When journalist Florence Williams moved from Boulder, Colorado to Washington, D.C., she missed the mountains and her outdoor lifestyle. She felt “disoriented, overwhelmed, depressed,” and thought that a deficit of nature was to blame.
Williams believed that the problem wasn’t unique to her. She knew the statistics: Too many humans are becoming more depressed, more anxious and more overweight. At the same time, they are spending much less time in nature. Were the two trends connected?
For two years, Williams interviewed social scientists, participated in their studies and traveled the globe to the sites of innovative programs where nature took center stage.
In Japan, she hiked one of the official “Forest Therapy” trails. In South Korea, she visited a “healing forest.” In Sweden, she spent time in a “therapy garden” that included “a glass-dome greenhouse, water features, flower beds, vegetable gardens.”
In one program, people on sick leave with severe work-related stress spend many hours in the garden, and most experience substantial improvement. The author’s itinerary also included stops in Scotland, Singapore and an island in the Baltic.
Back in the U.S., Williams joined college students from the University of Utah as they headed to the Moab desert as part of their “Cognition in the Wild” class. She went along on a three-day river trip in Idaho with women veterans who had PTSD. In the mountains of West Virginia, she saw how boys with ADHD got so much more out of their adventure-based school than they ever would have from taking drugs and trying to sit still in a conventional classroom.
Nature, Williams concluded, isn’t just something nice, like an upscale amenity to look for in a new home. It is a necessity, and one that is profoundly undervalued. According to Williams, doctors should prescribe time outside as good medicine for their patients.
Researchers have found that time in nature can reduce blood pressure, anxiety, depression, stress, rumination and mental fatigue. It can also improve attention, memory, cognition, sleep, self-esteem and happiness. And the implications may stretch beyond the psychological benefits. For example, the Korean Forest Agency maintains that forest healing “reduces medical costs, creates new jobs and benefits local economies.”
If I saw such a long list of positive outcomes attributed to just about anything else, I’d be suspicious. But I was a convert long before I read The Nature Fix. Like Williams, I experience nature as something that I need, and something I crave.
Williams is a journalist, but she thinks like a social scientist. She brings skepticism to her inquiry, and asks the kinds of questions researchers are taught to ask. For example, she wonders whether time spent in nature is any different from any other experiences that are “diverting, pleasant and sometimes social,” such as playing music. Another important question she posed was, “How much of the benefits of nature are really because of what’s in nature versus simply leaving behind the bad stuff of cities and workplaces?”
Williams also acknowledges something else intriguing: As powerful as experiences in nature can be, not everyone benefits. Some people, maybe around 15 or 20 percent, just don’t like nature and don’t get much out of it. As social scientists so often state at the end of their research reports, more research is needed.
How does nature work its wonders for the people who do like it? Williams concludes that “nature appears to act directly upon our autonomic systems, calming us, but it also works indirectly, through facilitating social contact and through encouraging exercise and physical movement.”
Walking in nature, she suggests, is probably best done with other people when you want to feel less depressed or anxious or boost your mood – as long as you like the people who are coming along with you. If what you are after is problem-solving, creativity, or reflection on your life, it may be better to be on your own.
Williams realizes that finding time to spend in nature is going to be a challenge for many people. But she learned that even a small amount of time “can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall.”
“We also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe stress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves,” writes Williams.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
Norton, February 2017
Hardcover, 282 pages