The Restorative Effect of Nature
Why connecting to the great outdoors is good for our wellbeing
Posted March 5, 2016
It was 5:00 p.m. yesterday when I got the text message from my friend: enjoying the sunshine today?
Sunshine? What sunshine?
I’d been at my desk all day and had not had the chance (or, perhaps, had not made the effort) to look – let alone actually go – outside.
Spending time in nature is an important part of my identity; however, there are certainly days like yesterday when I become so wrapped up in writing and researching and getting things done that I neglect this important part of my self-care. And I’m not alone. On average, Americans spend a whopping 93% of their time either indoors or in an enclosed vehicle. Which equates our average outdoors time to a mere half-day per week. It seems we’ve become disconnected from a seemingly simple – yet incredibly important – part of our wellness: the natural environment.
I’m sure many of us could describe the restorative effect of turning our faces into the sun on the first day that feels like spring, sitting near a body of water and observing the waves, or going for a walk at lunchtime to break up a day in the office. Well, that restorative feeling might not be so subjective: research suggests that spending time outdoors can improve our mood and self esteem, decrease our stress levels, and increase vitality.
Stephen Kaplan (1995) would say it’s because nature helps us to recover from “directed attention fatigue,” which he describes as:
Any time one has worked intensely on a project and subsequently finds oneself mentally exhausted…The typical state of mind of students at the end of a semester is a familiar example (p. 170).
Shutting down our computers and getting into natural environments helps us rest our minds, recover from mental fatigue, and, as a result, mitigate our stress - all things that support for our overall wellness.
Increasing Our Connection to Nature
The positive impact of nature can occur in as little as five minutes. Thus, the “I-don’t-have-time-to-go-outside” argument doesn’t seem to hold much weight. When we consider that Americans spend nearly five hours per day on their smart phones, it doesn’t seem too outrageous to suggest that we swap some of that screen time for a more exciting backdrop (like trees and grass and clouds).
Three simple ways to enhance our connection to nature include:
- Walking barefoot.
Research suggests that foot-to-surface connection with the soil, grass, or sand may be important for our health. This theory of “earthing” may be due to having direct contact with the Earth’s electrons, and has been found to promote things like improved sleep, reduced pain, decreased stress levels, and increased subjective wellbeing. Clearly walking barefoot is more difficult to do in the wintertime, but during the warmer months, try kicking off your shoes (and socks) and noticing the feel of the earth against your feet.
- Building a personal relationship with the environment.
We’re not all mountaineers or find the idea of sleeping in a tent appealing; however, our relationship with nature can be incredibly personalized. Finding out what aspects of the natural world fulfill us (which can be as simple as reading under our favorite tree in then backyard), and then doing more of those things is a wonderful place to start nurturing our environmental wellness. Some easy ways to integrate more outdoors time (particularly for us urbanites) include packing a picnic instead of eating in a restaurant, window shopping outside instead of cooping up in the mall, or meeting a friend for a walk instead of a movie.
- Living Green.
It’s not always easy to choose environmentally responsible behaviors (waiting for the bus in the rain somehow feels less convenient than simply hopping in the car); that being said, research suggests that making eco-friendly choices is linked to a personal sense of satisfaction and increased well-being. In other words, happier people seem to live in more ecologically sustainable ways. And, when we live more eco-consciously, we enter into a reciprocal relationship wherein we protect our fragile environment while simultaneously reaping the psychological benefits.
One study suggests that more time spent in the wilderness prior to age 11 increased the likelihood of pro-environmental attitudes during adulthood. So, planning a hiking or camping trip can help the youngsters in our lives adopt a self-concept that identifies more deeply with nature. This is a good thing, considering that a more ecologically-rooted identity (one that recognizes the interdependence between human beings and the living world we inhabit) is linked to psychological well-being (Wolsko & Lindberg, 2013).
Writing this blog post has reminded me that something as simple as getting outside can be an effective and powerful form of therapy. So, although my to-do list isn’t getting any shorter, today I’ll step away from my desk and take some time to enjoy that sunshine.
Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Sci. Technol., 44, 3947-3955.
Brown, K. W., & Kasser, T. (2005). Are psycholocial and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74, 349-368.
Brymer, E., Cuddihy, T F., & Sharma-Brymer, V. (2010). The role of nature-based experiences in the development and maintenance of wellness. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport, and Physical Education, 1, 21-27.
Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: Health implications of reconnecting the human body to the Earth’s surface electrons. Journal of Environmental Health.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
Wolsko, C., & Lindberg, K. (2013). Experiencing connection with nature: The matrix of psychological well-being, mindfulness, and outdoor recreation. Ecopsychology, 5, 80-91.