Imagine a medicine that was not only free, but also had no adverse side effects, was available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and which was guaranteed to improve your health and wellbeing within minutes. Surely we’d all take such a medicine everyday. Unfortunately many of us, absorbed in the day to day chaos of our technologically driven modern lives are forgetting to take our medicine…the restorative powers of the natural world.
My personal journey through life has been closely connected to the natural world. After many years of studying our animal, plant and marine environments at university, I am grateful to have been able to spend the last twenty years in occupations that have enabled me to work outdoors. Getting my hands in the soil and observing the many wonders of nature always revives me after time spent indoors or behind a computer. Nature has been my medicine many times in life. While completing studies in Horticultural Therapy last year, the broad application of nature as a tool to promote wellness and aid recovery from illness, was reaffirmed through the many scientific articles I read. Horticultural Therapy uses plants and gardening based activities and settings to help promote the social, emotional and physical well-being of people. It is practised today in many hospitals, rehabilitation centres, aged care facilities, disability services, prisons and in a range of community settings, including schools, community gardens and private backyards.
The health benefits of simply spending time or actively engaging with our natural environment are well documented and go back many decades. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich published back in 1984 concluded “All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.” Another study by Katcher and Beck in 1987 found “Too much artificial stimulation and an existence spent in purely human environments may cause exhaustion and produce a loss of vitality and health”. It all sounds pretty obvious to me but in case you are still in doubt, consider reading Richard Louv’s inspiring book “The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” published more recently in 2012. This book is full of ground breaking research into the restorative powers of the natural world on our physical, psychological and spiritual health. Louv also stresses “The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
So why does nature have such a positive effect on our wellbeing? Psychoevolutionary Theory maintains that the positive reactions humans experience in nature are programmed evolutionarily. This evolutionary biophilia is embedded in our psyche and genes through our close interaction with nature and our reliance on the natural world for our food, shelter and medicine throughout our existence. We are attracted to things which have supported our survival and we become anxious when we are around things that may put us at risk or harm. We need and are in fact a part of the natural world, something that is easy to forget in a world full of prepackaged food, bottled water and cities full of air-conditioned and centrally heated buildings.
So how can we apply the benefits of nature into our daily lives? Although nothing beats the real thing, if you are stuck in an office all day, simply looking at a poster of nature on your wall or an image of nature on your computer screen will have a positive affect. Even better, take a break and go for a walk in a garden or nearby park. When the weather is fine, do your daily meditation outside. If you have a lot of reading to do, again take it outside. Start a vegetable garden at home and visit it daily for fresh vegetables and herbs. Make a cup of herbal tea (from your own herbs of course) and drink it outside and just sit and take in the natural world around you. You’ll be amazed at the activities of the many insects and birds you begin to notice when you sit still. If you don’t have a garden, get involved in a community garden or a friends group that looks after a local nature reserve and make your reconnection… no Wi-Fi required!
Katcher, A. and Beck, A. (1987) Health and caring for living things. Anthrozoos, 1, 175–183.
Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (Ed s). (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington DC.
Louv, R. (2012) The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Algonquin Books, New York.
Ulrich, R. S. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420–421.