The Therapeutic Power of Nature

What we can learn from the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku.

Posted Apr 24, 2018

Pexels (free stock photo - adapted)
Source: Pexels (free stock photo - adapted)

It’s common to find urban dwellers yearning for the green spaces of nature (even if their romantic image of ‘the countryside’ is often something of an idyllic fiction). I’m intimate with this sentiment myself: the concrete and noise of the city can make one dream wistfully of wide open fields, far from the madding crowd. Indeed, this longing appears to be grounded deep within the human psyche: on some deep level, we are nourished by contact with nature. And while people may have long known this in an intuitive way, now psychology is waking up to the therapeutic power of the natural world.

This is reflected, for instance, in the emergence of paradigms such as ecopsychology, devoted to understanding the close interdependence between humans and nature. Literature in this area often takes an evolutionary perspective, pointing to the fitness value of a connection with, and appreciation of, the natural world. The benefits of nature are likewise reflected in the pioneering work of Wil Gesler, whose ideas around ‘therapeutic landscapes’1 and ‘healing places’2 are beginning to inform approaches to physical and mental health issues. This includes designing hospitals so that they afford patients opportunities to interact with natural spaces as they recuperate3.

Learning from other cultures

In its emergent appreciation of nature, psychology has many resources and traditions to draw upon. These include practices and concepts developed in different cultural and historical contexts. And in doing so, we may come to appreciate that the field of psychology is not synonymous with Western, English-speaking psychology.

Scholars in Western societies can often assume that their approach to psychology constitutes the discipline in its entirety. However, their scholarship—like any endeavor—is inevitable shaped by their cultural context, one that has been described as ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic4). Such researchers will, to an extent, be influenced by prominent Western ideologies and traditions. These include an individualistic conception of selfhood (as opposed to more ‘collectivist’ or socially-oriented conceptions)5, and the related idea that wellbeing is an internal mental state shaped primarily by cognitive processes (as opposed to a communal state shaped by social and environmental processes)6

As such, we (Western psychologists) have much to learn from stepping outside our cultural context —insofar as that is possible—and engaging with the ideas and practices of other cultures. A fascinating pathway to such engagement is through "untranslatable" words, i.e., terms which lack an exact equivalent in our own tongue. These are significant, not least in highlighting phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language.

For that reason, I’ve been searching for such words, focusing on wellbeing specifically (as a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving positive lexicography, as I discuss in two new books (see bio for details).

‘Forest bathing’

The lexicography has many intriguing themes, including—most relevantly here—ones relating to an engagement with nature. Among the most prominent is the Japanese notion of shinrin-yoku. This can be rendered as ‘forest bathing’, implying the restorative benefits of luxuriating—literally and/or metaphorically—in the tranquillity of natural environments.

Shinrin-yoku is particularly notable, as it has been widely recognised and moreover harnessed in Japanese clinical contexts for the treatment of physical or psychological ailments7. As such, it is a good example of a psychological practice developed in a non-Western context, from which the field more broadly might learn.

In saying that, I do not want to imply a simple "Orientalist" East-West binary8 (where it is often asserted, for example, that Western cultures are individualistic and Eastern ones collectivistic9). After all, cultures are not only heterogenous—with traditions of collectivism in the West, and of individualism in the West—but moreover dynamic and permable. Ideas, practices, and people from the West can easily find their way East, and vice versa, especially in this age of globalisation.

Nevertheless, one could draw insights from the way shinrin-yoku has been influenced by cultural traditions within Japan, such as Buddhism and Shintoism, which both have a rich heritage of appreciative engagement with nature10. And, to the extent that psychology—as a global endeavour –studies and learns from these contexts, its understanding of human beings and their wellbeing will be enriched accordingly.

References

[1] Gesler, W. M. (1992). Therapeutic landscapes: Medical issues in light of the new cultural geography. Social Science & Medicine, 34(7), 735-746

[2] W.M. Gesler. Healing Places. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003).

[3] Curtis, S., Gesler, W., Fabian, K., Francis, S., & Priebe, S. (2007). Therapeutic landscapes in hospital design: a qualitative assessment by staff and service users of the design of a new mental health inpatient unit. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 25(4), 591-610.

[4] Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29

[5] Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[6] Izquierdo, C. (2005). When “health” is not enough: Societal, individual and biomedical assessments of well-being among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon. Social Science & Medicine, 61(4), 767-783.

[7] B.J. Park, Y. Tsunetsugu, T. Kasetani, T. Kagawa, and Y. Miyazaki, "The Physiological Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Taking in the Forest Atmosphere or Forest Bathing): Evidence from Field Experiments in 24 Forests Across Japan." Environmental health and preventive medicine 15, no. 1 (2010): 18-26.

[8] Said, E. W. (1995). Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin.

[9] Triandis, H. C. (2001). Individualism-collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69(6), 907-924.

[10] Ryff, C. D., Love, G. D., Miyamoto, Y., Markus, H. R., Curhan, K. B., Kitayama, S., . . . Karasawa, M. (2014). Culture and the promotion of well-being in East and West: Understanding varieties of attunement to the surrounding context. In G. A. Fava & C. Ruini (Eds.), Increasing psychological well-being in clinical and educational settings (pp. 1-19). Netherlands: Springer.