Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden, details his almost two-year excursion of simple living in the woods of Massachusetts. He viewed nature as a way to achieve a higher understanding of the universe, and enjoyed being one with the solitude and beauty it has to offer. Nature, thus, has a way of connecting humans to our emotions and eliciting positive thoughts and feelings. For example, it is a universal truth that a rainbow after a rainy day brings a smile to anyone’s face. The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, are regarded by many as breathtaking, a must-see on planet Earth. But how does nature capture our attention and scintillate our senses? What are the long-term effects of spending time in the outdoors?
Beauty in the natural world affects humans subconsciously: spending time in the outdoors is connected to overall mental well-being. A simple stroll through a forest, for example, can allow us to distance ourselves from our otherwise chaotic thoughts. We are forced to regard every stimuli around us, from the sun shining down upon us to the tall trees shrouding us to the the small squirrels and insects we are careful not to harm. Compared to the contemporary world, which forces humans to live life in the fast lane through the influence of technology and commerce, nature is Earth at its most basic level. It allows humans to take a step back and a breath in, and entices us with its many facets of simplicity and serenity. Thus, the environment melts stress and releases endorphins that can decrease feelings of depression and fatigue.
Nature’s ability to distract us from the present also increases creativity and intelligence. David Strayer of the University of Utah showed that hikers were able to solve more complex puzzles after a four-day backpacking trip compared to a control group. The prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and social behavior, undergoes much strain from daily usage of technology and multi-tasking. This area of the brain can take a break when we respond to purely nature-driven stimulus. Nature allows the brain to reset so that it can perform tasks with renewed energy.
A change of environment can also makes humans kinder and more generous. There is an out-of-body feeling associated with viewing an awe-inspiring landscape that makes one feel that one is part of something bigger than the present. It can make day-to-day inconveniences seem inconsequential and remind us that there is more to the world than what goes on in our lives. Humans are also more likely to be more ethical when faced with moral dilemmas after spending time in nature. Experiments conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, found that participants playing the Dictator Game (which measures the degree to which individuals will act out of self-interest) were more likely to be generous to their peers after being exposed to alluring nature scenes.
Planet Earth’s most primitive offerings actually present us with complex and diverse benefits. A quick breath of fresh air can melt away feelings of stress and anxiety, while increasing cognitive focus and creativity. Perhaps we can create our own “Walden” and take a break from studying or working to simply enjoy the outdoors and spend time appreciating the many sides of our ever-changing world.
- “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative.” Greater Good, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative.
Louv, Richard. “Ten Reasons Why We Need More Contact with Nature | Richard Louv.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2014, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/13/10-reasons-why-we-need-more-contact-with-nature.