So it’s Earth Day, and everybody is talking about what you can do for nature. But let’s take a moment to consider what nature can do for you.
You know you feel better when you’ve spent time outside, you know it. Chances are, you don’t know why.
Now the science eggheads are beginning to be able to explain it.
You know that feeling when you walk a trail in the woods, and you don’t grab for you cell phone every two minutes because the reception probably sucks anyway? Your senses sharpen, and you begin to see and appreciate the detail, the life, the colors, the light, the smells and sounds that are missing from your hurried everyday indoor, in-car life?
Well, a study published in the journal of Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine found that subjects who walked in nature had lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a.k.a. stress hormone) afterwards than those who strolled through a city environment. Trees, it turns out, are literally good for your heart.
Fitness benefits aside, hanging out at a park, garden or even a golf course is great for your mental wellbeing, too. “Nature can be beneficial for mental health,” says Irina Wen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist. “It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.”
NBC reports that the Japanese practice of Shirin-Yoku or “forest bathing” is catching on. Before you start to disrobe, hoss, it’s figurative - it just means spending undisturbed solo time in nature. A run, hike, yoga, meditation or just checking the scenery will do.
Hope Parks, a wellness manager, runs a “Deep Healing Woods” program inspired by the Japanese practice. “We focus on allowing nature to awaken the senses,” she says. “Ninety minutes later, I notice people’s shoulders have lowered away from their ears. Relaxation has happened.”
“It was tremendously peaceful, calming and centering,” a participant reports. “We took a silent walk, listening to the sounds of the wind through the fir needles, the popping of trees and the occasional croaking of a raven.” They caw, but you get the picture.
Doesn’t sound like much next to binge watching a season of rom com on Netflix or an afternoon spent in front of “Grand Theft Auto” on your gaming platform, but apparently, green works.
I read a study recently that involved top university scientists from around the world who found that one-third of our happiness level is determined from genetics - particularly the amount of feel-good serotonin in our biochemistry. The rest is up to us.
Other studies show that the kind of happiness matters. The unselfish happy, from helping others and feeling a purpose in life, has a powerful effect on your health. The other kind, from hedonistic or material pleasures, didn’t get the same immune system boost. Those so motivated tended more toward inflammation that can contribute to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. You can buy happiness, it seems, but it may not last for long.
All those years we’ve been told to stay out of the sun may have led us astray, though sunblock is still your skin’s best friend. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that Vitimin D from the light gooses genes that play a role in resistance to series illness.
Dirt is even good for you. If you feel better after puttering in the garden or repotting your houseplants, you are not imagining things. A University of Colorado researcher found that mice injected with cheerful dirt-dwelling germs Mycrobacterium vaccae increased serotonin in the critters’ prefrontal cortex. We’re wired to farm. Dirt’s the new Prozac.
Why are you happier on the weekends? It’s not the lack of work, a University of Rochester study finds, but the freedom to make your own choices, especially if you choose to do things outside. Free time is vital to your well-being, the study stresses. To get a weekend buzz during the week, have a night reserved for being away from work and home, but with nothing planned in advance. Take walks on random routes over your lunch hour to release endorphins. Even pitching a tent to spend the night in the backyard with the kids will give you that TGIF green boost.
Turns out that music is good for your health, too. A university study in Montreal measured the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with anticipated pleasure as people listened to all different types of music. Brain scans proved the biggest surge comes in listening to familiar, favorite songs, no matter if it’s classical or country. Love it? Crank it.
If you know me, the beach is my happy place. Indeed, not getting outside enough can contribute to depression and Alzheimer’s. British studies now discover too that views of the ocean and blue hues make people happier than any other landscape - it’s probably in our evolution. A forthcoming book reports that being around water encourages the brain to release a mix of dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. In English, “It gives us a sense of oneness with the universe.” Surf’s up, baby.
Need more proof?
The “National Geographic True Happiness Test” survey discovered that people who watch less than an hour of televison a day are the happiest group in America. A Harvard study found that people who unplug from their cell phones at night were more productive and satisfied, some businesses have made it company policy. And a Public Library of Science study in 2013 found that the more people use Facebook, the less sense of well-being and the more sense of envy they experienced.
Pet owners will be glad to know that science is repeatedly confirming what they already know - time with an animal pal gives a person more self-esteem and less fear and stress.
Other things that will contribute to happiness, science finds - telling jokes, volunteering, consistent exercise especially riding a bike, chocolate (serves as a mild tranquilizer), and eating specific foods including turkey, spinach, egg whites, black beans, split peas, almonds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Are you still reading this?? Get outside!