A growing body of research of over one thousand studies points to the beneficial effects that a pristine natural environment has on human health and quality of life. Being in nature is just so good for us.
We are all creatures of nature. We have evolved from our human, and previously non-human, ancestors and could in theory trace our being back to first cellular organism that sprung to life on this Earth, four and a half billion years ago. It is a direct and very physical line, each being giving the essence of itself to the next generation. Each one of us carries that genetic material inside our bodies from that time so long ago. We are one family of Earth beings. We share this planet with numerous other species of animals and plants with whom we are intimately related, with whom we have a bond of blood, of kinship.
When we enter a natural environment we should go quietly, with humility and respect, understanding that we have everything to learn and little, if anything at all, to teach.
Our collective ancestors have over some hundreds of millions of years created what we today call nature. We have been born from, and in, nature and a natural environment provides for all our needs and fulfils our dreams. It is therefore not at all surprising that when we move away from our soulless human habitat and spend time in nature, we feel better emotionally and physically.
It has been estimated that two thirds of the world’s human population will be living in cities by 2050. We know that life in such an overpopulated, tarmac, brick and concrete environment increases stress levels and causes one to feel anxious, sad or even helpless. This in turn elevates one’s blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension and suppresses one’s immune system. You should note that what you see and hear in your daily life does not only affect your mood, but also impacts your nervous, endocrine, and your immune response.
Research on people of all ages and cultures has found that, when stressed, more than two-thirds of people choose a natural setting to retreat to. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger and fear and increases pleasant feelings and self-esteem. Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant positive impact on stress and anxiety.
As we find a natural environment inherently interesting, we can easily focus on what we are experiencing when we are out in nature. Time in nature or viewing natural landscapes increases our ability to pay attention.
There is more. Spending time in nature connects us to each other and the world at large. More studies have shown that people who live in places that have trees and green spaces around their buildings have a greater sense of community, they have a reduced risk of street crime, lower levels of domestic violence and aggression, and a better capacity to cope with life’s troubles. Laboratory research also showed that when participants viewed natural environments, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It would seem as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our natural environment.
On the other hand nature deprivation, largely due to hours spent on smartphones, in front of TV or computer screens, has been associated, unsurprisingly, with depression. Alarmingly other studies associate screen time with loss of empathy and lack of altruism.
Outdoor play in natural surroundings encourages children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development. When in a nature, children experience an ever-changing and free-flowing environment that stimulates all their senses. We need to become passionate about protecting the environment and preserving our planet and we must pass on our love for the Earth to our children. My appeal to parents is to take their children out to explore the wonder and biodiversity of natural landscapes.
I believe the natural world to be also critically important to older generations as it is in nature that we may find meaning, peace of mind and wellbeing in these most extraordinary years of our lives.
This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 16th October 2020