Why time in nature makes you happier and healthier

Published: October 17, 2019

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A recent study in the prestigious academic journal Nature reports that at least 120 minutes a week spent in “direct exposure” to nature has significant positive impacts on health and well-being, an effect that peaks at 200–300 minutes. Researchers discovered that it didn’t matter how those minutes were spent—one long nature fix or any variation over seven days. What mattered was exposure to the natural world.

The even better news is that “direct exposure,” according to lead author of the study Mathew White, includes everything from water-skiing to napping in an outdoor hammock. And though there are some studies that show even looking at nature through a window (or a photograph) provides some benefits, “they are likely to be smaller than actually being in nature itself,” says White.

This might not sound like news to those of us lucky enough to spend time at our cottages, who’ve already noticed that our waterfront escapes make us happy.

But for extra leverage when your boss won’t give you that long weekend off, or you’re deliberating whether the drive is worth it for just a few days, here are concrete benefits of how nature makes us healthier and happier:

Our hearts: According to Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist and author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows how Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, And Better at What You Do, water—which is what we usually have access to at the cottage—slows down our heart rates and breathing. Even our blood pressure goes down.

Our brains: Nichols says that just the sound of water increases blood flow to the brain, creating a feeling of relaxation. Looking at water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness. When we’re around water, our stress hormones dip.

Our relationships: Sharing an experience in nature naturally evokes feelings of connection, especially an experience that creates awe. And awe is frequently experienced in nature, says Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. Awe, Keltner and his researchers discovered, makes us more other-focussed, more likely to tend to the needs of others, more cooperative, and less entitled. In short, it makes us better people.

Our minds: According to a study done by a Harvard-affiliated researcher in 2015, time spent in natural spaces is strongly correlated with a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression. Another study in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning found that going on a 50-minute nature walk resulted in improved cognition in the form of increased working memory performance.

Our healing: In a now classic study of patients who underwent gallbladder surgery, half had a view of trees and half had a view of a wall. Robert Ulrich, the doctor who conducted the study, discovered that patients who saw trees were better able to tolerate pain. Nurses reported the patients had fewer negative effects and they were released sooner. Mathew White notes similar studies that had confirmed this effect but maintains that direct exposure would create an ever stronger impact.

 

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