“Trees are our friends,” somebody told me when I was a kid. Well, it turns out they’re also our nursing staff and psychotherapists.
On the science podcast I used to host, neuroscientist Colin Ellard explained that our being around trees and greenery appears to be vital to our emotional well-being and even our physical health.
Ellard referenced health care design researcher Roger Ulrich’s famous study of patients in recovery from gall bladder operations. Half of the patients had a window looking out onto a brick wall and the other half looked out onto a line of trees. Those with the tree view felt better and recovered more quickly, getting out of the hospital faster than the patients with the brick wall view.
The study, done back in 1984, was small—only 46 patients in total—which means we can’t know that the results aren’t due to chance. However, Ellard explains in his book, Places in the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, that the body of research in this area has since grown, “showing that simple views of nature of any form can produce lowered levels of arousal” (manifesting in, for example, less anxiety). They also lead to “healthier patterns of cardiac activity, more relaxed patterns of brain activity” (our neurotransmitter friend GABA’s helpful delivery of chill) and increased levels of emotional positivity.
Now, I am an urban girl, which is to say I never like to be more than 100 yards from concrete or indoor plumbing. I especially avoid Florida and Costa Rica and any other place with bugs the size of Mini Coopers. In short, my idea of communing with nature is looking out over a window box of flowers onto the Left Bank.
However, it seems even a big stay-indoors priss like me can take advantage of nature’s benefits. After Ellard was on my podcast, I started going out for a 20-minute stroll down the “walk streets” by my house, which are really just sidewalks with houses on either side and a canopy of lush flowering foliage and trees all along the way. I’d describe the emotional effect from this as “soul healing,” and I’m a person who usually snickers at that kind of language.
Best of all, I took this route when Ellard and his wife were in town and I met them for drinks, and Ellard gave the thumbs-up to my urban diet version of the great outdoors.
So, if you’re having a bummerino day, you might not be able to change everything making it that way, but you could tug your spirits up by going out and smelling the roses or whatever—including those several feet from the urban curb.
Ulrich, Roger S. "View through a window may influence recovery from surgery." science 224, no. 4647 (1984): 420-421.
Ellard, Colin. Places of the heart: The psychogeography of everyday life. Bellevue literary press, 2015.