A new study has shown that spending time in nature can make you happy. Admittedly, this wasn’t a controlled and monitored experiment. There were no randomised control trials. However, while the sample was small, the lack of quantative data is made up for by qualitative research.
Here is a brief summary of the findings of this recent study: My New Old Self spent a week in a natural environment and this resulted in a significantly improved mood. In scientific terms, exposure to nature helped morbid rumination give way to carefree musings.
In case you have not been following the recent research into morbid rumination, it is psycho-speak for worrying, brooding, fretting or whatever you call your anxious thoughts. This kind of obsessive negative thinking has been identified by psychologists as a risk factor for developing mental illness. My New Old Self has identified morbid rumination as one of the habits I aim to kick as I get older.
My study was launched in response to an investigation by the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. This study on morbid rumination aimed to discover whether it can be alleviated, or at least reduced, by exposure to nature. The conclusion: walking through green spaces lowers anxiety and increases positive attitude. Another aspect of this study that caught my attention was the finding that nature walks increased working memory performance – an added bonus for forgetful aging minds.
The researchers at Stanford surveyed a far larger sample of nature visitors than my own sample of one. Their study was confirmed by measuring morbid rumination levels in a way that I cannot easily replicate. They assessed neural activity in the area of the brain that is apparently the epicentre of depressive thinking.
We show in healthy participants that a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting, decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity. In other studies, the sgPFC has been associated with a self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals. This study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.
– “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA
My assessment was only of my own mood, measured before and after exposure to nature. Since my study is based on anecdotal evidence rather than brain scans, I can only share my personal experience. I hope that doing so may provide insights into the benefits of exposure to nature, with particular focus on its positive effects as we get older.
Here are the conclusions drawn from spending a week in the bush:
- It’s not just about what’s there, but what’s not there. It was only when I was no longer seeing concrete and steel that I began to really observe the natural world around me. The lack of connectivity, often an issue in remote green spaces, was actually an advantage. I was contactable only if I was urgently needed and coped like I did in pre-digital days. When digital technology was not a click away, once there was no reception on my cellphone, there was no point in staring at a screen. This meant I could focus my eyes on the natural world.
- In terms of audio, it was a welcome relief to leave behind the sounds of traffic and commerce. They say you don’t miss your well until the water runs dry and I found a corollary: you don’t notice noise until it stops. Only when I went into the bush, without the humming and clanking of mechanics and electrics, did I appreciate the silence. I pity those whose headphones block out natural sounds.
- Smelling can be a very different experience in nature. Who knew there is a shrub that smells like a pot of potatoes boiling on a stove? That’s what I thought I smelled while walking in a forest, yet there wasn’t a kitchen or fire in sight. So I followed the scent until I discovered a scrambling shrub. I later learned that it is called the Potato Bush (Phyllanthus reticulatus) due to the characteristic smell given off by its flowers, especially in the evening.
- As far as the sense of taste is concerned, food and drink always seems tastier when consumed in pleasant outdoor settings. Picnics and braais often take awhile to prepare so the eating and drinking tends to happen when everyone is most hungry and thirsty, which further adds to the enjoyment.
- As for the sense of touch, I found I was more in touch with the natural environment but not through actual touching. Wild green spaces are full of unknowns. Trees and plants may have thorns or poison and animals can be wild. That advice about leaving only your footprints and taking only memories is appropriate here. Rather than touching, feeling can be enjoyed in nature, e.g. appreciating warm and cool breezes on the skin.
- Just thinking back to what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt while I was conducting my study is enough to bring a smile to my face. This serves to further confirm that spending time in nature banishes morbid rumination, even long after exposure.