I have to admit when it comes to appreciating nature I have been a slow learner. Perhaps it has something to do with being the son of South Asian immigrant parents and feeling driven to succeed academically above anything and everything else. Or maybe it had something to do with assuming practical aesthetics were only a luxury for rare occasions. However, whatever the reason, appreciating natural beauty and surroundings was for many years not been a priority to me. Much to my own loss.
To my shame I have to confess that when my wife Sally and I moved to a new house in 1996 with the choice as to how we would design the garden area my natural inclination was to propose that we just concreted it all over! Thank goodness Sally over-ruled me on that!
Taking time out to connect with nature through gardening, going for a walk or even to just get some fresh air can be enormously rejuvenating. There is something about being in the countryside or by the beach that recharges and rejuvenates us like nothing else can. Even I have come to instinctively appreciate that! But I am not the only one who has ignored or downplayed the importance of the environment to psychological wellbeing.
For as long as anyone can seem to remember in most societies progress has been measured by increase in average income and the numbers of people moving from rural areas to the cities. That is how unquestioned and unchallenged economic decisions have been made for centuries. But we are slowly and surely also realising that such progress does not lead to the health and well-being we hoped for. In fact more urbanised and industrialised societies are experiencing increasingly greater levels of physical and psychological distress from conditions such as obesity and diabetes to chronic loneliness, depression and other mental health problems.
When it comes to understanding well-being then there are two important components to consider - the person's sense of contentment and the ability to cope with life's challenges (resilience). There is increasing research evidence to show that spending time in nature has a significant and positive impact on both contentment and resilience....
In one study from Stanford University in the United States, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes. The first group walked in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs; the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires. What did they find?
The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions (that is heart and respiration rates), but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in a place called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination (or repetitive thought focused on negative emotions) decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment. In other words walking in nature was associated with less inclination to have worrying thoughts compared to walking in a busy urban area.
Other research findings also lead to similar conclusions. Another example is one using data from over 1,000 participants at the University of Exeter Medical School. Researchers again focused on two groups of people: those who moved to greener urban areas, and those who relocated to less green urban areas.
They found that, on average, movers to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least 3 years after they moved. The study also showed that people relocating to a more built up area suffered a drop in mental health.
And a Biblical spiritual perspective? I've always found it fascinating that the Bible starts with humanity in a garden in the book of Genesis. It would appear that nature offers the most rejuvenating and refreshing environments for human beings and that is what we are wired to appreciate. However, the Bible ends in the book of Revelation with humanity in a city. But what is in the centre of that city? A garden! That deserves more research and reflection!
For more on the area of spirituality and nature see the Arocha website here.
So when are you going to re-connect with nature?