Spending time outdoors can significantly lift your mood, so it's no surprise that outdoors activities such as gardening and nature hikes1 have been found to be good therapy. In one survey,2 80 percent of gardeners reported being "happy" and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners, and the more time spent in the garden, the greater their life satisfaction.
Among volunteers at an outdoor conservation project, a whopping 100 percent said participation improved their mental health and boosted their confidence and self-esteem.3 This general well-being among gardeners is typically attributed to the "recharging" you get from sticking your hands into soil and spending time in nature.
According to Craig Chalquist,4 a depth psychologist and chair of the East-West Psychology Department at California Institute of Integral Studies, who also happens to be certified in permaculture design: "If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes, the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressant you need in the ground."5
In Japan, the practice known as "forest bathing" (Shinrin-yoku) has been part of the national health program since 1982, and its benefits are now starting to become more widely recognized in the U.S. As explained by The Atlantic:6
"The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan's medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since Shinrin-yoku's inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one's health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels and stress hormones."
The Importance of Slowing Down
Being in nature has the effect of winding you down because nature's pace is so much slower than our man-made environment. There's a pulse and rhythm in nature, and when you start to observe it and take it in, you find that everything takes time. Change is not immediate. It's a process. With "lightning speed" internet and 24/7 connectivity, we tend to forget this. We get so used to instant results and immediate gratification. You could say observing nature leads to greater tolerance for slowness, otherwise known as patience.
This feeling of well-being can have more far-reaching implications for your physical health too. According to research from Johns Hopkins,7 having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac death. As noted by lead author Lisa R. Yanek:8
"If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events. A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease and you may be healthier as a result."
Nature Deficit Disorder — A Rampant Malady
A recent article in The Atlantic9 highlights the growing field of ecotherapy, referring to "methods of cultivating the health benefits of being in nature."10 As noted by Florence Williams, author of "The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative," "Intuitively, many of us believe … we feel better in nature. But it's only recently that we've been able to see biomarkers of this change."11
In the video above, The Atlantic senior editor Dr. James Hamblin investigates these benefits and interviews mental health therapists using ecotherapy in their practice. Other terms12,13 used for this kind of therapy include green therapy, nature therapy and earth-centered therapy.
Ecotherapy as an umbrella term also covers horticultural therapy, animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy, farm therapy, time stress management and "ecoanxiety"14 management — stress, depression, anxiety, grief and despair attributed specifically to trauma related to climate disruptions. An example would be depression or grief following the loss of a loved one in a hurricane or flash flood.
Estimates suggest the average American spends anywhere between 80 and 99 percent of their life indoors — a lifestyle trend that has led to what some now refer to as "nature deficit disorder."15 This is not an actual psychological diagnosis, but rather a term used to describe a lifestyle deficit that contributes to poor psychological and physical health. Ecotherapy, which basically involves a prescription to go out and spend time in a natural setting, has been shown to:16
•Decrease anxiety and depression
•Improve social connections
•Decrease fatigue in cancer patients
•Improve blood pressure
Spending time outdoors also boosts your vitamin D level (provided you're showing enough bare skin) and, if you walk barefoot, helps you ground (also known as Earthing).