Nature: A Key Ingredient to Health and Happiness
“The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.”
I spent Memorial Day weekend camping with my family. We usually go camping once a year over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, escaping from the eating and shopping frenzy that seems to contradict the very point of being thankful for what we have (another topic altogether).
I have to admit that I was a bit concerned about adding another camping trip to our calendar, especially considering the shorter weekend and the packing and unpacking efforts involved. I opted for simple cabins (twin-sized beds and an electrical outlet) instead of our usual tent to save some space in the car and time with setup and takedown at the campground. Our campground was only accessible by boat, so we had to take everything with us that we would need for the weekend, including our bikes and all of our food and supplies. I have to say that all of the planning, packing, loading and unloading efforts were completely worth it!
Aware, Present, and Content
What I love most about camping is being outside the entire day, only going inside to retrieve supplies or sleep. We cook, eat, talk, play, reflect, explore, sit, and entertain ourselves outside. We also have to walk, bike, or even canoe a bit in order to use the bathroom, take a shower, throw out garbage, buy firewood or ice, or get anywhere. Everything you do takes more effort and awareness of each moment becomes instinctive. You have to start a fire in order to eat, so you only really eat when you are hungry! You have to watch where you step because of snakes or other creatures. You are aware of your surroundings because there could be a bear or alligator (at least here in Florida) somewhere nearby. Your senses are so alert you can immediately feel the tickle of the spider or tick crawling on some part of you before it gets a chance to bite. You are living in the present moment.
This is the opposite of our typical day, in which we spend nearly all of our time indoors, many of us without even the benefit of a window. We generally do most of our activities indoors, including exercise in some cases! There is clarity of the mind when in nature that is difficult to replicate in a meeting room or office. In our daily lives, we don’t have to walk much to get what we need and in many cases we drive a car to anywhere we need to go. We don’t have to be aware of our surroundings or watch every step we take. Many of us lose complete touch with our own bodies and sensations....we forget to eat, we don’t notice when we are satisfied and then eat too much, we don’t notice our bodies stiffening up from sitting so long, and we generally miss the subtle signals of a soon-to-be headache or other ailment.
Being outdoors I also felt content and satisfied just sitting. It isn’t often that we are ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’. Best of all, my kids didn’t ask to play on electronics or use the computer (maybe because they knew that those were not options). They never once said that they were bored, which is a miracle! They found fun with sticks and stumps and invented new ways to play. They found beauty in plants, trees, insects, animals, and even algae. My son told the campground staff that as soon as he learned to drive, he would come to the campground again (he doesn’t ever say that about theme parks!)
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
Less Stress, Improved Mood, Better Sleep
When I am in the woods, I immediately feel more relaxed and life seems so much simpler than I believe it to be on most days. I am more tolerant of things, people, and noises (which are my biggest trigger of annoyance). My OCD tendencies immediately improve and the world seems to slow down. I don’t have to work as hard to conjure up positive emotions in the face of usual triggers...they just appear. The things that would normally freak me out don’t bother me at all. On this trip, I took a shower everyday with a green tree frog staring at me less than one foot away and felt honored that it didn’t leap away! My sleep cycle immediately readjusts and I go to bed earlier, as darkness decreases what you are able to do, and I wake up early without an alarm in order to enjoy what daylight has to offer. The chirping sounds of insects at night create a melody that puts me to sleep like an old familiar childhood lullaby.
Being outdoors in nature allows us to get the exposure to bright light that increases our levels of serotonin, the feel-good chemical in our brains. Even when we are outdoors in nature during winter or on a cloudy day, we get more exposure to bright light than we do in our indoor environments. The increases in serotonin levels are associated with increased levels of happiness and well-being, as well as decreased levels of perceived stress. This can then impact our physical and mental health in a positive way. Studies support that kids learn better when placed in outdoor classrooms and I would venture to say that more outdoor meetings at work could result in better moods, more productivity, and great ideas!
Moving forward I am going to make every effort to spend more of my day in nature. Even if that means sitting outside in my backyard to work on my computer or doing one more exercise session each week outside instead of inside. I will take groups that I am working with out of the meeting room and outside more often, even if it is for just one session of the day (more nature, less presentation slides!). I will make sure that my kids play outside more often, like the way I did when I was a kid. I will schedule one new outdoor adventure in nature each month for our family. And finally, I will make sure that we go camping in the woods at least twice a year!
What ideas do you have to be in nature more often? Please share!