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Humans have always been drawn to, dependent on, and fascinated by the natural world. Biophilia, which literally translates to “love of life,” is the idea that this fascination and communion with nature stem from an innate, biologically-driven need to interact with other forms of life such as animals and plants.

What Is Biophilia?

Biophilia describes the human drive to connect with nature and other living things. Nature’s power for humanity can influence our mental health, our hobbies, our travels, and our homes and workplaces.

If biophilia delivers benefits to humans, then our increased distance and detachment from the natural world, due to urbanization, technological advances, and other factors, could have negative effects on our well-being—not to mention on nature itself.

Who coined the term biophilia?

The term is thought to have been coined by the renowned psychologist Erich Fromm, but it was popularized by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson through his 1984 book Biophilia. In it, Wilson proposed that humans’ attraction to nature is genetically predetermined and the result of evolution.

The human appreciation for flowers, he theorized, was due to the fact that for many plant species, flowers signal that fruit (a rich source of nutrients for early humans) would be arriving soon. And human fondness for baby animals suggests that affiliating with animals, and protecting the most vulnerable among them, provided early people with an evolutionary advantage.

Why can the outdoors make me feel more alive?

Nature has the capacity to generate wonder and awe. The beauty and expansiveness of nature can lead people to appreciate the grandeur of the universe, put their personal worries into perspective, and be more attentive to their world and their relationships.

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How Nature Improves Well-Being

Spending time in nature and interacting with animals can have beneficial effects on both physical and mental health.

Time spent in green spaces, for instance, is associated with lower levels of stress, improved memory, and heightened creativity. Symptoms of ADHD and depression can decrease for children and adults as outdoor time increases. The benefits of green time may be physical, as well: One study concluded that a microbe found in soil may improve the body’s immune response.

Animals are regularly used in therapeutic settings, such as in equine-assisted therapy, and owning a pet has long been associated with positive mental health outcomes. Pets also often encourage physical activity, which triggers its own cascade of physical and emotional benefits.

How does time in nature help mental health?

In addition to inspiring wonder and joy, there is now evidence that time in nature can strengthen mental health. Those who walked in a scenic area experienced less anxiety and rumination than those who walked in a busy urban area, one study found. Longer term research also finds that living in places with more exposure to green space is correlated with lower stress and greater well-being.

How much time in nature strengthens mental health?

Just as there are recommendations for the amount of exercise to get and vegetables to eat, there’s a benchmark for the amount of time in nature needed to boost well-being. Research suggests that that point is two hours per week. That was the time at which nature was associated with better self-reported health and well-being in a large study. That benchmark seemed to hold no matter how the time was spent, whether through one long hike or several short walks in the park.

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