhance our cog­nitive abilities like memory, creativity, focus and resourcefulness.
Living by nature can even lengthen life expectancy. Harvard researchers studied the 108,000 women enrolled in the U.S. Nurse’s Health Study to see if the amount of trees, shrubs, grass and other vegetation near their homes affected their longevity. They found that those who lived in neighbor­hoods with the most greenery were 12 percent less likely to die during the eight-year follow-up period compared to the people who lived in neighbor­hoods with little or no greenery. The women who lived around trees and other plants had reduced risks of death from kidney disease, cancer, and respiratory disease, and also reported significantly better mental health.
A different study found that being around blue spaces like lakes, oceans, streams and rivers also helps to lower stress and foster a sense of well-being.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD
Picture Credit: Pixabay