*Originally written and published by writer Greg Fox
My friendship with nature requires a bit of context. I’m the least granola, outdoor-gifted person you’ll meet. I grew up in suburban, walled-off neighborhoods before ricocheting from one big city to another as I followed my career. Eventually, I landed on the west coast near several rolling hills and mountains. But they were as foreign and unknown to me as an alien planet.
It wasn’t until 2006 when all of this changed. Drop by drop, the daily humdrum of life started to overwhelm me. My job kept me in front of the computer screen for longer. And when I wasn’t working, I divided my time between cleaning up after my three small children and yelling at them to stop putting their mouths on stuff.
One day, my wife suggested I take a walk in the hills behind our house. Looking for any escape from the mounds of Play-Doh* and piles of LEGO*s, I took her up on the offer. I had no idea that my home borders 150 miles of well-maintained trails. And that day, I set out to cautiously explore them. My first route was a half-hearted half mile.
When I returned to my desk, I felt different – better – a bit more relaxed. I decided to try it again the next day. And then the next. Pretty soon I was taking my lunch with me, then spending an hour before work in the mountains in the morning. I was hooked.
Nature’s Healing Powers
While my relationship with nature is unique to my life, the results are not. We are, after all, hardwired to crave nature. Nature’s healing powers are a restorative, creativity-enhancing, relationship-improving, salve for the modern world. It’s where we discover that, although our world is a seemingly chaotic realm of complexity, it’s all interconnected – and it’s all part of us.
Think this is a bunch of granola, woo woo stuff? So did I! I wanted to explain away the feeling of openness and connection I was feeling. I wanted to write this all off as a dad thing. A midlife crisis-thing.
But I couldn’t. Because science was on my side.
What I was experiencing was a not-so-new (try thousands of years in the making) phenomenon called ecotherapy, and more than a hundred recent studies have shown just how powerful it is. For example, after viewing Planet Earth for just a half-hour, 31 percent of participants in one study reported experiencing stronger feelings of gratitude. Other studies show that the simple act of viewing nature ends up shifting our self-perception, shifting the barriers between our sense of self and establishing connections with others.
The same was true for me. As I began exploring the meandering trails behind my house, I felt them connecting me more to my wife, children, and friends. The walls of my offices began to fall. I found myself pursuing new friendships and opportunities instead of endlessly and mindlessly scrolling my social media feeds.
It turns out the naturalist, John Muir, was onto something when he wrote, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
What Are The Benefits of Ecotherapy?
But the benefits of ecotherapy, or nature therapy, green therapy, or biophilia, or whatever you want to call it aren’t solely found in the realm of emotion. More and more, research is underscoring how incredible spending time in nature is for our mind and bodies as well. I won’t go into the pounds I shed just by merely walking in the hills every day. That’s a foregone conclusion.
What I didn’t know – and what science is showing us – is that nature is an ancient prescription for modern-day life. It’s shown to improve emotional regulation and memory. People suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood upliftments when exposed to nature. Not only that, but they also felt more motivated and energized to recover. The list goes on and on.
Being in nature reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. It improves our attention and focus. It helps us problem-solve and boosts our creativity. And, not surprisingly, walking amongst the trees and wildlife also helps us feel more alive.
For me, the real changes were gradual. What began with a bit more peace and reflection when I returned to my office gradually gave way to a greater sense of connection. I no longer wanted to plop myself in front of my television at the end of the day. The constant dings and beeps and buzzes of notifications and emails distracted me a little less – or at least seemed less important.
The best way I can describe the process was a decomplexifying of my life. It’s similar to Robert Moor’s experience in his book On Trails.
“Over the course of millennia, our first tentative trails have sprawled into a global network, allowing individuals to reach their ends faster than ever before. But one unintended consequence of this shift has been that many of us now spend much of our lives within a world made up of little more than connectors and nodes, desire lines and objects of desire. The danger of such a blinkered existence is that the more effectively these trails deliver us to our ends, the more they can insulate us from the world’s complexity and flux, which results in structures that are dangerously fragile, fixed, or myopic. No matter how vast our collective wisdom grows, we would also be wise not to forget how small it is in comparison to the broader universe.”
Here’s the thing about ecotherapy: tapping into that “broader universe” that Moor mentions isn’t solely the province of mountain climbers and thru hikers. It’s much more all-encompassing than that. Walking in the hills and mountains worked for me because it was easy and convenient. But reaping the advantages of ecotherapy can happen when you create and tend to a garden. Walking your dog outside is equally as advantageous. A picnic in the park, regular trips to botanic gardens, and even taking an hour a day to work outside – as long as you’re making room for nature in your life, you’ll experience amazing benefits.
In walking in nature, I began to acquire more of less. My life is simpler. Complexity has given way to space and room to breathe. Ironically, what started out as a simple way to escape from the clutches of my small children for a few minutes, ended up bringing me closer to them. They now join me on my daily excursions. Yes, they’re still insane, but the experience has brought me closer to them in ways I never expected. And if nature can do that for an exhausted, overworked dad – imagine what it can do for everyone else.
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